Choosing an airline from another when catching connecting flights depends on multiple factors; timing, price, airline reputation, past experience, airport facilities and also when possible visiting the surroundings you are stopping. Whenever we stop at Istanbul airport we love visiting the city and sometimes increase our time between a flight and the next one (especially now that we are travelling with our daughter) to get a good rest and visit a new area in the city. We have just visited Istanbul for our 4th layover. Check out my first taste of Istanbul here. This was the first long layover in the new airport as the previous ones were in the old Ataturk airport. Here is some basic information about your layover in Istanbul.
Istanbul is served by two international airports; the new Istanbul Airport (IST) and the Sabiha Gökçen Airport (SAW). Make sure to be aware in which airport your flights will land and depart from as these two airports are quite distant from each other. Istanbul airport is located on the European side in Arnavutköy, while the Sabiha Gökçen airport is located on the Asian side in Pendik. Both of the airports are located some 1hour away from the centre. Getting to/from the airport to the centre from the new Istanbul airport is easier when done through a prebooked taxi which will cost around 40 Euros (especially for families or groups). A prebooked taxi will cost approximately the same amount for both airports, since the distance is quite similar. If you prefer public transport, there are several shuttle bus lines from the airport to the centre. Official information and booking shuttle buses can be done here.
Choosing whether to visit the centre of Istanbul depends on the length of your layover; since both airports are quite distant from the centre and the traffic in Istanbul is a nightmare. I suggest going out of the airport only if you have a layover which is longer than 6 hours. The security and passport checks are quite long so you need to keep that in mind as well. If your layover happens to be during the night there are a selection of airport hotels near both airports (the choice is quite limited so far near the new Istanbul airport, however new airport hotels are opening very fast in Arnavutköy). You may also wish to benefit from Turkish Airlines Touristanbul free tours offered to passengers which have layovers of 6 hours or more. I myself have been on one of these tours and they are very efficient especially when you have limited time; you join a bus tour around the city which sometimes even includes lunch/dinner and a guide will give you some basic information on some of the highlights of the city.
Choosing where to stay
If you are visiting Istanbul for a short period of time you may wish to focus on just one area. Istanbul is a huge city, home to over 15 million people and the attractions are sparsed all over the city. The main touristic area is the eastern/European side and most of the hotels are located there.
The main 3 districts where I would suggest basing yourself, especially if you are a first time visitor are;
- Sultanahmet area (Fatih District)
- Galata Tower and Galata Bridge area (Karaköy District)
- Taksim Square area (Beyoğlu District)
Public transport in Istanbul is the the best way to get around. There is a good selection of modes which include buses, metro, trams and ferries. Make sure to buy your tickets before using any transport as tickets are not sold on board. You can either choose to buy the Istanbulkart (several vending machines in major bus stops around the city or directly at the airport), or else you can buy single tickets for each journey using the same machines. All the official information about the public transport in Istanbul can be found here.
Now let’s skip to the most popular places to visit in Istanbul grouped by district.
Places to visit in Istanbul
This is the most popular area to visit if you have a shorter layover. If you are sticking to just one area than I would suggest sticking to this one. The main attractions in Fatih are:
- The Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Camii)
- Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts (Türk ve İslam Eserleri Müzesi)
- Hagia Sophia (Ayasofia Camii)
- Topkapi Palace (Topkapı Sarayı Müzesi)
- Grand Bazaar (Kapalı Çarşı)
- Basilica Cistern which has just reopened after restoration (Yerebatan Sarnıcı)
- Istanbul Archaeological Museums (İstanbul Arkeoloji Müzeleri)
- Gülhane Park (Gülhane Parkı)
All the above atractions are located within walking distance from one another. I have included the names in Turkish since sometimes you only find signs (on public transport for example) in Turkish and the names are quite different, so it might get confusing.
In the same district but further north are also:
- The colourful Fener/Balat district
- Suleymaniye Mosque (Süleymaniye Camii)
- Spice Bazaar (Mısır Çarşısı)
Karaköy and Beyoğlu Districts
This is also a nice area to base yourself, especially if this is not your first time in Istanbul. It is well connected through public transport and easy to get around on foot as well. Here are the main attractions in the district:
- Galata Bridge (Galata Köprüsü)
- Galata Tower (Galata Kulesi)
- Whirling Devrishes Museum (Galata Mevlevihanesi Müzesi)
- Istanbul Museum of Modern Art (İstanbul Modern Sanat Müzesi)
- Istiklal Road – famous shopping street – (Istiklal Caddesi)
- Taksim Square (Taksim Meydanı) and the adjacent park
Other places to visit
Istanbul is a big and vibrant city and the attractions are not limited to the ones mentioned above. There are several other attractions sparsed across the city which you may wish to include, especially if you are staying for a longer period of time.
- Dolmabahçe Palace (Dolmabahçe Sarayı) – located in Beşiktaş district
- Ortaköy Square and Mosque (Ortaköy Meydanı) – located in Beşiktaş district
- Maiden’s Tower (Kız Kulesi) – located on the small island on the Sea of Marmara facing Üsküdar district