Long layovers usually mean browsing duty free or searching endlessly for a free seat where you can settle in with a book or take a short nap.
I like to fly through Istanbul when going to Europe. Everyone has their preferred route. For example, on a recent trip to Athens, my friend and I ended up flying different airlines as he is loyal to Emirates as he loves to indulge in the Business Lounge life during his layovers in Dubai.
I, on the other hand, wanted to do a one-shot straight flight to Istanbul with Turkish Airlines.
READ: From Istanbul to Accra: New airports and terminals that launched in 2018 - plus planned projects for 2019
This meant, however, an 8-hour layover there and a 13-hour layover on the way back.
But this is not exactly a problem.
With the launch of the new Istanbul airport last year, some feared that because of its great distance from the city centre (about 47km from the Old City), travellers would be deterred from heading out of the airport during a layover.
I'm luckily here to tell you that it really shouldn’t.
Take the bus
Because it’s further from the city centre one would be inclined to opt for a taxi like an Uber, thinking it’d be faster. However, the bus shuttle from the airport runs like a dream. There is wi-fi on board, and it cost only R45 one way. Pay by card on board or buy a ticket at a ticketing machine next to the airport's bus stop. The bus drivers don’t accept cash.
8 hours in the city: Have Istanbul all to yourself
Overnight flights with Turkish Airlines from Cape Town usually land in Istanbul around 05:00am. This means you’ll get to the city around 07:30 am after passport control and taking the bus for about 45-55 min. (Your luggage will be checked through to your final destination, so be sure to have light hand-luggage, keeping in mind it’ll be with you during the layover).
Being in Istanbul this early means you have the city to yourself. A rare experience in this bustling, melting pot of a city. Go to the old part of the city, Sultanahmet, Fatih, which is known for sights like the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque. The area is also home to the Grand Bazaar that is stocked with vendors selling jewellery, ceramics, Turkish delights and MUCH more.
Getting a picture of any of these sights without other people in the frame is a Sisyphean task. But in the morning, it’s yours until around 10am when most tourists have finished eating their hotel breakfast.
What to do:
For an 8-hour layover you need to factor in an hour to and from the city. Plus an hour at the airport before your connecting flight. (Istanbul’s New Airport is very spacious and organised, so going through security and passport control is quick sticks).
So, you have about 4-5 hours.
To keep it easy, I’d say head to one area or neighbourhood and just explore that. Sultanahmet is a great start. I started my day by heading to one of the only little tea and börek (dough pasties usually filled with either cheese or beef) shops open this early. I had a glass of tea with a stranger who invited me to sit down. Next to us sat a group of oomies sipping on their morning tea while engaging in a fat chat and some laughter.
We had a broken/lost in translation conversation using Google translate...it was excellent.
Since many shops only open around 9am, go for a walk around the area. In some places, I think I could hear whispers of the Ottaman Empire.The Grand Bazaar usually opens at 9am, and is quite busy if you’re just in an out of the city. Rather go to Arasta Bazaar for your shopping - here you’ll find high quality threads, jewellery and more.
READ: Istanbul 2.0: Getting lost (on purpose this time) in the streets of Istanbul
13 hours in the city: Feel the pulse of the city
On my way back to South Africa, my layover was from mid-day to 2am the next morning.
And in Istanbul, this means it’s busy. You feel the pulse of the city everywhere you go, it’s alive and electric. Luckily, for the most part, you can move at your own pace.
Don’t take a taxi
After getting to the hub, choose walking or go for public transport. Taxis are relatively inexpensive, so it’s tempting to call and Uber or jump into a taxi. But during peak times, the city is very congested.
So, walk or take the uber-connected public transport system. Even boat from the European to the Asian side (Thrace and Anatolia) of the city – this way is often much faster than driving.
What to do:
When you have 13 hours it’s possible to hop around a few places in the city.
I’d recommend the Old City for culture and shopping. Buy last-minute gifts for people back home, like Turkish delights or jewellery in the antique section of the Grand Bazaar. (TIP: Take cash)
Then go hang with the locals in Balat, the traditional Jewish quarter of the city. Here, you’ll get the best coffee shops and local eats, plus some quirky antique and vintage shops.
End the day by heading to the up-market area of Ortaköy and have dinner or drinks by the Bosphorus for sunset views - the perfect send-off before heading home.
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