Your Layover in Istanbul

Turkish Air offers a ton of cheap flights to Europe. Back in August, I was looking for a cheap destination in Europe because I hadn’t been since college and was dying to go back. I found a $530 flight for Greece on Turkish Air that was too good a deal to pass up. Many flights offer long layovers in Istanbul. With the airport so close to the city and so many incredible things to do there – you have to take advantage of your Istanbul layover!

Let me start by saying, this was NOT a planned trip to begin with (see my post about a debauched flight with Expedia) plus it wasn’t meant to be a solo trip… I spent so many HOURS on the phone trying to make it not happen. Not because I didn’t want to go, but because I had planned to spend the day seeing Athens so that the last day of the trip would be a relaxing and we could simply do some shopping, eating, and walk around Athens. This is the best way to get to know a city after all! However, it was not meant to be and instead, I spent my first day of the trip in Istanbul – ALONE!

So, while unplanned, I knew I had to take advantage of being in an incredible city with tons of history and culture. A country where Europe, Asia, and the Middle East connect and blend together to make a unique and rich history is something I would pass up experiencing! Let me also say, yes, there’s lots of stuff in the news about Turkey right now and that should be paid attention to. However, I never felt unsafe or nervous in Istanbul (although I did take extra precautions to be safe like dressing very conservatively, staying out late, or going into non-touristy areas). So… while I don’t see myself as a “solo traveler” and I definitely don’t see myself as someone who is bold when visiting new countries, I was determined to make the best of a less than desired opportunity into one I will never forget.

Istanbul is INCREDIBLE! I loved this city so much and am so glad that I ended up seeing it! Take advantage of your long layover in Turkey. PS, this was my first time solo traveling off the North American continent, so throughout this post, I am posting pro-tips all related to solo travel. Hope you enjoy them. Also, I saw all the major landmarks in just 6 hours. You can do a lot with a short layover. I ended up with a 24 hour layover so I had time to explore a little bit more in the evening as well as stay at an excellent AirBnB. This post should be helpful for short and long layovers. Don’t forget to check the bottom for my need to know things about Turkey that will help your layover go smoothly! 

Here is how I spent my long layover in Turkey.

1 City

1 Night

Hotel: $41

Tour: $30

Airport Transfer: $20

Food/souvenirs/tips: $20 (yes, that cheap!)

Total Cost: $110

So I found this amazing AirBnB last-minute that I just loved! Why was it so awesome? Well…

  1. It was within walking distance (like 15 minutes!) of Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, the Grand Bazaar, and restaurants/shops
  2. They included breakfast
  3. It had a balcony and amazing views of the Bosporus
  4. They offered tours and airport pick up and drop off through the travel company that the owner of the AirBnB also runs called Efendi Travel. They are one of the top rated tour companies in Istanbul and offer all kinds of tours and packages ranging from half day tours to 12 day tours throughout Turkey. Affordable, professional, and informative tour! Highly recommend even if you are only here for a day.

I literally found this AirBnB and was able to book everything through them two days before my trip. Everything was essentially taken care of. They picked me up from the airport, gave me a map of the city, had breakfast in the morning on the rooftop, took me on a half day tour, and then dropped me back off at the airport. All for just $100.


Pro-tip: AirBnB can be a great way to save money, time, and get all services you need for travel taken care of in one place. I had read online that taxi cabs in Istanbul often take advantage of foreigners so hiring a driver through your hotel is safer. I only got taxi’s through my AirBnB, but I also only needed one to and from the airport because of its excellent location!


4:30 flight arrival at AirBnB by 6:00 pm

As soon as I arrived I was ready to explore. With so little time somewhere, you really want to make the most of it! I freshened up then went for a walk through the Grand Bazaar, past Hagia Sophia, and Blue Mosque. The Grand Bazaar is closed on Sundays so if you are planning on visiting, you won’t be able to see this spot if you’re only there on Sunday. However, there are other great markets like the spice bazaar that are open so look into those options if you only have a day!


Pro-tip: Getting strangers to take photos for you is easy, but they don’t always take the best pictures. I asked three different people to take my picture before I got one where I wasn’t blinking!


Got to match with Hagia Sophia (totally on purpose).


Pro-tip: Walk like you know where you are going and people will leave you alone or try to talk to you way more. I got stopped by many shop owners in this area wanting to talk/my business I’m sure. Either way, you feel important and special as you are walking.


Funny thing I noticed about Istanbul on this walk, it has so many cats! If you saw my Instagram story, you know how many I saw – sorry not sorry that I posted so many cat photos! Apparently Istanbul is known for its cats and I ended up finding a shop full of porcelain painted cats and I bought one. Couldn’t resist…

After walking around the old city, I grabbed dinner near my hotel. I asked the person at the front desk what spot was good and she recommended this little place! I loved this little spot because it had delicious food, kind people serving us, and I had kitties playing near me. My dinner was saffron chicken with rice and salad plus baklava for desert! Perfect dinner setting and delicious meal.


Pro-tip: Find a spot with a rooftop or hop on a boat to watch the sunset. The views are incredible!


Next Day:

Sunrise 

I basically never miss a sunrise and/or the sunset in a new city. There is just something about a beautiful start or end to your day that just fills you with happiness.


Pro-tip: There are not many upsides to jet lag. BUT, you can get up at 4 in the morning to catch the sunrise.


Awesome breakfast with a great view. Have I said I loved this AirBnB? Cause it was the best.

My tour picked me up at 8:30 and we were on our way. As I stated before, I booked my tour through my AirBnB with the tour company Efendi Travel – highly recommend! I instantly made friends with some people on our tour from the Philipines and England. They were going to be in Turkey for another two weeks! We’re friends on social media now and I am so jealous of the rest of their trip! (Although mine in Greece was pretty cool too…)


Pro-tip: Everyone is scared to travel alone, but when forced into situations out of your comfort zone, you automatically adapt and meet people. There are nice people all over the globe – don’t be shy!


Hippodrome

I had forgotten completely about the history of the Byzantine Empire (thanks world history), but Istanbul was the capitol for a long time and is a really important city in the history of the Roman Empire. One of the coolest things about visiting was how connected it was to Italy and Greece, both places I have (now) visited. It felt like everything came together in this city. There is so much history and culture here.

I grabbed a Turkish coffee and some Baklava here too which was awesome.

Blue Mosque

This was a huge an incredible experience for me. I have never been in a mosque like this one before. It was so beautiful and the details in the tiles were just incredible. I loved the color and intricacies.


Pro-tip: When visiting a mosque, women must be covered head to toe except their face. If you don’t have your own clothes to cover, they will provide you with some. People are not allowed to wear shoes inside either! I wore this outfit and was just fine without any extra coverings from the mosque.


Hagia Sophia

I had totally forgotten the history here! I should really read more history books… So a little history fact: Did you know that Hagia Sophia had the largest dome in the world for 1000 years? That is a long time and the dome is HUGE! It was beautiful and so unique because it was a basilica, then a mosque, and now it is a museum. You can still see Islamic writings and pictures of Mary holding Jesus there which was a new experience for me. It is an incredible building, even with the construction.

Turkish Rug Shop

While this was definitely a stop on the tour to sell us $1000-$4000 rugs, I still learned about the history of Turkish rugs. They are woven differently than any other place in the world that makes them have an extremely tight weave that has lasted through time. Cool to think about!

Lunch

While this was not included on my tour, I wanted to keep hanging out since I didn’t have to leave for my flight until around 4 pm. The food was delicious and if you have been to Greece, I found it to be very similar in style.

Islamic Art Museum

I had to part with the tour at this point, but was not ready to go back to my hotel! I decided to visit a museum along the Hippodrome. The only thing I didn’t get to see, but really was the Topkapi Palace, but I was so tired of walking and it would have taken 30 minutes there and back. I was not feeling it since I had been up since 4 am. Instead I visited the Islamic Art Museum close by.

We saw so much in such a small amount of time! I seriously am already thinking about when I can go back to Turkey to see more of the country. I had an awesome time that was completely unexpected. Take advantage of your long layover and see this awesome city!

Things to Know About Istanbul:

  • All of the things I saw were within walking distance of each other. If you stay in the old city, you will be able to walk to pretty much all tourist attractions. This also means even with a short layover, you can see a lot!
  • Everything is really cheap. I didn’t pay over $6 for a meal, my hotel was nice and very cheap.
  • The people are very kind and willing to help however you need. Staff everywhere I went was more than accommodating.
  • I had no trouble finding people who speak English. In fact, I don’t recall encountering anyone who did not speak English.
  • It is a majority Muslim country. This means there are many people walking around with their heads covered, dressed very conservatively, and you will hear the calls to prayer throughout the city.
  • Dress is more conservative, but jeans and your cute top are usually fine. I was there in spring and the weather was pretty warm (80 degrees Fahrenheit), I still did not see people with their legs or upper arms showing most places I went. I wore a pink leather jacket in the evening, and a long sleeve shirt during the day. Shoulders should definitely be covered.
  • The men in Istanbul are bold. I was walking around alone and got asked where I was from so many times. When I told them or started a conversation, it almost always went to, “You are pretty,” or “Would you like to stay and talk?” I was not approached by any women this way. With that being said, I didn’t find anyone to be disrespectful or creepy, just bold!
  • If you are from the US (or many other countries) you need a visa for entry. It is $20 and there are kiosks at the airport before customs. You can also get it online and show it to them as you go through customs. They are the same price. I got mine for the wrong day and ended up having to buy the second in person while there.
  • Some places only took Turkish Lira, others only took Euros – keep both on hand!

I hope you enjoyed this post and are already considering visiting Turkey. I loved it and you will too! Don’t forget to check out my video on YouTube about Istanbul! Have you been to Turkey? What would you like to see in Istanbul?

 

  • Great information! I’ve wanted to see Istanbul for a while, and hadn’t considered a quick layover. Next time I head to Asia, I might try to route my flight that way. Thanks for sharing!

    • Thank you! It is definitely somewhere you can see the major sights in a day (although you could spend much, much longer as well). Thanks for reading!

  • Pete

    Istanbul is incredible. So much to see and experience.

    Ayasofya is amazing. The history is in the stones, worn away and cracked by centuries of use. Just across the street is the Basilica Cistern, an underground water storage supported by hundreds of columns and cleverly lit. Featured in a James Bond movie and is a must for Istanbul.

    My first trip was overnight. I was originally just going to go from Heathrow, get off and go back on the same plane (for the airmiles) but I figured Istanbul was more interesting than London, so I booked a hostel for the night, took cabs in and out, and walked my feet off, seeing many of the same sights. Had meals overlooking the water. A fish lunch on the bridge over the Golden Horn is another must in my book.

    Came back twice more, and I doubt I’m done yet.

    What’s special about Turkish carpets? I just spent two weeks in Iran, heavily carpet-oriented, and while no expert, I’m not sure that Turkish carpets are any better than Persian.

    I’d counsel against buying a rug for thousands of dollars. Some are certainly worth that much and more, but many are not, and if you come in cold, you’ll likely not be shown the really good ones.

    But hey, top marks for a solo trip to a city that can seem a bit daunting. I hope you left a bit of your heart there. I did.

    • My layover was over night as well. The lunch over the Golden Horn sounds awesome.

      Turkish carpets are different because they use a different weaving technique than anywhere else in the world. The man who guided our tour explained it by saying they are woven to last so they are more expensive and more labor intensive. I would not buy one for that much either! Definitely have other ways to spend my money (I am on a budget always haha) so I agree.

      Thank you! I definitely left a little of my heart as well.

  • Corinne Vail

    Great layover. You can’t go wrong in Istanbul…one my favorite cities in the world!

    • Thank you! I totally agree – it’s an incredible city!

  • I LOVED Turkey! It’s often the places you don’t plan to end up that end up surprising you the most. What a great flight deal. Would love to go back to Santorini, so if I ever get the chance I will have to make sure I get a long Turkish layover. I crave real Turkish delight often now, but I will never eat it from anywhere but the Grand Bazaar!

    • Totally agree Melanie! It was definitely a good deal and we had a blast. I’ll be writing about Greece soon. The Grand Bazaar is such a unique and interesting place – definitely amazing Turkish Delight!

  • Ipanema Travels

    I also love Istanbul! Luckily, I could spent more time there than you. BTW, the best ice-cream I have ever eaten was there. Not in Italy 🙂

    • I definitely want to go back and see more of Turkey! I have heard a lot of people worried about visiting or having a layover here – so I wanted to make sure I shared the success of a short stay too! And I know! It is SO GOOD!