When booking our flight from Belgrade to Tel Aviv, we had several possibilities regarding the length of the layover in Istanbul (for the same price). We opted for an 18-hour overnight stay, which provided us just enough time for a quick tour. Our hotel of choice was the 5* Elite World Europe Hotel near the Ataturk Airport (1 night cost only EUR 47 on Booking.com), which I would highly recommend – the room was modern, clean and spacious. Plus, they have scarlet macaws as pets!
After arriving at the airport, be prepared for a very long passport control queue – we waited for more than 1,5 hours. The hotel actually provided a free airport shuttle, but as we missed it because of the queues, we took a taxi for 20 Turkish Lira. After check-in, we were off to the centre (again, the hotel provided a shuttle to Sultanahmet Square or Taksim Square free of charge).
1 Turkish Lira (TL) = approx. EUR, $ 0,25 (for easier calculation, divide by 4)
Tip: Turkish Airlines offers free guided tours of Istanbul for transfer passengers, covering also meals and entrance fees. Check if your arrival time overlaps with any of the tours (in our case, it didn’t).
I must stress that we arrived to Istanbul after attending my best friend’s wedding in Belgrade, Serbia and after just a 3-hour sleep, so we decided not to worry about missing any of the sights – after all, we will surely visit the city again on another occasion.
Istanbul, which was historically known as Constantinople and Byzantium, is huge, and the most populous city in Turkey (with approx. 14,7 million people), spreading across both Europe and Asia.
Our short itinerary consisted of Sultanahmet Square with views over Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque from the outside, a visit to the nearby Basilica Cistern, a walk through the Spice Bazaar toward and across the Galata Bridge and admiring the panorama of the city from the Galata Tower. Unfortunately, the Grand Bazaar, which we had planned to visit, is closed on Sundays.
Ayasofya or Hagia Sophia (also, the Church of Holy Wisdom), which is now a museum and a symbol of a secular Turkey, was once a Greek Orthodox church and later an Imperial Mosque. Occasionally, there are debates about turning this historical building back into a practising mosque (and closing it for the public). The famous Sultan Ahmet Camii or the Blue Mosque, which is fully operational, is located just opposite of Hagia Sophia. Around the corner, the Basilica Cistern – built under the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I – is the largest ancient cistern beneath the city of Istanbul, famous also for two Medusa column bases. It is open until 6:30 pm during the summer and the ticket cost is 20 TL pp. The Galata Tower is located across the Galata bridge (at a walking distance from Sultanahmet Square) and offers spectacular views over the city. The entrance fee is a tad expensive (25 TL pp), but worth it. Just make sure to get there in time, as the tower closes at 8:30 pm and there is a l o n g queue to enter.
All the mentioned sights are quite close to each other, so the tour, including stops for food and refreshment, only took us 5 hours and approximately 10 kilometres of walking. Everything is quite easy to find and you can also ask the locals for directions – just be patient, mostly the people there have a poor knowledge of English, but everybody is very kind and willing to help. Other popular tourist attractions include the Hippodrome of Constantinople, Topkapi Palace, Dolmabahçe Palace, Süleymaniye Mosque, the Bosphorus Cruise and several more.
Istanbul is a busy, vibrant and colourful city. In between roaming its streets, stop for a Kebab, drink some tea or a glass of the refreshing pomegranate juice and of course grab a Turkish coffee. The temperatures in July are around 30°C (86°F), so make sure to buy enough water as you go.
As the layover will be over before you know it, plan to be at the airport in time, i.e. at least two hours before the scheduled flight (especially due to long passport control and security queues). The taxi from the centre to our hotel (close to the airport) cost us 65 TL.
Until next time, Istanbul!