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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.