Turkish Airlines has one of the world’s most extensive route networks, and the airline is increasingly jostling for recognition as a global carrier in the ranks of Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways. When Turkish Airlines eventually launches its much-talked about Istanbul – Sydney route, it will provide the first ever regular non-stop commercial flight from Australia to Europe (although only just – Istanbul’s Ataturk International Airport is only 30 minutes drive from the western tip of Asia and the Middle East). Istanbul no doubt makes an interesting alternative to the standard South East Asian transit points (Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok and Hong Kong), and has a much more visible rich traditional culture than the usual modern Middle Eastern stopover cities (Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha). With more and more passengers transiting through Turkey’s beguiling biggest city, we are providing sample itineraries for transit stops of 6, 8, 12 and 24 hours in Istanbul!
6 hours in Istanbul
With only 6 hours in Istanbul, you will have time to take in the best of this city, but don’t get too caught up in the excitement – traffic can be difficult to predict and you don’t want to miss your onward flight!
The public transport options from Ataturk airport aren’t great, and with 6 hours you’re better to bite the bullet and get a taxi. Ask to go to Sultanahmet – about 40 Turkish lira (TL) – and be dropped off at the Sultanahmet Mosque (the “Blue Mosque”). Here you can walk through one of the wonders of the Muslim world – the forecourt is open to everyone, but in the main building the front door is open for people offering prayers, while tourists enter via the side door, where there are also lengths of material for hire if you need to cover your legs, arms or head. The interior, with its spectacular vaulted dome, is dotted with small blue tiles – the reason for its English nickname.
Directly across from the Blue Mosque is Aya Sofya, built in the year 537 as an Eastern Orthodox cathedral, for a short period as a Catholic cathedral, and from 1453 to 1931 it was a mosque. Nowadays it’s a museum, adorned with all the remaining mosaic roof tiles and hanging chandeliers from its days as a place of worship, and filled with exhibitions about Turkish and Islamic history. Entry is TL 25.
On the other side of the road is Basilica Cistern – an underground cistern of a 6th century palace, replete with columns and arches. Beautifully lit, the architecture of this cavernous place is reflected in the calm black water. Entry is TL 10, and make sure your leg muscles are warmed up before attempting the steps!
Now it’s time for a bite to eat, so walk back across the road, past Hagia Sophia, and down into the laneways of Sultanahmet to the Metropolis Cafe, where the Iskander kebab comes highly recommended. Sometimes they will throw in a cup of Turkish apple tea to wash it all down – highly recommended!
If you still have time leftover, walk down to Eminönü, and Galata Bridge. This waterfront district is a commercial and trading centre for Istanbul, and the Galata Bridge affords lovely views across to the Asian side of the city, as well as a glimpse of Istanbulites going about their daily lives. Grab a taxi and head back to the airport – it’s been short but sweet, and perhaps has whet your appetite for a longer visit another time!
8 hours in Istanbul
With 8 hours in Istanbul, start with one of the following extra excursions, then make your way to Sultanahmet to pick up the 6-hour itinerary.
- Grand Bazaar, one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world, has more than 3,000 shops and dates back to 1455. Haggle for trinkets and food, and see the way Istanbul has shopped for the past 500 years or more. It’s easy to get lost in here – this might be better to do first, before Sultanahmet. Just down the road from the bazaar there is a tram stop (Çemberlitaş), from where you can get a ride to or from Sultanahmet. A visit to the bazaar can easily be combined with Süleymaniye Mosque (below)
- Süleymaniye Mosque, Istanbul’s largest mosque, is one kilometre north west of the Grand Bazaar. It was built in 1558 under the rule of Sultan Süleymaniye the Magnificent, who is also buried at a small tomb on the site. Entry is free.
- Çemberlitaş Hamami, a historic Turkish bath, built in 1584, and a great place to unwind after a long flight. A full experience could take up to two hours, depending on what treatment you choose, so perhaps do this before going to Sultanahmet so you don’t lose track of time in the bliss-zone. Treatments are TL 35 for do-it-yourself, TL65 for a full scrub down (recommended, at the very least), or TL 90 for the works including a rigorous massage (go on, do it!). Be prepared to strip down to your underwear, be scrubbed and prodded by a burly Turkish bath attendant, and pummelled into submission by a muscular masseuse. No doubt it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but if you’re tempted but hesitant, I say try it – a surprising number of foreigners come here and rave about the once-in-a-lifetime experience! Çemberlitaş Hamami is not far from the Grand Bazaar and Süleymaniye Mosque, but fitting the baths experience in with a walk around the bazaar would leave you short of time.
12 hours in Istanbul
If you have have half a day in Istanbul, you could cover all of the excursions on the 8-hour itinerary, then follow the 6 hours itinerary as far as Eminönü, and Galata Bridge. Once you’ve arrived here, and if you have time to spare, you could also jump on a ferry to the Asian side – visit two continents in one day! If you have an hour and you’re just happy to see Istanbul from the Bosphorus, then take the ferry to Üsküdar and back. If you have two or three hours, take the longer ferry to Kadiköy where there’s more to do – stop for Turkish coffee or kebabs. Ferries leave tom either side of the Galata Bridge in Eminönü.
24 hours in Istanbul
24 hours is still not enough time to see everything in this incredible city, but you’ll still be able to see lots! Depending on your time of day (and need for sleep), you could fill your day with any of the above attractions, plus spend some time around the Galata and Taksim districts. Directly across the Galata Brdige from Eminönü, you’ll spot an old tower on the side of the hill – that’s Galata Tower. You could walk up there, or take the historic Tünel. Built in 1875, the short underground funicular tram was the second underground metro train line in the world, after the London underground. From the top of the hill Tünel station, it’s a short walk down to Galata Tower. Take the lift to the top for panoramic views of both European and Asian Istanbul.
Back at the top of the hill, you can stroll along Istiklal Cadessi (a pedestrian mall), shopping for Turkish delight and other treats before eventually arriving at Taksim Square, the epicentre of public and civic life in Istanbul. Done there, move on to Dolmabahçe Palace, the grand centre of politics in the Ottoman Empire in the second half of the nineteenth century. Entry is TL 20.
Disclaimer: It is each traveller’s responsibility to ensure that they tailor the above itineraries to their individual circumstances. Flights run late, trains get delayed, special events occur and people get carried away with the excitement of being in a new city. Don’t lose track of time while you’re exploring Istanbul, and whatever you do, make sure you are back at the airport in time for your departure flight – airlines don’t have much sympathy for people who miss their connections while sightseeing.