What to Do (and Not to Do) During an Eight-Hour Layover in Istanbul

Two days ago I was sitting in Atatürk Airport in Istanbul, wishing that I weren’t.

Three weeks before that I flew through Istanbul on Turkish Airlines, en route from Johannesburg to Washington D.C. Istanbul is not exactly on the way from Joburg to D.C., and the flight included an eight-hour layover. But the price of the ticket was right ($825, or about R11k), and I thought it would be a great opportunity to briefly visit a city that so many of my friends have raved about.

I made the most of that first layover, catching the train into central Istanbul, seeing some sights, and arriving back at the airport in time for my connecting flight.

Aksaray-mosqueThe Pertevnial Valide Mosque in Aksaray, Istanbul. The mosque was built in 1869. 

On my way back to Joburg from D.C., I had another long layover in Istanbul. I decided I was too tired to make the trip into town this time. I’ll just hole up in the airport and work on my blog, I thought.

I cannot overstate what a big mistake that was. Eight hours is way too long to spend in any airport, and especially one like Atatürk, which is super crowded with inconsistent wifi. As I slogged around the international terminal, looking for a place to sit and get online, I cursed my poor judgement. But I figured I’d pass the time by writing a blog post about what I did during my first layover, so no one else makes the same mistake.

I started the post in the airport but was too tired to finish it until now, a day after I made it home to Joburg. As it turns out, sitting around Atatürk airport is actually more tiring than journeying into town.

So, here’s what I did with eight hours to kill during a layover in Istanbul.

1) I got off the plane, followed the signs to immigration, and presented my $20 (R285) Turkish visa, which I’d bought online in advance. (You can also buy your visa at a kiosk in the airport but I think it costs a few dollars more.) There was no line at immigration, at least not when I passed through at about 6:00 a.m.

2) I found an ATM and withdrew 200 Turkish lira (about $70 or R1000). I had cash to spare at the end.

3) I followed the signs to the Metro (airport signs are in English and Turkish) and rode down the escalator into the Metro station.

4) I was a little confused when I got to the Metro. There weren’t many English signs and I couldn’t read the Metro map. Also, I had no idea where I was going — I had a vague plan to go to the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia but didn’t know where those places were. So I did what everyone else around me was doing: I looked helpless and waited for the station staff guy to assist me.

5) The staff guy helped me buy a plastic “istanbulkart” and put some money on it. I’m not sure how much, but it was definitely less than 20 lira. I tried to communicate that I wanted to go to the Blue Mosque and he said I should go to the Sultanahmet station via Aksaray. I nodded obediently, walked through the turnstile, and boarded the train. The airport is at the end of the red M1 line (see map here).

MetroCandid shot inside the Metro.

6) Once inside the train, I asked for help again. I found a lovely man, Ahmed from Lebanon, who said he was headed in the same direction and would show me where to go.

Ahmed and I took the M1 line to the second-to-last stop, Aksaray, and exited the metro station. We came up out of the station and walked straight ahead, about three or four blocks, to the Aksaray tramway stop. (This is the important part — you must transfer from the metro to the tramway to get to Sultanahmet, and those two stops are a few blocks apart.) We boarded the tram and rode the blue T1 line four stops to Sultanahmet. I thanked Ahmed and got off. Both the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sofia were right there.

The entire train ride, walk, and tram ride took a little over an hour in total. The trains run a couple of minutes apart. I arrived at Sultanahmet around 7:15 a.m.

7) I immediately spotted the Blue Mosque (it’s just across the street from the tram stop) and walked toward it, stopping periodically for cat photos. Istanbul is full of cats.

Istanbul-catIstanbul cat.

8) When I arrived at the mosque, I was told by a young man hanging around outside (trying to lure tourists to his family’s carpet shop — a popular activity among local men in Sultanahmet) that the mosque doesn’t open until 8:00 a.m. I took a walk around the area to kill time.

Blue-Mosque-outsideThe courtyard of the Blue Mosque.

9) I strolled across a large square (politely rebuffing several young carpet salesmen) toward the Hagia Sofia. The Hagia Sofia, an ancient church that later became a mosque and is now a museum, is huge and impossible to miss. The grounds around the Hagia Sofia are populated by a friendly pack of dogs.

Hagia-Sofia-and-dogsHagia Sofia and dogs.

The Hagia Sofia was also still closed, so I finished my stroll and walked back to the Blue Mosque.

10) By the time I got back to the mosque there was already a line forming outside. Entrance to the mosque is free, but tourists must dress conservatively (no shorts, short skirts, or sleeveless tops) and women must cover their heads with a scarf. If you don’t have a scarf you can rent one outside the mosque. Visitors must also remove their shoes before going inside; plastic bags are available to carry your shoes in.

There were lots of people inside the mosque already but it was still relatively quiet.

Blue-Mosque-vacuumVacuuming this carpet is no small task.

Blue-mosque-ceilingThe tiles on the ceiling are what give the Blue Mosque its name.

11) I decided to skip the Hagia Sofia and instead spent the next hour or two wandering around the neighborhood. There are tons of restaurants and shops in the area. I stopped for breakfast and coffee at a street-side café, bought Turkish delight and baklava, did some souvenir-shopping, and took more cat pictures. I had a ball.

CoffeeStrong Turkish coffee.

Turkish-delight-shopCandy shop where I bought Turkish Delight.

TobaccoTurkish tobacco for sale. I like how it’s displayed with Marlboro cigarettes on top.

CandyCandy for sale in the Metro station.

12) I allowed myself a generous two-and-a-half hours to travel back to the airport and get to my gate. (I was specifically advised not to take a taxi to the airport — apparently traffic is crazy and the train is faster.) I needed the extra time. Atatürk has an extra security check point at the airport entrance, where everyone has to send their luggage through an X-ray machine, in addition to the usual security at the departure terminal. Security was also extra tight at my boarding gate (as it is worldwide for U.S.-bound international flights), where I passed through two more check points and had my carry-on baggage searched.

I had 20 minutes to rest at the gate before boarding time.

In summary:

DO go into Istanbul if you have a long layover (seven hours or more) at Atatürk.
DON’T suffer through eight hours in the airport. I don’t care if you’re tired or nervous. Just don’t.

Next time, Istanbul, I’m coming for a week.

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38 Comments

  • Reply violetonlineisonline November 12, 2015 at 5:43 pm

    love this. your pics are divine.

    • Reply 2summers November 12, 2015 at 5:52 pm

      Thanks Violet 🙂

  • Reply Di Brown November 12, 2015 at 5:49 pm

    Awesome pics Heather. Great tips as well. An hours at an airport seem to be about 180 minutes long. I’ll joint you in Istanbul for a few days next time 🙂

    • Reply 2summers November 12, 2015 at 5:52 pm

      You’re totally right — that’s just how it feels!

  • Reply Ellen November 12, 2015 at 5:58 pm

    Fascinating. What a gorgeous place.

    • Reply 2summers November 12, 2015 at 6:14 pm

      It really is!

  • Reply Zaahirah November 12, 2015 at 6:02 pm

    It’s such a pity you missed Hagia Sophia. The Blue Mosque pales in comparison and the Hagia Sophia is much older too. Do it next time 🙂

    • Reply 2summers November 12, 2015 at 6:13 pm

      I kind of had a feeling that would be the case. I was actually afraid of getting stuck in there for exactly that reason. I just really need to go back now 🙂

  • Reply catherine November 12, 2015 at 6:15 pm

    You will absolutely love Istanbul and I am really looking forward to seeing it through your photographer’s eyes! In the meantime, any trip to the Okavango and the Kalahari to help with my planning???

    • Reply 2summers November 16, 2015 at 10:26 pm

      I wish I’d had more time in Istanbul! Right now this is all I have though. There WILL be a next time though.

      I actually haven’t been to the Kalahari (at least not properly) or the Okavango. High on the list though!

  • Reply mzansigirl November 12, 2015 at 6:50 pm

    Stunning pics! Now I wish I had an 8 hour layover in Istanbul! Been dying to go to Turkey for a while. I’d be up for that week long trip if you’re looking for a travel buddy 🙂

    • Reply 2summers November 16, 2015 at 10:27 pm

      We should definitely do that some day…

  • Reply UnderAnAfricanSun November 12, 2015 at 7:00 pm

    Welcome home Heather. Glad you finally got a chance to see a bit of Istanbul, it is such a magical place. Your photos are beautiful and bring back great memories of my trip a few months back. I took a similiar photo of the guy vacumming in the Blue Mosque but it didn’t turn out nearly as nice as yours. Start planning your next trip!

    • Reply 2summers November 16, 2015 at 10:29 pm

      Thanks Kelly. On another note, I hope everyone you know in Paris is ok. So strange how you had just written a blog post about it.

      • Reply UnderAnAfricanSun November 23, 2015 at 7:14 am

        Thanks Heather.Luckily all family and friends are safe. One of the attacks was only a couple of blocks from where I just stayed (walked past it several times) and even closer to some friends’ home. So very sad for everyone there.

  • Reply Shelly November 12, 2015 at 9:51 pm

    Next time do not miss the Underground Cistern. It’s right where you were and is amazing. As is all of Turkey. Turkey and NZ are my 2 favorite countries.

    • Reply 2summers November 16, 2015 at 10:31 pm

      Thanks for the tip! Next time for sure.

  • Reply Timmee November 12, 2015 at 11:09 pm

    Much banana. Very wow. Jell.

  • Reply autumnashbough November 13, 2015 at 11:00 pm

    I enjoyed touring with you! Glad you got to wander around.

    How was the coffee? Was there a huge difference?

    • Reply 2summers November 16, 2015 at 10:35 pm

      Well, I only had time for one Turkish coffee and to be honest, it was exactly the same as the Turkish coffee I’ve had at Turkush restaurants in SA. I’m actually not an enormous fan of that really strong coffee. I kinda ordered it to look cool.

  • Reply Lani November 15, 2015 at 5:52 am

    It’s so beautiful. I want to go! It looks like food heaven, too.

    • Reply 2summers November 16, 2015 at 10:36 pm

      It is! I really, really wish is had time to eat more food.

  • Reply Expatorama November 15, 2015 at 5:56 pm

    I LOVE the picture of the man vacuuming the carpet in the Blue Mosque. I can tell you though, should you visit in the hottest months when it’s also crowded, that carpet combined with thousands of shoeless visitors results in a delightful ‘eau de feet’ aroma. Agree with previous comment – the Basilica Cisterns (sunken palace) is a must. Eerie and ancient with spectral fish and an intriguing statue….none of my photos do it justice, so I’d love to see your take on it if and when you get there!

    • Reply 2summers November 16, 2015 at 10:38 pm

      I should have asked your advice before I went. What was I thinking?! Next time.

      • Reply Expatorama November 17, 2015 at 6:18 am

        Next time for sure. I can give you a long list.

  • Reply Expectations of a Istanbul rookie  | Mzansi Girl February 3, 2016 at 12:00 pm

    […] Thanks to my friend and Istanbul travel buddy Heather Mason (@2summers) for letting me use her pics of Istanbul. Check out her epic Instagram feed and her blog post on What to do (and what not to do) on an 8 hour layover in Istanbul. […]

  • Reply vasco December 9, 2016 at 4:29 am

    Thank you for your helpful information as I will be having an eight hour layover next month as well. I will make sure I won’t stay at the airport and get the visa in advance.

  • Reply melissa December 13, 2016 at 4:42 am

    While I was researching my two 10 layovers, it convinced me that I needed to book a ticket and head there for an extended trip. My trip to Turkey is in late January.

    • Reply 2summers December 13, 2016 at 9:30 am

      Oh cool! Enjoy.

  • Reply Nicole Miyahara February 21, 2017 at 5:22 am

    What kind of luggage did you take with you so that you could leave the airport and explore or did they transfer your luggage onto your next flight home?

    • Reply 2summers February 22, 2017 at 9:08 am

      I checked my bag all the way through so I only had carry-ons.

  • Reply Setarra Kennedy February 28, 2017 at 5:16 pm

    I’m so glad I found your post! My husband and I have an 8 hour layover in Istanbul on our way from Athens to Amman later in March and we were thinking we would just hang out at the airport. After reading about your experience, I think we’ll seriously considering getting out and making the most of our time in Istanbul to explore a bit. Thanks for sharing! 🙂

    • Reply 2summers February 28, 2017 at 5:39 pm

      Hi Setarra, yay, I’m glad you found it too. I almost never leave the airport during layovers but Istanbul is one of those places where it really is a very feasible and worthwhile thing to do. Have a great trip, wherever you’re going.

  • Reply Angie April 1, 2017 at 5:16 am

    My husband and I have an 8-hour layover at Ataturk airport in early May, but the 8 hours are 4 p.m. – midnight. Do you have any advice for us?

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