Long Layover in Istanbul: Iconic Landmarks in Few Hours
Istanbul is a hub city for many who travel from west to east or vice versa. With various flight schedules, you’ll likely have a long layover in Istanbul. And if you can choose your connection flights with a few hours in between, I highly recommend visiting Istanbul. With this guide, I will help you to make the most of your Istanbul layover.
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Istanbul is the only city located in both Europe and Asia, making it a bucket list destination for many. With a rich history, an enormous amount of Istanbul landmarks, and fascinating museums and palaces, it’s hard to gem-pack everything in a few hours.
The best way to experience the city is to wander the streets, nibble on some of the best Turkish street food while admiring the modern and ancient architecture, and drink Turkish coffee at one of the cafes and people-watch.
The first thing to consider about your layover in Istanbul is that the city is vast, and by that, I mean enormous, with 39 neighborhoods! There are hundreds of things to see, do, and experience in Istanbul. Therefore, you must be smart about spending your layover in Istanbul and prioritizing what you want to do here.
It surely can be tricky if that’s your first time in Istanbul. However, don’t get overwhelmed; this Istanbul layover guide gives you detailed information on the most iconic Istanbul landmarks, how to get from airports to the city center, a few Istanbul tips, and where to stay if you need to spend a night.
Istanbul layover tips
The time you need: Is it safe to layover in Istanbul? The answer to this question depends on how much time you have between your flights.
This post is NOT for those who only have a short layover in Istanbul – less than 5 hours in Istanbul. If you add the time from and to airports to the city center, 5 hours is nothing for Istanbul, so you better spend your time at Istanbul airport. Both airports have a lounge area; depending on your ticket and carrier, you either enter it for free or pay an extra cost.
The ideal time for the Istanbul layover is around 8-10 hours in total; however, the more time you have, the more Istanbul landmarks you can visit.
Layover in Istanbul visa: You might wonder, “Do I need a visa for a layover in Turkey?” The answer is straightforward – if you need a general tourist visa to enter Turkey and pass the Turkey immigration, you’ll also need to get a transit visa.
If you plan to spend your layover in Istanbul, i.e., outside the airport, you need a visa. If you stay in the airport, then you don’t. You can check iVisa if you need a visa and apply online to get it.
Istanbul airport layover: I advise staying in the airport if you have only a 2-4 hour layover in any of Istanbul airports. Sadly, there is no Ataturk Airport in Istanbul anymore, which enabled visitors to easily travel from the airport to the city center with the metro. Until the government finishes the new airport metro line, don’t leave the airport for shorter connection flights.
Free Istanbul layover tour: if you fly by Turkish Airlines internationally via the new Istanbul Airport and have a layover between 6 and 24 hours, you can get a free Touristanbul service from the company, including transportation. The company offers various Istanbul layover tours you can choose from depending on the time you have. All the information is here.
Alternatively, if you want to join a guided tour or buy a ticket in advance to save some time, here are a few ones I recommend:
- Hagia Sophia Highlights Tour with Audio Guide – 1 hour
- Hagia Sophia, Topkapi & Basilica Combo Ticket – valid for three days
- Basilica Cistern Skip-the-Line Guided Tour – 30 minutes
- Topkapi Palace Guided Tour & Skip The Line – 75 minutes
- Hagia Sophia: Entry with Guided Tour – 1 hour
- Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque Skip-the-Line Tour – 4 hours with Grand Bazaar visit
- Topkapi Palace & Harem Tour with Entry Ticket – 3 hours
Best areas to spend a layover in Istanbul: As mentioned earlier, Istanbul has 39 neighborhoods, so picking up a district for your self-guided Istanbul layover tour can be tricky. I’ll talk more about each area below, but here is a summary of where to go.
For those who have never been to Istanbul, I recommend spending your time on the European side exploring the historical Constantinople and following the footsteps of the Byzantine era. Depending on your time, you can wander further to Galata tower and its cobblestone streets.
If you’ve been to Istanbul already, I’d advise you to hop on a ferry (if flying in Istanbul Airport) and explore the Anatolian (Asian) side with the trendiest neighborhoods of Kadikoy and Uskudar.
How to get from Istanbul airports to the city center
The city has two airports – Sabiha Gokcen International Airport (SAW) and the new Istanbul Airport (IST). Unfortunately, Istanbul Ataturk Airport closed in April 2019. There are a few ways to get from the airports to the city, including public transportation, airport shuttle, taxis, and private transfers.
Note that the time needed from the airport to the city center highly depends on the traffic, regardless of your transportation choice.
To use public transport in Istanbul, you’ll need to exchange your money for Turkish Lira and get an Istanbul Card before boarding buses to the city center. The card is mandatory on most public transportation, including ferries and excluding minibusses (dolmus in Turkish).
Tip: Get a Wise card to easily withdraw local currency and avoid hefty exchange rates and fees.
Usually, airports in Turkey are served by a municipality-owned yet reliable airport shuttle service called Havaist. The buses bring you to a place where you can change to public transportation and arrive at the city center, making the layover in Istanbul convenient.
I have dedicated posts on how to get from both airports to the city center with a detailed explanation:
→ Istanbul Airport to City Center
→ Sabiha Gokcen Airport to City Center
There are dozens of taxis lined at the arrivals hall at both airports. Depending on your final destination, the price could range from 250 TL to 350 TL. Some taxis have terminals for card payments, but I’d recommend having cash with you.
Alternatively, if you’ll have roaming internet activated, you can order a taxi with the BiTaksi app for a more accurate price. Uber is available in several cities in Turkey, including Istanbul, but it works differently than elsewhere. A while ago, there was a court hearing to ban Uber’s presence in Turkey as taxi drivers claimed they were highly affected, resulting in fewer rides for them. in 2021, Uber re-launched in Turkey with the requirement to work with regular taxis.
If you prefer to avoid the hustle of an airport shuttle bus or taxi, another alternative is to get a private transfer from either airport. Here are a few I recommend:
- Istanbul Airport Private Transfer Service
- Sabiha Gokcen Airport: Private Transfer Service to Istanbul
- Istanbul Transfers: Airport, Hotel, or Return Trip
Where to stay during your Istanbul layover
If your layover in Istanbul is quite long and involves staying overnight, you might consider booking a hotel room. Here are some recommendations based on the proximity to the city center for sightseeing and the airports so you can get there quicker for your passport control and other procedures.
Hotels near Istanbul Airport
YOTEL Istanbul Airport: nestled right inside the Istanbul Airport and 5 minutes from passport control, this hotel offers well-equipped rooms with AC, free WiFi, TV, and a private bathroom. A continental breakfast and fitness area are also available at the hotel.
Menalo Hotel Premium Istanbul Airport: private residential complex-looking hotel offers accommodation with a garden, parking, a restaurant, and a terrace. This 5-star hotel has rooms with all the necessary items, including a coffee machine and a safety deposit box.
Hidden Hills Hotel Istanbul Airport: located around 11.5km from Istanbul Airport, the hotel offers rooms with AC, TV, a kettle, and other necessary items. There also is a restaurant, storage space, and a terrace on its territory.
Hotels near Sabiha Gokcen Airport
ISG Sabiha Gökçen Airport Hotel: with modern rooms, a gourmet menu in their restaurants, and a bar, the hotel also offers some great services such as luggage transfer service and an online check-in on your flight from the reception desk
Mövenpick Hotel Istanbul Asia Airport: this 5-star hotel offers perks such as indoor pool and a hammam to its guests. The rooms here have everything you might need, including a desk, a kettle, and a safety box.
Best Hotel Pendik: for those looking for a slightly budget-friendly hotel near Sabiha Gokcen Airport with rooms with everything one can need for an overnight stay. Some rooms have a desk, while every room has a TV and a kitchenette.
More posts you might want to read:
→ Istanbul travel guide – what to see and eat in Istanbul in a short time
→ Istanbul to Cappadocia – practical transportation guide
→ Cappadocia travel guide – everything you need to know
→ Things to do in Ankara – exploring Turkey’s capital
→ What to wear in Turkey – practical guide to what to pack
→ Turkish street food – best meals to try
Hotels in the Istanbul city center
Florenta Hotel: great choice for those who want to stay only a few minutes walk from the iconic Istanbul landmarks such as Hagia Sophia and Topkapi Palace. The rooms have modern furniture and all the important items for your stay.
Marius Hotel: another excellent choice for staying close to the important landmarks in Istanbul, so you don’t spend too much time on public transportation. The rooms have everything you might need, including AC, a desk, a fridge, and a kettle, a minibar, and a safety box, to name just a few. Additional services include ironing as well as faxing and photocopying.
Hotel Sultania Boutique Class: this boutique hotel perfectly combines Ottoman and modern architecture. Apart from the typical items, the rooms here have in-room entertainment systems such as a DVD player and an iPhone/iPad dock. And if you’d want to unwind fully, the hotel has an indoor pool, Turkish hammam, and a sauna.
Visit iconic mosques, cisterns, & a palace
The city is divided into two parts – the European side with the historical center and the Asian (Anatolian) for a more local experience. If you are short on time, I suggest heading to the European side, which boasts of must-see tourist attractions that reflect many empires’ cultural effects that previously reigned here. Expect long queues at these iconic Istanbul landmarks, so if you don’t have much time, you might want to skip them and plan a separate trip to Istanbul.
All these attractions listed in this section are within walking distance from each other so you won’t need any transportation. Also, remember that they are also included in Museum Card, which significantly reduces the entrance fees but doesn’t grant you skip-the-line entrance.
Entering mosques have a particular dress code, so if you are planning on wandering the streets during your Istanbul layover, here are my recommendations on what to pack for Turkey.
Byzantine Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia, or Aya Sofya, as some call it, is an iconic building in Istanbul from the Constantinopole times. Its official name is Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque which used to be a state church of the Roman Empire built by Roman emperor Justinian I between 532-537 until the Ottoman Empire conquered Constantinopole in 1453. It was a mosque until 1935, then it became a museum, and in 2020, the government again turned it into a mosque.
Even today, it is a cultural and architectural icon of the Byzantine empire and Eastern Orthodox Civilization. As of 2019, Hagia Sophia was the most visited landmark in Turkey.
The interior of Hagia Sophia features marble pillars, stunning mosaics, and gorgeous decorations. The building was built by the masonry construction method, where constructors used a mixture of sand and ceramic pieces to create mortar joints within the bricks – a Roman concrete and a predecessor to modern concrete.
The central dome covering the nave lies on a gallery of 40 arched windows. The whole building is massive, measuring 70 meters wide, 75 meters long, and 58 meters high from the floor to the top of the dome.
The central dome is 76 meters high. The floor of the building dates back to the 6th century and is made of marble from Marmara Island, located in the Sea of Marmara.
The minarets are an addition of the Ottoman Empire to announce the invitations for prayers and other important information.
How to visit: Since Hagia Sophia is now a mosque again, visitors are allowed outside prayer times. Males and females need to respect the dress code – no shorts, short skirts, or showing bare skin. Women should wear a headscarf; if you don’t have any, you can borrow it for free at the main entrance.
Opening hours: every day
Entrance fee: FREE
Recommended tour: Hagia Sophia: Entry with Guided Tour or Hagia Sophia Highlights Tour with Audio Guide
Blue Mosque, or Sultan Ahmed Mosque, sitting very close to Hagia Sophia, is an Ottoman-era historical imperial mosque. Constructed between 1609-1619, the building contains the tomb of Ahmed (who built the mosque), a hospice, and a madrasah.
This UNESCO World Heritage site 1985 features gorgeous handpainted blue tiles on its interior walls. At night, a blue light illuminates its five central and eight secondary domes and six minarets.
After Sultan Ahmed I lost the war with Persia at the beginning of the 17th century, he decided to build a grand mosque in Istanbul to reaffirm Ottoman power and give the city its first imperial mosque on the site of the palace of the Byzantine emperors. The construction of the mosque started in 1609 and finished in 7 years.
The design of Blue Mosque incorporates many elements from Hagia Sophia, Byzantine, and Islamic architectures and is the culmination of Ottoman mosque development that lasted for two centuries.
The mosque’s interior boasts approximately 20,000 handpainted Iznic-style ceramic tiles in 60 different tulip patterns, while the blue paint dominates the upper parts, especially the central dome. About 200 stained glass windows bring light inside. The decorations also included phrases from the Quran.
By constructing this brilliant and majestic mosque, Ahmed I left a recognizable mark on Istanbul – the square in front of the mosque became known as Sultanahmet.
How to visit: It’s an active mosque today, so there are daily prayers, during which the mosque is closed to tourists and visitors. You’ll need to get into the line. Depending on the season, the waiting line can be long. However, the beauty of it is worth every minute you wait.
Both men and women should respect the dress code of no shorts, short skits, or showing bare skin. Women should cover their heads and any visible bare skin and wear a scarf-like skirt before entering the mosque if they are in pants. You can borrow them at the entrance, but I recommend having your own. Expect to take off your shoes and store them on a shoe shelf or carry them in a bag.
Opening hours: every day
Entrance fee: FREE
Hippodrome of Constantinople
Renamed Sultanahmet Square, the Hippodrome of Constantinople was a public square back in the day for chariot races. The word ‘hippodrome’ comes from Greek, where ‘hippos’ means horse, and ‘dromos’ way/road.
The arena was also used for official ceremonies, gladiatorial games, protests, and the torture of convicts, to name a few.
Back then, the hippodrome could fit approximately 40,000 people and was open and free for male members of society. The monuments you can see today were brought from the various parts of the Roman Empire, including the Serpent Column from Delphi and the Obelisk of Thutmosis III from Egypt.
During the Ottoman era, the hippodrome still functioned but was mainly used as a square. However, the construction of the Blue Mosque and today’s Turkish and Islamic Art Museum have significantly damaged and shrunk the arena.
One of the important places to explore during your Istanbul layover is the Topkapi Palace complex. However, note that it’s a massive building where you can easily spend at least two hours, if not more.
From the 1460s until the construction of Dolmabahce Palace in 1856, Topkapi was the Ottoman Empire’s administrative hub and the sultans’ primary residence until the 16th century. Today, together with a group of sights enlisted as Historic Areas of Istanbul, the palace complex is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Constructed by Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror, the original name of Topkapi was the “New Palace” to distinguish it from Eski Saray (Old Palace) in Beyazit square. In the 19th century, the palace was renamed Topkapi, meaning the Cannon Gate.
Over the centuries, the complex expanded and now consists of four central courtyards and many smaller buildings. Females of the Sultan’s family lived in the harem, and state officials held meetings in the Imperial Council building.
After the 17th century, Topkapi’s importance gradually decreased. Sultans preferred to spend time in their new palaces along the Bosphorus instead. In the middle of the 19th century, one Sultan decided to move the court to Dolmabahce Palace.
After the end of the Ottoman Empire, the Turkish government turned Topkapi into a museum, granting travelers the opportunity to glimpse at the splendid life of sultans and see various intricately decorated chambers and rooms. The Ottoman Imperial Harem and Topkapi Treasury are the most important areas to visit.
Opening hours: Every day, 9 am – 6 pm. Closed on Tuesdays
Entrance fee: Topkapi Palace with Harem and Hagia Irene combo ticket – 420 TL; Topkapi Palace with Hagia Irene – 320 TL; Only Harem – 150 TL; Only Hagia Irene – 120 TL.
Recommended tour: Topkapi Palace & Harem Tour with Entry Ticket or Topkapi Palace Guided Tour and Skip The Line
Beneath Istanbul lie several hundreds of old historical cisterns, out of which the Basilica Cistern is the most popular one worth visiting on your Istanbul layover if you have enough time. Located a few meters from Hagia Sophia, the Basilica Cistern dates back to the Byzantine era of the 6th century. Today it is turned into a museum and only holds a little water for tourism purposes.
The Cistern supplied the Great Palace of Constantinopole and other nearby buildings with filtered water and continued providing Topkapi Palace water after the Ottoman took over the city.
The Basilica Cistern is approximately 138 meters by 65 meters, which converts to 9,800 sq. meters and can hold around 80,000 cubic meters of water. There are 336 columns, each 9 meters high, erected at intervals of 4.80 meters from each other, forming 12 rows containing 28 columns. Most of the columns are carved from various types of marble in one piece, and a few consist of two parts.
The most iconic sight of the Cistern is two columns with the face of Medusa carved on their bases. The origin of these two heads is unknown, though it is believed that they were brought here after being removed from a building dating back to the late Roman period.
Opening hours: every day, from 9 am to 6 pm
Entrance fee: Turkish citizens – 50 TL; Foreigners – 190 TL
Note: Museum Card is not valid here
Recommended tour: Basilica Cistern Skip-the-Line Guided Tour
Spend your Istanbul layover in historic bazaars
One experience everyone needs to have in Istanbul is seeing Turkish culture at its historic bazaars.
The most famous Grand Bazaar is a chaotic yet colorful market that has been a hub for merchants for many centuries. Starting from a small warehouse in 1461, it grew over time and became a labyrinth and maze of shops selling all sorts of goods, from small souvenirs to football jerseys. You can easily get lost while Turkish merchants lure you into their shops with sweet talk and free tea offers – an integral part of Turkish culture.
If you decide to buy something, please remember: bargaining here is the must-do activity. Refrain from paying the first price the merchant asks for; always try to lower the cost. If you are not good at it, turn around and start walking away, this might do the trick.
Another popular one is the flavorful Spice Bazaar. Constructed in 1664 as part of the New Mosque (Yeni Camii) complex, the market offers all sorts of spices, including the essential ones in Turkish cuisine. And apart from the spices, you can buy Turkish delights to bring back home, as well as dried fruits, Turkish tea, soaps, and more.
Explore Galata during your layover in Istanbul
This gorgeous Italian-looking tower dominating the Istanbul skyline is another fascinating landmark to visit if you have more time to spend in the city.
Galata is an old name of the Karaköy neighborhood located on the northern bank of the Golden Horn. Several bridges connect the historic Fatih district with Karakoy, of which the Galata Bridge is the most distinguished one.
Galata’s medieval town and the citadel was a colony of the Republic of Genoa from 1273 to 1453. The Genoese built the iconic Galata Tower in 1348. This stone tower is Istanbul’s most striking landmark – a 66.90-meter-high cylinder-shaped building with a cone top that offers breathtaking views of Istanbul’s peninsula.
Take the elevator and a few stairs to get to the observation deck. There is a restaurant on its upper floor with gorgeous views over the city.
Like any other sight in the city, expect a long queue at the entrance. Also note that the path around the cone is very narrow, and with that many people, it’s slightly hard to pass by.
Opening hours: every day, 8:30 am – 11 pm; box office closes at 10 pm.
Entrance fee: 175 TL
Further sights: Taksim Square & Istiklal Avenue
Istiklal is a famous pedestrian avenue full of cafes, restaurants, clubs, and a tram line. It used to be known as the Grand Avenue of Pera. Today, it covers 1.4 kilometers and is the most famous street in Istanbul. It starts at the northern end of Galata at Tünel Square and goes to Taksim Square.
The avenue features late Ottoman-era buildings in different styles, such as Neo-Gothic, Neo-Classical, and Art Nouveau, to name a few. The most iconic attraction is the historic tram line that runs from Tunel Square to Taksim.
Besides leisurely spending your time here checking out various shops, the avenue is also home to a few beautiful European churches that are still active.
Many believe Taksim Square to be the heart of modern Istanbul. The name Taksim (‘division’ in English) refers to the fact that the square was the central area where the water lines from the north of the city were collected and branched off to other parts of the city.
Today the square is circled by the Marmara Hotel, Atatürk Cultural Centre, Gezi Park, and the gigantic Taksim Mosque.
What to eat in Istanbul during your Istanbul layover
Turkish cuisine is diverse, with hundreds of regional foods you can try. However, I understand that you won’t have time to eat them all, even I have yet to try everything the country offers. This section shows the most practical meals and street food to eat during your short visit to Istanbul.
If you arrive in the city early in the morning, start your Istanbul layover with a filling and delicious Turkish breakfast. Oh boy! Their breakfast is HUGE! Just look at the picture!
It’s a breakfast for two; the server even brought a special stool to put in a bread basket and a coffee jug. I am not kidding; that’s the way Turks like their breakfast. However, note that every breakfast in Istanbul place has a variety of breakfast items and their size.
Once you order the meal, you get the typical breakfast ingredients like butter, bread, cheese, tomatoes and cucumber, olives, honey, jams, and eggs. Besides, you get Turkish specialties like borek (baked pastry with different fillings). And if you are a vegetarian, here’s a complete guide to vegetarian Turkish food.
This round, crispy bread coated with sesame seeds is a great snack to nibble on while wandering the streets of Istanbul. Found in pretty much anywhere across the city, Simit is a favorite snack for locals and foreigners. You can enjoy it plain or topped with cheese spread and chocolate butter. I like it plain.
Roasted chestnuts and corn
One of the staples of Istanbul street food is boiled or grilled corn and roasted chestnuts. Sold everywhere just like Simit, the aroma of them is irresistible. It’s a cheap source to boost your energy when exploring the city.
Fish Sandwich or Balik Ekmek
If you are looking for a filling yet light street food, try Balik Ekmek or a fish sandwich. It is must-try street food in Istanbul – grilled fish fillet served with salad leaves and onions. The best place to try this simple sandwich is at Eminönü pier near or under the Galata Bridge.
Prepare for the trip
To ease your travel planning, check out all the posts about Turkey travel. Additionally, here are some of the websites and services I use when preparing for my next adventure anywhere in the world.
✈ Book affordable flights on Kiwi.com, a platform that shows the best routes and flight deals to your destination.
🚫 Get compensation for up to 700$ with Airhelp if your flight was canceled or delayed within the last 3 years.
💸 Use Wise to withdraw money in local currency without hidden fees and avoid high exchange rates. On top, you might get their Visa or Mastercard debit card.
🏨 Find budget-friendly deals on all sorts of accommodation types on Booking.com.
🚗 Pre-book a private transfer from Istanbul’s both airports to your hotel.
🩺 Buy the most flexible and budget-friendly travel insurance, SafetyWing, that also covers COVID.
☀ Book in advance some of the best city walks, cultural experiences, and day tours to maximize your stay and experience here.
Want more inspiration?
How cool that all those things can be visited even when short on time! I’m glad you were able to make the most of it =)
Istanbul is absolutely somewhere that I want to go! It looks so beautiful. I like the idea of visiting in Winter too.
Istanbul has forever been on my travel list and i hope to go there in 2018. This is a comprehensive list for a short time and i am saving this post to refer to later. The food and blue mosque looks so good 🙂
Great guide you put together! Turkey is high on my list for sure. The Blue Mosque looks absolutely stunning. I bookmarked this!!
Glad if I could help 🙂
That’s a long list. Thanks for sharing the must-visit places in Istanbul. I think a short time is not enough to explore all these places. Enjoyed reading it.
What a lovely guide! It is always welcome to find ways to check out more places when running short on time. Galata Tower seems like a perfect way to look out to the Istanbul’s Peninsula. Too bad the experience was ruined for you! Is there a fee to access the viewing deck?
Yes, I paid 25 liras to get up there
Those places are beautiful. I always want to visit Hagia Sophia because of a novel I read a few years back. But do they close to the airport? If you only have a short time, which one is a must-see?
No they are not, but the metro is quite fast transport to get there. Hagia and Blue Mosque are very close to each other so you can definitely visit it if you have couple of hours to spend in Istanbul