I’m sure I’m not the only one who has recently discovered that Turkish Airlines has some incredible deals on airfare from the East Coast to Europe, Middle East, and Asia. Most of these deals require a looong layover in Istanbul, which may or may not be completely out of the way of your final destination, but hey! It’s an opportunity to explore Istanbul (not Constantinople) if only for a few hours. It’s totally worth it. Here is some information about what awesome things you can feasibly do during your layover in Istanbul:
We (me, my sister and my friend) had TWO long layovers on our way to and from our trip to Asia & Australia. Not only did it give us a chance to explore this amazing city I’ve heard so much about, but it also gave us some time to breathe in the fresh air before boarding yet another plane. Ten flights in two weeks…it was nice to stretch out our legs a bit in between.
When we arrived at the Ataturk airport in the afternoon, we followed the signs to take the metro into the city. Make sure to stop at the ATM to get some Turkish lira first. It would also be a good idea to download a currency exchange app on your smartphone to know how much money you’re actually taking out (they only show amounts in lira). My favorite is called Currency for the iPhone. You’re going to need small change to buy your tickets at the machines (don’t worry–they have instructions in English). Stop at Starbucks on the way to get small change (if necessary), and why not buy a drink/snack and use the free WiFi to let your mom know you arrived safely (necessary).
The main metro stop downtown is called Sultanahmet. Write that down. Memorize it, cherish it, love it. It’s where you want to be. Make sure you switch trains at Zeytinburnu. This is a lot to remember. Trust me, I know. You know what? It’s easier if you just print out and follow the Turkey Travel Planner’s directions. You’ll save a lot of money and you won’t have to worry about sketchy taxi drivers. The trip to/from the airport on the metro takes about an hour (which can be a lot faster than a taxi if there’s traffic. Note: there WILL be traffic).
Explore Sultanahmet & Eminönü:
Ok, now let’s get to the good stuff. There are lots of photo ops (this is where your selfie stick comes in handy) outside the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, both beautiful buildings. We didn’t get to go inside the Blue Mosque because we arrived during prayer time (when tourists aren’t allowed to go in), but we did get to explore the inner courtyard. It was peaceful. The Blue Mosque was unlike any building I’ve seen, with its minarets and cascading domes. We did a little window shopping nearby and pressed our noses on the glass in front of all the colorful displays of Turkish delight and handicrafts. Also in the area is the Topkapi Palace, which unfortunately we didn’t have time to explore, but I hear it’s amazing.
I really enjoyed walking through the small, narrow streets of the historic Old Town in the Eminönü neighborhood, eating free samples of cheese, honeycomb, and Turkish delight at the Spice market, and hearing stories about the Orient Express at the historic Sirkeci station.
Dinner at Hamdi Restaurant:
We were fortunate enough to have an amazing guide–my friend from college who now lives in Istanbul. She took us to some of the best spots, including an amazing restaurant called Hamdi Restaurant. Go. Dine. Enjoy. If possible, request a table on the top floor, as it has the most amazing floor-to-ceiling views of the Galata bridge over the Golden Horn, as well as of a nearby mosque. The service was incredible (by the end of the meal, you’ll be facebook friends with all your adorable twenty-something waiters). The atmosphere was vibrant and the food was out of this world. I loved the hummus. We tried a few different kebabs (all good–especially the lamb), as well as a plate of cold appetizers (can’t remember the names). So good.
Walk across the Galata bridge:
After dinner, we walked across the two-story Galata bridge, an experience in and of itself. I’d recommend walking across the top in one direction (say hi to all the friendly local fishermen for me), then across the bottom of the bridge past all the fish markets on your way back. Across the bridge, we found the best baklava in Istanbul: Karaköy Güllüoğlu. OK, OK, it’s the ONLY baklava we tried in Istanbul, but it was pretty darn good! Order a plate (or two) with a mixed variety for your group so you can try one of each, including pistachio, walnut, and my all-time fav… chocolate baklava. It’s a popular spot for locals, so grab a table as soon as you see one, and enjoy!
Can you believe we did all of the above in about 5 hours? I’m not kidding. And that’s with a two-hour dinner, walking around the city, stopping everywhere to take selfies, and we didn’t even feel rushed. It’s helpful if you have someone to take you around like we did, but if you don’t, just jot down the top 2-3 things you want to do and map it out before you get there to save time.
Turkish Bath at a 16th century Hamam:
We had a second layover in Istanbul on our way back to the States (another 5 hours). This time, we arrived at 5 a.m. and took the metro (we were experts at taking the metro by then!) straight to 16th century Cemberlitas Hamam for a Turkish bath!! We had an incredible experience. They greeted us with a soothing cup of apple tea while we waited to be called into the changing room. They give you a small bag with a traditional Turkish wrap called a peştamal, soap, and undies for modesty. You lie down on a large circular heated marble platform in the middle of a hot room (like a sauna) and just sweat it out, looking up at the domed ceiling with holes to let in the natural light. The room is small and intimate with beautiful architectural details from the 16th century, including pillars, arched entrances to the bathing stations, and marble for days. An attendant will come in after awhile and bathe you with the most luxurious bubbles. The attendants are nice and will crack a smile once in awhile, but be aware the only thing they seem to know how to say in English is “Lady turn over!” (haha) Exfoliate, rinse, massage, repeat, for 15 minutes. They dump buckets and buckets of soothing warm water on you, then escort you over to the bathing station to wash your hair. “The water touches your soul,” it says on their website. Well, they were right. We easily spent 4 hours at the hamam, and I loved every single minute. On the way out, I bought one of their famous freshly squeezed pomegranate and orange juices, which is to die for!!
Souvenir shopping at the Grand Bazaar:
The famous 15th century Grand Bazaar (marketplace) was right down the street from the Turkish bath, so we walked over to explore it for a bit before heading back to the airport to catch our flight home. It’s a maze of color, smells, magic carpets, evil eyes, and lights. Be sure to take note of landmarks or stores you passed otherwise you might never find your way back out! If you like shopping, being catcalled, haggling prices (and most likely getting ripped off), pushing past crowds and crowds of tourists, then this is definitely the place for you! I’m not much of a souvenir person, so it wasn’t my favorite place in the world, but I thought it was worth it to check out for about an hour. We did have some fun bantering with the merchants (make sure you pack your sense of humor!).They’ll say almost anything to get your attention. They love Americans. They have a cousin that lives by you. You look like the Spice Girls, etc, etc. Also worth a short visit if “Shopping at the world’s first shopping mall ever built” is on your bucket list (wasn’t on mine, but I’m not one to judge). 😉
So, Istanbul. Oh, Istanbul. It’s one of the greatest cities in the world. A historical city with good food, friendly people (maybe too friendly? lots of flirty flirts from the men folks) and beautiful architecture. It’s difficult to describe the sounds, smells, and flavors of the city, so that’s something you’ll have to experience for yourself. Would I go back? Yes, but probably not as a destination. I’m thinking I’d love to go back to Turkey some day to go on a hot air balloon ride in Cappadocia (definitely on my bucket list) and would not be disappointed if I had a stopover along the way. Give me a layover in Istanbul any day, and you’ll definitely find me either at the Turkish baths or people-watching on a park bench in Sultanahmet with Doner Kebab in one hand and a freshly squeezed pomegranate juice in the other.