Things to Do on a Layover in Istanbul

2A4PE59 A couple walks the hilly Galata Karakoy district with the Bosphorus River, Asia and Golden Horn in the distance in Istanbul, Turkey.
2A4PE59 A couple walks the hilly Galata Karakoy district with the Bosphorus River, Asia and Golden Horn in the distance in Istanbul, Turkey. | © Kirk Fisher / Alamy
Feride Yalav-Heckeroth

If you have more than three hours until your next flight out of Istanbul, there’s a few things you can do to make the best of your time. Thanks to the city’s excellent public transport, it’s very easy to reach a few neighborhoods that can be explored within a few hours, without getting stuck in traffic and possibly missing your plane. So store your bags at the airport and check out these activities – beats sitting around waiting for your flight.

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Take a tour of Sultanahmet Square

Hagia Sophia in Istanbul looking resplendent under the warm glow of winter sunshine

Getting to Sultanahmet from the airport is a breeze on Istanbul’s Metro. Take the M1A to Zeytinburnu and then transfer to the T1 tram line, which goes directly to the Sultanahmet stop. From here, you’re just steps away from Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, and the Basilica Cistern, which are all close to each other at Sultanahmet Square. You can also visit Topkapı Palace, a five-minute walk from Hagia Sophia, and if you have a lot of time, check out the Istanbul Archeology Museum, which is right across from the palace.

Go shopping at the Grand Bazaar

If you’re in the mood to shop, especially for souvenirs and some serious Turkish goods, take the T1 tram to Çemberlitaş and walk right into the Grand Bazaar. One of the world’s largest covered markets, the maze-like streets are lined with stalls selling everything from ceramics and antiques to textiles and jewelry. If you work up an appetite while you’re here, make a beeline for one of the many food vendors serving up aromatic and cheap eats.

Explore Eminönü and the Spice Bazaar

Many people walk, browse and sell in the tall Spice Bazaar

For the globetrotting gourmets among us, Mısır Çarşısı, or the Spice Bazaar, is an exceptional food-shopping experience. Take the T1 tramline to Eminönü and stroll around the market to pick up fresh local cheeses, spices, Turkish delight, tea, dried fruits, nuts, and so much more. If you happen to be hungry, Hamdi Restaurant just happens to serve some of the best kebab in the city – simply look for the discernible building in the middle of the square (clue: large sign). Enjoy some excellent kebab varieties and lahmacun (Turkish “pizza” with minced meat) on the restaurant’s top floor, which also has a beautiful view of the cityscape.

Stroll around Karaköy

Hipster neighbourhood Karaköy in Istanbul is crammed with coffee joints, art galleries and trendy bars

If you’ve been to Istanbul before and would rather see something beyond the typical tourist hotspots, continue on the T1 tram all the way to Karaköy and explore this hip neighborhood on foot. Formerly one of the city’s most important ports and centers of commerce, Karaköy is now full of trendy boutiques, cafés, galleries, and restaurants, located around the Necatibey, Hoca Tahsin, and Mumhane streets. An excellent pit stop for food is Karaköy Lokantası, where you can sample Turkish classics in a modern environment.

Discover the Balat neighborhood

If you have a bit more time and are an enthusiast of historic buildings, then Balat is your perfect layover destination. Take the T1 tramline to Eminönü and then hop on the 36CE bus to the Fener stop. From here, you can start your stroll at the Ecunemical Patriarchate of Istanbul (which includes the Church of St. George) and continue along Yıldırım and Vodina streets to see all the beautiful, old Greek Orthodox houses, as well as the new cafés and shops that have sprung up over the past few years.

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