Travel presents itself to us in so many ways. From domestic to international, from road trip to cruise, travel never seems to run out of options. One of those quirky travel moments shows up in the extended layover-and Istanbul is a huge layover airport. Think about it. A layover is the perfect way to test the waters in a new place before totally committing to it. Moreover, layovers are the perfect way to see those little places that are often overlooked. (I’m talking to you, Copenhagen!) Even the great Bourdain chose to highlight the benefits of a layover with an entire series! Further, more and more of us travelers are routing our trips to include these little pop up moments in our plans. I know I certainly have!
Consider this; after booking a cruise (Istanbul to Athens), how could I possibly fly in to the re-imagined Constantinople and just hop on a ship? How could I not take at least 24 hours to explore this city of cities? Thankfully, I seized the moment and Istanbul did not disappoint! With a flight landing at 7 in the morning and my connection not until 5 pm tomorrow, I’ve got time to check out glorious Istanbul.
Spend the day with the icons.
Here’s the deal. No matter what city you are in, the icons are icons for a reason! And, while I could totally tell you about lots of back street finds that no one knows about, the reality is that whether you have 24 hours or 2 to 4 weeks, icons matter! And when it comes to icons, Istanbul delivers in a big way. In fact, five of the must sees in this ancient town are quite hefty. They are so important to historical understanding, they should be your first stop. Conveniently, these three gems are lined up in a neat row to help economize your time.
The Blue Mosque
Start at the mighty Blue Mosque. The Sultanahmet Camii is the official name for this architectural wonder. Built over just seven years in the early 1600’s at the height of Ahmed I. It’s important to remember that the mosque does not solely function as a tourist attraction as it’s primary purpose is as a religious center complete with a madrasa and hospice. This means that there are times when tourists are not allowed in. But on the flip side, I have been in Istanbul in peak season and there was no line at all to enter and enjoy.
All in all, be sure to time your arrival so you don’t have any bumps in the road. So why in the world has it earned the nickname the Blue Mosque? The answer lies in the tiles that cover the inside. So, leave your shoes at the door and walk inside. I highly suggest a guide so that you can appreciate the details like the subtle pattern in the carpet that indicate personal space and the calligraphy that is artfully incorporated across the space. (Ladies, bring a scarf for your head if that isn’t your habit.)
Just down the street is Hagia Sofia. Take moment and grab a snack from one of the colorful vendors as you walk toward this treasure so you can take in the splendor of your surroundings. Then, enter the museum. Predating the Blue Mosque by almost 1000 years, this present day mosque comes with quite a complex past. As it changed hands from one empire to another and one religion to another, the sanctuary has acquired literal layers of history that have been peeled back to provide quite an interesting insight.
Again, a guide is strongly suggested so that you spend your visit focused on what makes the building a spectacular example of history. (And looking for the resident cats.) Notice the way the Muslim fixtures concern themselves with facing Mecca while the earlier Christian installations were obviously centered around the architecture of the building. As you leave the great church, take a few moments to enjoy your last moments on Sultanahmet Square as you continue through the streets toward…
Just a 10 minute walk away is another Istanbul standard. You have entered the grounds of Topkapi Palace. This grand palace takes you back to the times of sultans and harems. However, unlike your last two stops, feel free to take the standard tour as the palace’s tour guides do a great job of explaining the relics and priceless jewels that all good sultans must possess. Take in the different spaces of the “Cannon Gate” Palace and note the amazing way the Ottoman Empire made it all work! While the palace fell out of fashion and the last sultans moved on, this UNESCO World Heritage site does a great job of telling the Ottoman narrative. Once you have finished soaking up history, it’s time to relax and take in modern Istanbul.
Soak up the modern Istanbul.
Istanbul has tons of historic sites to tour but, don’t be fooled! Istanbul is far more than its past. Modern, day to day Istanbul has a charm and electricity that is uniquely its own. With tons of neighborhoods to poke around in, there’s something for everyone. And life in Istanbul centers on its water. The Bosphorus Straights. Depending on your time, consider taking a ferry ride to get a true feel for how important this narrow slice of water is!
Take a seat in Ortaköy.
Tucked under the Bosphorus bridge, the Ortaköy neighborhood is a delightful area. Meander down windy, twisty streets that eventually open up to the water. Then, choose a table at one of the numerous cafes and relax. The choppy straights are right in front of you and the Ortaköy Plaza is full of life. While you choose off the menu, notice the local cats as they dodge the waves. Enjoy the evening in this little corner of Istanbul, soak in the atmosphere of houka and turkish dishes and let it all delight the senses.
Get your shop on, Istanbul style.
Start you morning with a walk over the Galata bridge. Grab a coffee. This busy bridge serves as the connection between the northern and southern areas of Istanbul. As you walk across the span take in the morning catch as fishing boats start to moor and set up shop. It may be breakfast time but go for a fresh fish sandwich from one of the fishermen that are rocking away on the water.
Just a short walk away is the Spice Bazaar. The morning is buzzing with homemakers and chefs all jostling for the best deal. Quite simply, it’s a photographer’s dream. It’s smaller than its big Grand brother but well worth the stop to see pile after pile, basket after basket of all that goodness! Spend some time roaming around and when you feel confident enough, give haggling a go with one of the aggressive but amiable vendors.
The Grand Dame
Now that you’ve gotten your haggling confidence down, head over to the maze that is the Grand Bazaar. Lanterns, houkas, rugs, and turkish coffee pots assault your senses as you wander through the labyrinth of alleys filled with vendors and their wares. Take the bait. Go into a turkish rug shop and let them unfurl their stock with panache and show you how each rug is signed by the artist. You won’t be upsetting anyone when you say no. Someone will be along soon enough who will enjoy their new purchase.
The Grand Bazaar has been ebbing and flowing with Istanbul’s population for more than 500 years. It truly is the heartbeat of the city and can be enjoyed by and kind of traveler. If you love getting lost on your own, this may be the best place in the world to do that. Conversely, plenty of guided tours exist for those travelers who are more comfortable with someone to help them take in the scene. Either way, you won’t regret it!
Finish up your whirlwind of a tour.
With the small amount of time you have left, I have one more suggestion to finish out your time. An interesting, often overlooked aspect of Turkish culture is the Mevlevi Order of Sufism better known as the Whirling Dervishes. With a 700 year old history, these religious men, will share their prayer and meditation ritual with visitors. Check out this clip (about half way in) from Rick Steves for a look at how learning about these slices of culture is a benefit to any traveler.
You’ve done it! Taking in a city of Istanbul’s magnitude in just a day is a tall order. It takes a bit of planning and a lot of jet lagged time but, it’s totally worth it! It’s that moment of travel when you say to yourself “I can sleep on the plane”. There are a few tips that can make your layover a true success.
- Over plan to ensure a smooth layover. Nothing will ruin your travels more than something going drastically wrong at the very beginning or end of your trip.
- Consider making your layover an overnight affair. An early flight in and a late flight out on the next day will make the most of your time.
- Be bag smart. Check your main luggage into storage at the airport so you only need to handle a light bag with your overnight items.
- Research the amount of time you will need to get to and from the airport. In Copenhagen, you are in the city center in less than 20 minutes but in Istanbul it can take up to two hours. Additionally, be well versed on local airport procedures so you have a smooth check in process.
- Give yourself a break. Extended layovers can become a marathon while you try to cram in as much as possible. Have a great list to guide you but, remember, if you don’t get to all of it, you can always go back!