Layover in Istanbul: what can be seen in 6h and what in 12h?

When we were planing our trip to Oman, we found great deal: cheap flight tickets with Turkish Airlines that had rather long layovers in Istanbul. Many people don't like layovers, but for us it's ideal way to sneak out of the airport and see a new place. So, we planed our 6h and 12h in Istanbul wisely and had great time there.

layover in Istanbul with Turkish airlines
Sultan Ahmed mosque aka Blue mosque
Passengers on Turkish Airlines can use their service of guided free city tour if the layover is longer than 6h. More about this can be found on their website.

But we are not regular travelers, we like to do things on our own, alone. So we planed our time in Istanbul without a guide. If you are similar minded person, read further😉

Istanbul on 6h layover

You need at least 6h between your flight to be able to leave the airport and go to the city. And yet, this leaves you with very short time for sightseeing. Here is your timeline:
  • it takes you 45 minutes  to get from the airplane to the metro station under the airport building. But only if you can enter Turkey without visa! If you need one, that add about 15-30 minutes for visa on arrival procedure.
  • another 45 minutes  will go for a metro/tram ride to the city center
  • don't forget to count the same amount of time for your ride back
  • you should be back at the airport at least 2 hours before your departure, even if you are not checking your bags! There are many controls and the airport itself is huge, so be there in time!
Taken together, you have 2 hours to explore the city.

Istanbul layover: Hagia Sophia
Despite the short time, we decided to leave the airport and drove to  Grand Bazaar where we spent most of our time. We enjoyed walking around, watching busy sellers behind the colourful stalls, smelling all kinds of smells like perfumes, spices, teas and kebabs and ended up buying freshly squeezed pomegranate juice!

Tea seller
Colourfull shop in Grand Bazaar
After Grand Bazaar we quickly stepped into nearby mosque Beyazit Camii and then took the metro back to the airport. In the same amount of time we could have visited Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia instead of Grand Bazaar.
Interior of Beyazit Camii mosque
Bayazit Camii and huge Turkish flag - typical "decoration" in Istanbul

Istanbul on 12h layover

Well, 12h is already something and you can see the most important sights in Istanbul and enjoy the atmosphere.

From those 12h, again, you will spend quite some time for the transportation and getting through the airport controls (check the timeline above), so basically you will end up with 8h in the city.

We started our day with the breakfast in the 4. Levent part of the city (business district), where we ate typical Turkish bagel and later treated ourselves with best Turkish coffee in Coffe Shop Artukbey.

Nicely served Turkish coffee
After breakfast we visited local bazaar Yeni Levent bazaar - smaller market set up in this area once a week and visited by locals only. Well, locals and us that day :) Comparing it to the Grand Bazaar, this local bazaar is far more authentic, a lot less hectic and the fact that stunned us the most: how nicely the food was presented on the stalls!

Vegetable stalls at the local bazaar
Turkish delight
Further we walked to Taksim square and on past Galata Tower into the old city center, full of tourists :) At Eminönü bazaar we bough our last souvenirs for friends and family and after that we started with proper sightseeing:
  • Basilica Cistern - breathtaking underground place where water was stored in ancient times. Nowadays it is a museum with 20TL (Turkish lira, approx. 5€) entrance fee - cash only!
It is hard to believe that this was just a cistern! So many details, such nice columns ...
  • Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya) used to be catholic church, one of the most amazing, special churches of its time (late Roman empire), later during Ottoman times it was converted into a mosque and now it is also a museum. Entrance fee is 40TL (approx 10€), but some discounts are available (press, student card) and credit cards are accepted. Tip: visit it as soon as possible, since Erdogan, Turkish president is thinking of declaring it as a mosque again and closing it for non-Muslims.
Interior of Hagia Sophia, where elements of Christianity and Islam can be seen side to side
  • Sultan Ahmed Mosque or Blue Mosuqe is still operating mosque. Therefore the visit is allowed only when no prayers are taking place inside, but free of charge. Also they are very strict about the dresses: men must have their shoulders covered and wear long pants. Women, however, need to have loose ankle-long skirt or loose pants, jacket and a scarf over the head. And all visitors need to remove their shoes before entering.
Blue mosque got its name after many blue tiles inside. Well, it's not that blue, but definitely beautiful
Last thing to do in Istanbul was to try Turkish meatballs (kofte) in restaurant called Sultanahmet Köftecisi and then we were off to the airport.

If we had had skipped 4. Levent part of the city in the morning, we could have done Bosporus boat tour instead.

Transport and the costs

Transport from the airport to the center is relatively easy: metro line M1A has a stop in the airport building and takes you to Zetinburnu metro stop. There you exit the metro and take a tram T1 to the station of Sultanahmet. Once there you are literally just outside the Blue Mosque or Hagia Sophia, but also Grand Bazaar is not far.
Map of metro and tram lines can be found here: link.

It is advisable to use Istanbulkart since it ensures you with lower prices for rides on all metros and trams. The card itself costs 6TL (approx 1,5€) and can be used by more people in the group. One ride with this card costs you then only 2,3TL (0,6€) instead of 4TL. When you change the metro or tram, new ride is only 1,65TL (0,4€) if you have Istanbulkart.
One thing to note: tickets machines, where you can top up your card, only accept banknotes and no credit cards!

Istanbulkart vir:
Our 2 visits to Istanbul costed us 44€, which is 22€ per person. This includes everything: metro, tram rides, breakfast, lunch, snacks and entrance fees.

To sum up: if you are an independent traveler and like to explore place with our own pace, you can easily organize your layover in Istanbul.

Cheers with pomegranate juice!
Have you been to Istanbul? Did you leave the airport during your layover? How was it? Tell us in the comments bellow.
And big thank you to my friends Selin and Firat
who were kind enough to show us their city



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