Layover in Istanbul? Here’s What You Need
If you’re lucky to have a layover in the beautiful exotic city of Istanbul, then depending on how long your layover is, you can plan to explore the city in a few short hours! Both the New Istanbul Airport and the Asian side’s Sabiha Gökçen Airport take you to two different parts of the city centre — Beyoğlu and the Old city or Fatih separated by the Golden Horn and to Asia where Kadıköy is, respectively.
The keyword is “plan”, as Istanbul is notorious for its traffic and can be daunting for first-timers who don’t know the language or aren’t frequent travellers ready to deal with the intricacies of metro changes and some potential delays.
More importantly, layovers less than 5 hours aren’t worth the stress as you’ll need at least 3 hours in total to get to the city and come back. Furthermore, if you do choose to venture, you could probably only get yourself to Taksim or just Kadıköy and will have to head back almost immediately! That is, you’ll need more time to get to the old city if you want to see the Blue Mosque or Hagia Sofia, or go to one of the seaside green spaces or promenades to take an amazing selfie with the city’s famous bridges.
Instead, we recommend that you choose the easy path: enjoy the airport’s facilities, restaurants, cafes and duty-free. Don’t forget to grab a meal and get familiarized with Turkish cuisine via the 100+ restaurants and cafes available at the new airport, for instance.
The following guide to exploring Istanbul during an airport layover will provide some helpful tips and what to see and do, and taste in a jiffy, just in time to catch your next flight to your next destination!
Getting to Istanbul from the Airport
You’ll need two hours or so to get to and back from the city and it’s best to plan for a bit more. The rest of the time can be used to explore this wonderful city. Metro stations are marked and easy to find and so are buses stations with clear signs on where to go to catch the metro or the buses. You can alternatively ask a local if you know where you’re going or the name of the place and they’re sure to help you out!
To get to the city centres, there are a few options for transportation, both private and public. Firstly, there are private buses called HAVAIST from the Istanbul Airport that take a direct route to different parts of the city. The ticket is 25 Liras and you pay on the bus itself by cash or credit card. Secondly, there are buses going to different parts of the city. On the Asian side, there’s the HAVABUS shuttle and it’ll cost 14 Liras for a ticket to Kadıköy.
Getting to and from the New Istanbul Airport is currently only available by taxi, private hire buses and public buses. Alternatively, if you have enough hours you can rent a car and explore Istanbul at your own leisure. The journey takes approximately 1.5 hours, depending on traffic. As the airport is new there are still some improvements that are needed, including its app.
Take the HAVAIST bus to Taksim as it also stops in Beşiktaş, another hub of the city. On the other hand, public buses take you to major transportation hubs such as Mecidiyeköy-Şişli. Do check out the guide on how to use the metro in Istanbul. From Mecidiyeköy, you can take the metro to Taksim or Vezneciler (which is close to the old city and its Ottoman sites) stations and then take a stroll in the respective areas.
From Sabiha Gökçen Airport, there are again, both private and public bus options. The journey takes approximately an hour give or take, depending on traffic.
Take the HAVABUS shuttle to the city centre but it also stops at Yeni Sahra on the way. However, the best public bus is the E11 bus. The route is direct without stopping in many places, which saves you time. The bus’s last stop is the Kadıköy pier.
The downtown part of Kadıköy is extremely walkable and if you have a map, you can easily navigate and walk all the way to the quaint neighbourhood of Moda. From the Kadıköy centre, buy a ticket for the nostalgic tramway that goes all the way to Moda and back.
Attractions to See & Neighbourhoods to Visit
When you get off the metro in Vezneciler, before heading to the typical sites in Sultanahmet, you can walk towards the Suleymaniye Complex to see the beautiful Suleymaniye Mosque. Later, head to the Grand Bazaar not far away but not before taking a quick peek at the Sahaflar market or the second-hand books market.
From here, you can take a 15 min walk to Sultanahmet Square and explore the area. See the Hagia Sofia, the Blue Mosque and other sites such as the Hippodrome, the Obelisk of Theodosius and the Basilica Cistern. Image sourced from Flickr
With more time, a visit to the Topkapı Palace is a must to see the splendour of the Ottoman sultans. Devote at least one hour here to appreciate the palace and its beautiful pavilions, terraces and tiles.
Later, you can visit the Archaeological Museums, the Carpet Museum and rest your legs at Gülhane park beside the palace. Then, take a break at the tea garden at the far end of the park. Here, enjoy an unparalleled view of the Bosphorus and the Maiden’s Tower in the distance. You can visit the mosques except during prayer times. For other sites such as museums, you may have to wait in line for some time depending on how popular they are.
If you want to explore just the European part of Istanbul, then you can get off at the Taksim or Şişhane. They’re both at either end of Istiklal Avenue and you can choose to get off in Taksim. Take a nice long stroll on the avenue and check out some local boutiques, have a drink or enjoy a meal.
Moreover, you can also go into the smaller streets to check out historical places such as the gallerias all along this street. A famous one called Çiçek Pasajı was a former flower’s market. Right beside this arcade, you can venture into the Beyoğlu fish market to get some local souvenirs. Grab some freshly caught and cooked fish, local honey or sweets. Not far, you’ll find the local bar street called Nevizade serving local rakı and if you’re lucky to get there in the evenings, you’ll enjoy the milieu of people winding down, enjoying a drink and time out with friends.
On the other hand, if you fancy a Turkish spa experience, then head to the local hammam or public bathhouse such as Ağa hammam not far away.
A little further down, you’ll find two art galleries: Pera Museum and Istanbul Modern and catch their current exhibits. Visit Istanbul’s famous bookstores on this street: Robinson Crusoe 389 and Denizler Bookshop. Grab a souvenir in the form of local books, rare manuscripts or coffee table books to take home.
At the end of the street, you’ll find Şişhane and where some great bars are too. There’s also the historic lodge turned museum of the dervishes here, the Galata Mevlevihanesi museum. Attending a show here should be on your to-do list! Witness an amazing experience in the form of a Sema ceremony conducted by whirling dervishes.
A few minutes downhill from Şişhane, you’ll be near the Galata Tower. If you’re there early, then lines are shorter but you can take a stroll around it if time’s short. A short walk away you’ll find one of the best art galleries in Istanbul, SALT Galata. Kick your feet up for a bit and explore the Ottoman Bank museum here. This historical building was originally the location for the Ottoman Bank. The place also doubles as a well-stocked, multi-lingual library and operates a cafe as well.
Not far, you’ll find Karaköy and the Kılıç Ali Paşa hammam. The whole area is known for its unique cafes, restaurants and boutiques. In fact, part of the area is currently under construction and will see this area redeveloped and will look amazing.
The Asian side of Istanbul can be divided into four areas – the Kadıköy centre, the other side that’s now quite popular, Yeldeğirmeni, Moda and the Bağdat Avenue. If you have enough time, you can explore at least two, at most three of these neighbourhoods.
From the seaside, you can explore the smaller streets or walk up to the famous bull statue. From the pier, you can walk the seaside promenade that can even take you all the way to Moda — the view of the old city and the European side here is amazing!
Similarly, venture to the Yeldeğirmeni neighbourhood and explore the local boutiques, cafes and markets there and buy a few souvenirs.
On the other hand, Bağdat Avenue is a bit further away from the other three but it’s a shopping haven.
Places to Eat
If you’re in the city early in the day, Beşiktaş has a street dedicated to just breakfast and brunch, try pişi with Turkish breakfast at Pişi Breakfast & Burger Beşiktaş. Finish off your breakfast with Kahve or Turkish coffee. Check out our coffee guide to find the best coffeehouses in Istanbul.
If you’re near the Galata Tower, then go to Şirin Firin Bakery a few minutes away from the Galata Tower. Alternatively, grab a seat at the Galata Konak Cafe and enjoy a lovely afternoon there. This cafe has one of the best rooftop views, so enjoy staring into the distance at the 360-degree view from its terrace. Find more rooftop restaurants from our article here.
Karaköy’s many wonderful cafes and restaurants. You’ll probably find something to your liking here. For example, Fil Books is a cute bright cafe that doubles as a bookstore too. If you want to taste Turkish desserts, then definitely try Karaköy Gülluoğlu with some delicious local sweets on display here. You can also try some local breakfast at Namli Gürme. We’ve included more details in our Turkish breakfast guide (Europe) here.
If you want Turkish street food such a fish sandwich or Lahmacun, you could get lucky with individual peddlers around this area of the Galata Bridge. Check out our street food guide to know more about it!
When you get off the bus in Kadıköy centre, you’ll be nearby the water. Walk away from the sea to explore the streets, full of boutiques, cafes and restaurants. You can ask where Starbucks is, the area’s meeting point and from there, head inside the neighbourhood.
If you want to try some world-renowned Turkish fare, head directly to Çiya. Regional and Anatolian village dishes are on the menu here, something you won’t find anywhere else in Kadıköy. The restaurant and its chef were featured in an entire episode of Netflix’s Chef’s Table. If you want to try local thin crust baked flatbread, try Lahmacun at Borsam Taşfırın nearby.
On Bağdat Avenue, which is a bit further away, you can combine shopping with food. Try sushi at SushiCo or spicy chicken wings with beer at Bibuçuk.