Making the most of a long layover is an art. There’s the desire to not waste 5 or 10 hours just sitting around an airport, but also the fear that something will go wrong and you’ll miss your flight. But a long layover in Istanbul is one place I completely recommend you just GO FOR IT!
A long layover in Istanbul can be super rewarding, even if you only have half a day. Turkish Airlines has made this even easier by offering free tours for their passengers with long layovers in Istanbul, but seeing the city is also totally possible as a DIY. I’m here to show you how!
The great news is that the core parts of Istanbul are super walkable, plus the tram is really efficient and runs through the major areas. I’ve already written about how to see most of the major sights in Istanbul in just one day, and many of the same principles apply to an even shorter visit. It helps that most of them are grouped very closely together. But depending on how long you have, you WILL have to prioritize and choose what’s most important to you.
Super important timing considerations
There’s no hard and fast rule for long long of a layover in Istanbul is feasible, but definitely err on the side of safety. Allow for an hour to get through customs once you arrive, and 20-30 minutes for the taxi ride into the city (suggested if you have a short time to explore)…obviously, allow the same time coming back to the airport and know that heavy traffic is a possibility.
In my opinion you would need MINIMUM 5 hours from when you hit customs to when you’re heading back to the airport, and at least 6 is recommended. The Turkish Airlines long layover tours makes you have at least 6 hours, so that’s probably a good safe minimum.
Getting a Turkish visa
If you’re from the United States, you’ll need a visa to leave the airport. While you can purchase it at the airport, this will add time, so I’d recommend purchasing ahead of time. You can do everything at the official site here, and just make sure to print it out and bring it with you. It should cost $20 on the official website (as of posting time).
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What’s most important to see in Istanbul?
Well, that’s obviously up to each person.
For *me*, with just 3-5 hours actually in the city (not counting travel) and if it’s a nice day AND not a Friday:
- I’d go to Sultanahmet
- See Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque from the outside
- See the inside of one or the other
- Stuff myself full of baklava and anything else I can get my hands on
- Take a ferry ride
Basically, a nice combination of the iconic historic sites and soaking in culture and food. That’s my travel style though, and so I’ve provided more of a “Chinese menu” version below so you can pick and choose depending on how much time you have. To help you choose what you care about, the post linked above has more info on all of the different options.
The last time I was there, our flight actually got into Istanbul at midnight, so my dad and I found a PrimeClass lounge where we paid 30 euros each to get in and rested for a while. Then around 5:00am we downed some coffee and food, and headed to customs. It took a full hour to get through customs (which was longer than I’m used to there) and took a cab to Sultanahmet. Our flight out was at 2pm(ish), so we got back to the airport around noon.
What to do with a long layover in Istanbul
There are soooo many options, but here are some of the best ones with a short time. Depending on how much time you actually have, you may not be able to do every single one, so you’ll need to mix and match. It will also depend on what day of the week you’re there…last time I was there on a Friday, which meant we couldn’t go into the mosques since they’re not open to tourists on Fridays.
You have a few options for getting around. As I mentioned above, a taxi is probably your best bet to and from the airport. And while you can use a taxi to get around the city too, I’d recommend mostly just walking and possibly using the little tram that runs through the main parts of the city.
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See the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia.
This is basically non-negotiable, two of the most iconic things to do in Istanbul. They’re crazy close to each other, so you can stand between them and look back and forth. Honestly, even just seeing them form the outside is amazing and impressive. But if time allows, definitely try to go inside one or both.
Assume 30 minutes inside for the Blue Mosque and about an hour minimum for Hagia Sofia (including getting in). Most mosques aren’t open to visitors on Fridays (or have super limited hours). Hagia Sofia has always been closed on Mondays though that has changed as of April 2019…check the website before your visit to be sure.
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Hagia Sofia is one of the most famous buildings in the world, and has served as a religious center for three different religions over the centuries. It’s been a museum since the 1930s, and the amount of history you can feel while walking around is just amazing. The entrance fee has recently increased to 60 lira (about $20, a 50% increase!), and you can either buy your tickets online or when you get there.
The Blue Mosque dates back to the 17th century and the minarets rival those in Mecca. It really is amazing, inside and out. You can learn more about both Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque (including tips for a smooth visit) here.
Walk through the Basilica Cistern
While it wouldn’t be at the very top of my list with a short time, the Basilica Cistern is right next to Hagia Sofia so makes a convenient addition to your itinerary. It is also quite cool, a massive underground cistern from the 6th century. It’s the length of two football fields underground, an impressive feat for so long ago. It can be a quick visit (particularly if you’re there early and beat the crowds), so check the website to be sure about the hours.
First off, the Grand Bazaar is overrated. You can go, but it’s not really that great. If you’re looking for an iconic market experience, instead try out the Spice Market. It’s still crazy but is much less bonkers than the Grand Bazaar, and has all the same stuff, just less expensive. Pick up some cool spices to take home, indulge in some gorgeous colored pottery, or find your signature scent at the perfumer Arifoglu. I’ve outlined some of my favorite souvenirs to buy in Istanbul, if you’re in the market for something special!
Get some baklava…and everything else in sight
Y’ALL. Turkish food is the absolute bomb, some of the best in the world!!! And as someone whose stated life mission is to “eat all the pastries in all the countries”, how could I not completely overindulge while in Turkey??? Load up on all the unique and delicious baklava and other pastries in sight, but don’t stop there—try kunefe, doner kebab, lahmacun, pide, and so much more. Basically, if you see it and it doesn’t look like a shop just for tourists, stop and buy some food. Like…there’s your life plan.
Take a ferry ride
Now that you’ve loaded up on baklava, let’s go for a ride. This is something a lot of tourists with a short trip completely miss out on, but it’s one of my absolute FAVORITE things to do! If the weather is nice, get out on a ferry and enjoy the glory of the Bosporus and Golden Horn!
If you’re short on time, the destination doesn’t matter as much…just hop on the boat leaving soonest and then turn right around and come back. We went to Üsküdar last time, thought I do love Kadiköy. If you’re not quite as pressed for time, walk around for a bit and have a meal over on the Asian side, which is much more residential and less touristy.
So as you can see, whether you have 6 hours or a full day, you can do soooo much in this absolutely amazing city. From history to cuisine to the sea’s natural beauty, there’s something for everyone in Istanbul! If you have more like a day or two, make sure you check out this post on how to see the main sites with just a day!
Other whirlwind city adventures to try:
- 11 Tips for A Day in London
- A 24-Hour Immersion in Jerusalem
- What to Do With a Day in Charming Bath, England
- Falling in Love with Quirky Reykjavik
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