Visiting Istanbul during a layover — what to do? Our complete guide to a short trip

Karakoy waterfront

Do you spend your layovers with a phone charger and three coffee cups in a row in some far-away corner of the airport? Well, it might indeed be a great time to binge-watch a brand-new Netflix series, but we believe that it can be used much more productively. How about checking yet another country off your bucket list?

Visiting Istanbul during a layover? Here is our easy guide to a perfect day trip. It is a place where you can have fun culturally and gastronomically during just a few hours en route to your next destination — speaking from experience here!

Article contents

  1. Our “Istanbul on a layover” tips
  2. Some perks if you’re flying internationally with Turkish Airlines
  3. Getting to the city center
  4. Our very own itinerary for:
    2 hours in Istanbul
    up to 7–8 hours in Istanbul
  5. Rundown of cafes recommendations

Our layover tips for Istanbul

Turkish Airlines

How much time do you need for a layover tour? Well, we would recommend that you need at least six to seven hours, because you want to be able to enjoy the experience and not add to your stress, right?

  • It will take you around 45–60 minutes to get to the city by taxi — both from Istanbul Airport (IST) and Sabiha Gökçen (SAW) — and around the same time to return to the airport. Remember that it is advisable to be there two hours before your flight to check the timetable, get your boarding pass, and proceed to your gate.

Making your way from the airplane to the airport exit will take you around 25 minutes, but you might also want to make a few quick stops first.

If you have lots of stuff on you, use the automatic luggage lockers (follow the signs “Emanet Bagaj”), which will cost you 115 lira / $3,8 for a carry-on locker and 240 lira / $8 for a checked baggage locker for 24 hours.

Lira is the official currency in Turkey, so you might need some cash for street markets or souvenir shops. You can find 24/7 foreign exchange desks starting in the baggage claim area, and there are ATMs in front of the Hotel Desk.

If out of all things to do in Istanbul during layover you opt for a good old nap on the cushy bed, or you arrive late at night, there might be a place for you in:

There are free to use nap zones in the airports and airport lounges as well: The iGA lounge in IST (costing €85 for 4 hours) and Plaza Premium Lounge in SAW (€50 for 4 hours).

If you want to do a tour in Istanbul, check out GetYourGuide or Viator — these are the leading websites for booking excursions in Turkey.

Turkish Airlines bonuses for short and long layovers

Help Desk in the Istanbul Airport Istanbul Airport inside

Important: These are only available for Turkish Airlines passengers of connecting international flights with a layover in Istanbul Airport for no less than 6 hours.

What I love about flying anywhere with Turkish Airlines is that they have a solid stopover program. We’ve used it many times on our way to the States, Africa, and Asia, so I’ve always been searching for the different things to do on a layover in Istanbul.

  • In short, you can take a free Istanbul tour during a layover or get a hotel from Turkish Airlines.

Turkish Airlines layover tour, or Touristanbul, offers free shuttle transportation, guided excursion in the city, coverage of museum fees, and breakfast and/or lunch serving. All tours last more than 3 hours, with the earliest one starting at 8 a.m. and the latest one starting at 6 p.m. You can sign up for the tour at the Hotel Desk in the International Arrivals Terminal of Istanbul Airport.

A stopover program, in contrast with a layover, requires at least 20 hours between your flights. If this applies to you, and you have a long or overnight layover in Istanbul, you can benefit from a stopover free accommodation service. A 72 hour in-advance e-mail to the company is required, and depending on your departure state, you will contact a designated assistant.

Economy class passengers can enjoy one day in a four-star hotel from Turkish Airlines during long layover in Istanbul. Just to give you a flavor of what to expect, we were accommodated at 5* Akgun Hotel and at 4* Grand Yavuz Hotel Sultanahmet. If you are a Business Class passenger, you can receive a five-star hotel voucher for two days.

Check if you are eligible for these offers:
✔️ Both flights must be with Turkish Airlines’ ticket (codeshared or operated).
✔️ Minimum layover time in Istanbul should be six hours for the tour offer and twenty hours for a free hotel.
✔️ You fly from (and to) a certain country — keep an eye on their website when booking your trip (for a free accommodation).
✔️ You should also have a round trip booked (for a free accommodation).
✔️ You cannot receive both tour and accommodation on the same trip.

So, what if you are not eligible for a tour/hotel service? Should you just stay at the airport? No way! If you are not a great trip planner and ask yourself if you can visit Istanbul during your layover or what to even do there, here our article comes in handy. Take a couple of minutes to read it and then head to the center of this amazing city.

Do you need a visa for a layover in Istanbul?

Turkish ice cream dondurma

If you want to leave the airport, you need to apply for a visa at the nearest Turkish representation in your country of origin before you depart. However, please check what the specific rules are that apply to your citizenship. Visas for Turkey can also be applied for online or for some countries it may be possible to obtain a visa on arrival.

If you are from Europe, you can travel to Turkey without a visa and stay there for three months within half a year. U.S. citizens must obtain e-Visas prior to their arrival. If you are eligible for an e-visa, you may obtain it from the Turkish Airlines Sales/Ticket Desks before or on the day of your departure.

How to get to the city center?

Istanbul metro

Ok, you sorted the visa and the hotel question out, got rid of heavy bags and decided you are ready to explore. Now, how do you get from the Istanbul Airport to the city center?

There are a couple of transport providers you may opt for. Taxi is the quickest way that will take you to Taksim square, the center of Istanbul, for 1000–1200 lira / $32–$40. Don’t even try to open the Uber app as the yellow local taxi is the king in the airports of Istanbul. Just catch a driver at the exit and check if the fare meter is on. However, I suggest booking an airport transfer on your way back to avoid the well-known Turkish ritual of fighting for the right price with a taxi driver.

Even if you prefer going cheap, using the subway to get to the city center is out of question because it takes 1,5 hours or even more! To save some lira, I suggest hopping on Havaist bus which charges 150–170 lira / $5 for one way trip. Better check its timetables on official website in advance. You won’t need the Istanbul Card for Havaist airport bus — you can pay by cash or card directly to the driver.

Our very own itinerary — all the takeaways, tips, and tricks after 3 long and super fun layovers

Istanbul city center

Save this article on visiting Istanbul during layover, and embark on the most interesting trip you have probably ever had!

How to spend a short layover in Istanbul? Itinerary for 2 hours in the city

The Blue Mosque, also known as the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, will be your first stop. Apart from the fact that it is simply stunning (and Instagrammable), it is a unique religious building that has six minarets (or tall columns), which used to be considered to be too extravagant. It is also a functioning mosque, so you will have a full cultural and historical experience.

Its prime “rival” is Hagia Sophia, the biggest and most visited mosque in Istanbul. It is located right in front of the Blue Mosque, so you can tour both iconic sights without wasting time. However, you’ll need some money for Hagia Sophia, as from January 2024 it charges €25 for entering the mosque.

Interestingly, Hagia Sophia used to be a Christian church, then a Catholic cathedral, for some time even a museum, but later it was turned into a mosque. An important note: If you travel on a weekend, it is more reasonable to just admire the mosques from the outside. The lines are surprisingly long even early in the morning.

Topkapi Palace Zorlu

Topkapi Palace is another must-see location. It was the residence of Ottoman sultans, and today, the museum boasts a wide collection of armor, royal garments, and manuscripts. There are also hundreds of chambers, yet only the most important (and luxurious) ones are open to visitors. Therefore, touring the palace will not take the whole day and can easily be put on your agenda. I would tell you to buy tickets in advance, as lines can literally take hours, but… surprisingly, they don’t have an official online seller. The entrance fee for the museum+harem+ Hagia Irene Museum is 1500 lira / $49.

Gulhane Park

And while you are there, add a stop at Gulhane Park, which is the largest urban park in Istanbul. Translated, it means “the house of roses”, and also hosts an annual tulip festival. The park is an ideal place to take in beautiful greenery and multiple monuments and see how the locals live as they enjoy running or walking with their kids.

the Eminonu Pier Istanbul 1

From your grand finale, the Eminonu Pier, you can enjoy breathtaking views of the Bosphorus, the iconic Galata Bridge, and the Asian side of Istanbul, as well as the fresh breeze and the hustle and bustle on the capital’s embankment. We suggest that you make a pit stop here as well. Coffeetopia Eminonu serves decent coffee and mouth-watering cheesecake at a reasonable price. After that, you will feel recharged and ready to go back to Sultanahmet, with lots of memories and a phone filled with happy pictures.

If you plan on having a proper vacation in Istanbul, check out our related posts:

How to spend a longer layover in Istanbul? Itinerary for 3–5 hours in the city

Istanbul cats

If you are lucky enough to have several hours more at your disposal, you can spend more time exploring the pier and the surrounding area.

Not only is Galata Bridge an appealing tourist attraction, but it is bursting with different markets and restaurants. It is literally a crime to be there and not try the famous balik ekmek (a sandwich stuffed with fish). So, either choose any cafe under the bridge that catches your eye or cross the Galata Bridge, looking for a not-so-hidden gem called Balık Dürümcü Mehmet Usta. 140 lira ($4,5), up to twenty minutes of waiting and you get a wonderful fish wrap.

One of the fun activities would be to take a subway funicular (or the Tunnel) from Karakoy to Beyoglu (only 17,7 lira / $0,6). Then, take a walk to Taksim Square and Istiklal Street, which is a vibrant trade district. Immersing yourself in the streets of Istanbul, with sunglasses on, a coffee cup in your hand, and a bunch of souvenirs in your bag, sounds like a perfect main character moment. Feel like a real local and take the tram down the main street (similar to San Francisco).

Istiklal Street

Istiklal Street is also a busy part of the city, thanks to the many embassies and world-famous brand stores that you can find here. From here, take a bus from Findikli Mimar Sinan Universitesi stop and return to Sultanahmet.

Other sights that you might want to visit are Dolmabahce Palace (1250 lira / $40), the largest palace in Turkey that represents a mixture of European and Ottoman culture and design, and the observation deck at Galata Tower (650 lira / $21). You can also explore the Grand and Spice Bazaars. These are such huge markets with many fascinating things to buy and look at, so don’t get too carried away.

Safety in Istanbul

Galata tower

Istanbul is a relatively safe city, yet extremely crowded and loud. That being said, keep your eyes on your pockets and bags, as you would do in any mainstream touristic destination.

Traffic is crazy, many streets are narrow, and pedestrians are not prioritized, unfortunately. Be attentive and yes, you might need to run through the crosswalks here and there.

Finally, although you will walk a lot and your shoes will get kinda dusty, under no circumstances should you accept the services of local shoe polishers. This is an infamous “shoe shine Turkish scam”, and a free or cheap offer turns out to be more expensive. Not a nice situation, especially if you are short of cash.

Where to eat in Istanbul?

Food in Istanbul Fruits in Turkey

If you are a major coffee fan, there are lots of options. EspressoLab and Kronotrop are famous chains, and Kitabevi Cafe also hosts a bookstore, so you might spend a little bit more time there scanning the shelves.

Kebab and yummy Turkish dishes can be found in many restaurants, such as Tomtom Kebab or Asmalı Mescit Dürümcü. There are also multiple pastry shops, where you can check out desserts and, for sure, baklava (for example, Mustafa 1864 and my favorite Köşkeroğlu Karaköy Ömer Köşkeroğlu). Street food tracks with fried chestnuts, corn, and simits are also worth stopping by.

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