Istanbul is an incredible city, both in Asia and Europe it is an amazing mix of east and west. Istanbul is a travel hub through Turkish Airlines so why not extend your layover to include a couple of days in Istanbul.
I had a long layover in Istanbul in March 2022 on my way to Uganda and loved it. It was a bit of a cold time and there was even snow on the ground when I was there.
Where is Istanbul?
Istanbul is not actually the capital of Turkey. Ankara is actually the capital of Turkey although Istanbul is a lot larger in terms of population. Istanbul is in the north west of Turkey built on the shores of the Bosphorus strait, the continental divide of Europe and Asia making it perfect for a long layover in Istanbul. As well as the Bosphorus, Istanbul is also built around the golden horn Estuary. There is water everywhere in Istanbul which makes it absolutely beautiful.
What language do they speak in Istanbul?
In Istanbul, Turkish is the local language. As well as this, there are many other languages spoken due to the large mix of people moving to Istanbul. Arabic is widely spoken. English is spoken in the Tourist areas including shops although not expected from everyone you meet.
What currency do they use in Turkey?
The local currency is the Turkish Lira (TL). Credit cards including contactless are widely accepted. Some taxis even carry card machines and most tourist shops have card machines too. Although cash is useful to carry just in case.
How to get to Istanbul
If you are flying into Istanbul you will fly into the ‘new’ Istanbul airport opened in 2019. It is enormous and quite impressive! Turkish airlines is the main airline that flies into Istanbul as well as many other large airlines including Singapore airlines, KLM and British airways.
To get from the airport to the city centre is approximately 1 hour in a car or taxi. The HAVAIST Airport Shuttle has various routes around the city and costs 25-40TL depending on the route.
How to get around Istanbul
There is an Istanbul Kart (Istanbul Card) which can be used on all public transport. The options of transport in Istanbul include bus, tram, metro and ferry. Buy an Istanbul card at any major station including the airport. Top up the card at machines at any major station as well as small shops and newsstands.
Where to stay in Istanbul
I stayed in an Airbnb in Balat in the Fatih area of Istanbul. Balat is an up and coming area famed for its colourful houses and cool cafes. If you would like to be slightly more central, try the Galata district or Eminonu.
Long layover in Istanbul: Day 1
The best way to start any day in Turkey is with a traditional Turkish Breakfast. This was my first experience of a Turkish breakfast and my mind was blown a little bit. I had a Turkish Breakfast from Velvet Café in Balat.
Turkish breakfast consists of a mix of many different things, the hungrier you are the better! From cheeses, to jams, to eggs to different types of bread, a Turkish breakfast has it all. To be accompanied of course with a Turkish coffee. Be warned, Turkish coffees are very strong.
Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia Mosque
After breakfast, find your way to the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia complex. You can visit both the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia mosque. In this area there are fountains and green spaces between the 2 mosques to enjoy the 2 wonderful buildings.
The blue Mosque is Istanbul’s most famous landmarks. I actually only visited the Hagia Sophia Mosque as the Blue Mosque had a very long queue and I was not disappointed! The Mosque is extremely grand and impressive. In order to visit the mosques, everyone should have knees, shoulders covered, and women need to cover their hair. If you are female, it is a good idea to carry a scarf with you to cover your head. To enter the Mosque you also need to remove shoes but there are shoe lockers at the entrance to leave your shoes.
From here, stroll along to the Grand Bazaar (very large market). Here, you can expect to get lost! Roam through the endless lanes of market stalls filled with everything you could want. The vendors will approach you and if you choose to buy something expect to barter. Take a break for another coffee here and watch the world go by from one of the many cafes within the grand bazaar.
Ferry Along the Bosphorus
After the excitement of the grand bazaar, take some time to relax on a lovely boat trip up and down the Bosphorus. Take the Tuyol ferry from Eminonu port, the tickets are 45TL. The boat ride takes about 1h45 and is a lovely way to see both the European and Asian sides of Istanbul.
Climb the Galata Tower
Option: do this tomorrow if less interested in shopping
Now your energy has been regained, time to tackle the famous Galata Tower. At 100 TL per person, this is the perfect spot to get a full 360 view over Istanbul. If your timing works out, this is a lovely spot for sunset. The tower also features a to scale 3D map of Istanbul. If, like me, you love to picture where you are this is a great spot to get your bearings.
Time for a rest and relax before heading out for dinner. I ate at Smelt in Balat and oh my was it good. It features high quality fusion food and it was extremely tasty. They mix many flavours that you don’t think will work but are in fact divine!
Long layover in Istanbul: Day 2
On day 2 of your long layover in Istanbul, time to leave Europe and explore Asia!
Take a ferry to Kadikoy
After another delicious Turkish breakfast, make your way down to Eminonu ferry port. If you want a quick snack breakfast, there are lots of cafes and coffee stands at the port. From Eminuno, take a ferry to Kadikoy (be careful as you could also get a ferry to Karakoy which is not the same!). The ticket 1 ways costs 11TL.
The ferry ride takes about 15 mins and is a lovely journey and you get great views of Istanbul as well as an insight into the busy life of the port. You may come across other ferries, fishing boats and even full-size container ships.
The Asian side of Istanbul is a lot more residential that the European side. With this you will find exciting food markets as well as restaurants that are not so touristy. As you walk up the hill in Karakoy, you’ll find pedestrian areas with great small cafes and shops.
Once you have explored the shores of the Asian side of Istanbul, jump back on the ferry to Eminounu, and head back to Europe.
Shopping in Eminonu
From Eminonu, time to spend time the true way in Istanbul, explore the shops. Surrounding Eminonu, there are many wholesale shops that offer very good prices. As well this, there is a spice market facing you just as you exit the ferry. I personally bought some lovely china pieces for my sister as a housewarming present. There are also many shops selling souvenirs.
Dinner at Galataport
For your final night in Istanbul (if you aren’t escaping back for an evening flight), have an evening meal overlooking the water. Newly renovated, Galataport, has many restaurants on the waterside both with indoor and outdoor seating areas. I ate at Gunyadin Kebab that specialised in Turkish food. It was absolutely delicious and with a great view too. In the future, this area will be used for docking cruise ships. In the summer months of cruise season, expect this area to be very busy.
Thats all you need to know for your long layover in Istanbul!
You now have everything you need for know for you long layover in Istanbul. Have an amazing time and don’t forget to have as much Turkish food as possible!