Istanbul is a major hub for reasonably-priced flights from Europe to the Middle East and further afield, but it is better known as a fascinating city in its own right. Got a layover in Istanbul? Here’s how to make the most of your time and experience a little of the city.
I transited through Istanbul with a layover time of 7.5 hours, arriving at 4.30pm and leaving again just before midnight. My recommendations are therefore based on this timeframe, which I would consider the minimum to make a transit visit worthwhile. But if you have longer you can see even more!
If your airline operates several flights a day from Istanbul to your final destination, check to see whether you can book a later onward flight to give you more time. Usually this will cost no more than the suggested connection, and sometime it can even be cheaper! Note, however, that it is best to do this before you make the booking, as it may be expensive or even impossible to change your ticket later.
The majority of visitors to Turkey will need a visa, which you will need to organise in advance. As a UK passport holder, I entered on an e-Visa, which I arranged a few weeks before my trip and carried with me as a printout.
To exit the plane and clear passport control you should allow approximately 60 minutes. This can obviously vary depending on how busy the airport is that day; my timings are based on a busy day with long queues at passport control.
You will probably not need to collect your suitcase; check with your airline at your departure airport that the bag is checked straight through to your destination, but this is normally the case unless the layover is particularly long.
There is a left luggage counter just after arrivals in the terminal at Istanbul – turn right as you come out of customs and look for “Left baggage” . For a moderate price you can leave your hand luggage here and take only what you need around the city. Prices for a medium size bag or suitcase are currently 24 lira (£5 / €6 / $7) for 24 hours.
Getting to the city
The most efficient way to get into the city is via the metro system. The airport station is clearly signposted in the arrivals hall, and the journey time to Sultanahmet station (close to the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sofia and the Grand Bazaar) is around 55 minutes. Take metrol line M1 (the only one that serves the airport) to Zeytinburnu, then transfer to tram T1 in the direction of Kabatas, getting off at Sultanahmet. You will need to buy two tickets, one per mode of transport; as of 2017 these cost 5 TRY per ticket.
Alternatively you can take a taxi, which will be easier but more expensive and liable to traffic delays.
Easy sights to see
For a 7 hour layover like mine, I recommend heading to the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia, before ending at the Topkapi Palace. If the Palace is closed (which was the case for me), wander through Gülhane Park down to the Bosphorus for views across to the Asian continent. If you have more time you can add the Grand Bazaar, either at the start of the itinerary or as a stop-off on your way back to the airport.
Most sites close around 6 pm, earlier in winter, so depending on the time of day you may not be able to go inside. I was there in the evening; be prepared to run the gamut of would-be guides informing you the sight is closed!
Depending on the time available, you may want to eat a short meal downtown. Restaurants are plentiful in the old city downtown area; for a traditional Turkish option check out Gülhane Sur Café, hidden down a side road behind Hagia Sofia and close to the entrance to Gülhane Park. I didn’t try it myself as the vegetarian options are limited, however they have a wide range of meat kebabs and you can even order a shisha pipe for the full Turkish experience!
Alternatively, the airport has an extensive selection of restaurants and a fast-food court if you would prefer to eat once you have arrived back for your flight.
Depending on your boarding time and whether you need to re-check your suitcase, you should aim to be back at the airport around 2-2.5 hours before your departure time. This means leaving the city centre around 3-3.5 hours before your flight. I recommend returning by the same route, leaving from either Sultanahmet or Gülhane tram stop.
Tours operated by the airport
Turkish Airlines offers free transit tours to passengers connecting to another Turkish flight in Istanbul. The latest of these departs at 4pm; visit the TourIstanbul website for details. These could be a reassuring option if you would prefer someone else to take responsibility for getting you back on time for your flight!
Have you ever made a layover visit to Istanbul? Do you have any recommendations of your own?