If you’re contemplating a one-day layover in Istanbul, or thinking about how to see (at least some of) Istanbul in one day, three things:
1. Yes, it’s possible. In fact, it’s awesome.
2. Don’t even think about wearing flip-flops, flats, or anything less than an orthopedic shoe (I’m only partially kidding. My aching feet beseech you…bring good walking shoes!).
3. Read on for more tips on getting through the airport, getting your hands on some local currency, and how to get the most out of your 12-24 hours in this incredible city.
Note: this post was first written and published in June 2014, but a lot has changed since then! All information in this post has been re-verified and updated as of April 2019.
Why I Decided A 1 Day Layover in Istanbul Was a Good Idea
When I moved from New York to Beijing, I became overly familiar with the concept of a layover. The whole book-the-cheaper-connecting-flight-and-find-yourself-four-months-later-nursing-a-stale-sandwich-in-the-Toronto-Airport thing got kind of old.
I decided one day, however, to change my layover philosophy. On one particular trip between the US and China, I happened across a ticket from New York back to Beijing with a layover in Istanbul. A long layover–19 hours and 33 minutes, to be exact.
It was a cheaper ticket in a sea of overpriced hell-no’s, and despite the fact that my flight time would actually be closer to 19 hours rather than the usual 13, and the fact that I would be most likely be a bloodshot sleepwalker by the end of it, I booked it.
In the brief, blissful hours I had with Istanbul, I came to the following conclusion: I will travel like this as often as I can.
Why waste a perfectly good round-trip ticket between the U.S. and China when there’s all that unexplored territory between them?
Of course, while this article was first published back in 2014 (with updates through April 2019), the political situation in Turkey is evolving and changing. As with any trip abroad, make sure to check any travel advisories for your intended destination!
Straddling Asia and Europe with the Bosphorus Strait cutting through the city, Istanbul is truly at a crossroads.
Know that if you plan to spend just one day there, you certainly won’t get to see everything, but you will be able to easily see most of the biggest sites in the Old City, all of which are within short walking distance of each other.
Somehow the brevity of the whole experience makes it all the more intense and enjoyable.
But without at least some planning, it can be a stressful, rather than exploratory day. So, without further ado, here are some things to consider:
1. Getting Your Turkish Visa
You need a visa to get out of the airport, even if it’s just for a day.
Good news though! You can get it online. It only costs $20.70 ($20 plus a $0.70 service fee) for American citizens to get an e-visa online, and you literally just fill in some information, pay online, print it out, and present the printout along with your passport to immigration when you arrive.
For more info on the Turkish e-visa, head to the FAQ page on the Republic of Turkey e-visa application website.
(In 2017, there was a brief time when U.S. citizens weren’t eligible for an e-visa for various political reasons, but e-visa services have since resumed!)
It’s best to get this done before you leave. You can buy the visa in the airport, but you don’t want to waste your precious time in Turkey trying to get your visa in order. Get your Turkish Visa in advance here. It takes all of five minutes!
2. Navigating Istanbul
Time to figure out where you want to go!
I found that Istanbul is pretty easy to navigate, but you definitely have to think about what your priorities are.
The city is divided into the European Side and the Asian Side. The Asian side is mostly residential, so it’s probably best to stick to the European.
But the city is also divided into the Old City (Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Grand Bazaar, etc.), and the new district (Taksim Square, more authentic food, shopping, etc.).
It seems kind of antithetical to the generally romantic notion of a fleeting visit to a new city before jetting off somewhere else to plan something as pedestrian and regimented as an itinerary.
But trust me, if you have a clear idea of where you’d like to go and how you’re going to get there, you’ll be a lot less stressed out when you arrive.
Pick a guidebook and make a plan. I’d recommend Rick Steves’ Istanbul. Sure, Rick Steves may be the guidebook of choice for those over the age of 50, but it was the most thorough, helpful book that I found. I would have been wandering the Metro like an aimless fool if I hadn’t had it.
Take some time to figure out what you’d like to do with your brief time there. I’ll tell you more about what I did later in this article, but I think for an Istanbul noob, staying in the Old City is your best bet.
As I mentioned earlier, all of the Old City sites are within walking distance, and you can really see a LOT in one day.
Another great tip is to download an offline map of Istanbul using Google Maps and keep it on your phone for the trip. This will allow you to navigate, even if your phone is offline.
3. Get to know what days things are open and what days they’re not.
Some tourist sites are closed on certain days of the week or on religious holidays, so take a look at what day you’ll be there and know beforehand what sites might be closed. Here’s a brief overview:
- Mondays: The Hagia Sophia, Istanbul Archeological Museum, the Turkish & Islamic Arts Museum, and Dolmabahçe Palace are all closed. A few other smaller museums around Istanbul are also closed, so make sure to check their visiting hours.
- Tuesdays: Topkapi Palace and the Military Museum are closed.
- Wednesdays: Rumeli Fortress is closed. Chora Church is closed on Wednesdays in their winter season, but open 7 days a week during summer (details on their website). (Also, I was there on a Wednesday. Everything I wanted to see was open. Hooray!)
- Thursdays: Most museums and attractions are open! (Turns out, Thursdays are also good).
- Fridays: The Blue Mosque and all other mosques are closed until the end of the Friday Noon Service, and can be quite crowded afterwards.
- Saturdays: Everything is open except the Quincentennial Museum of Turkish Jews.
- Sundays: The Grand Bazaar is closed.
Religious holidays: Some sites are closed or hours are adjusted for religious holidays and festivals. Keep this in mind and check to see if your visit coincides with any of these celebrations.
4. What to Bring:
I don’t mean to give you a comprehensive “packing list,” but here are a few things I’m glad I had (or wish I did) when I was in Istanbul. The most important thing, though, is to travel light, (you don’t want to be lugging around a giant backpack for fifteen hours, trust me).
- Socks: Every time you enter a mosque, you’re required to take your shoes off. If you’re going sock-less for whatever reason, pack a pair of clean socks in your backpack to wear inside the mosque. You can go barefoot too, but… Eh. I guess you could go barefoot.
- A light scarf: If you’re a woman, you’ll need to cover your hair when you go into any mosque. They have sheets on hand for those who don’t have scarves, but for hygienic reasons, probably best to bring your own.
- Travel toothbrush and toothpaste, and any other small toiletries: You’ll want it for between flights.
- ATM Card: this is how most travelers get local currency.
- A sturdy, light backpack: best thing to carry all your stuff in. Any kind of shoulder bag will be killing you by the end of the day.
5. At the Airport:
Note: I flew into Istanbul via Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport, which was closed to commercial flights in April 2019. Commercial flights now arrive in Istanbul at the city’s brand new Istanbul Airport.
Follow everyone to immigration control and get on line. Hand the officer your passport and visa. He’ll put a shiny new stamp in your passport and send you on your way.
Once you’re through all that, head to the arrivals area. This is where you’ll find ATMs to take out cash (see #6).
If you have a carry-on bag that you want to leave behind, you should be able to find a “Left Baggage” or luggage storage area, where you can check in your bag for a small daily fee. (Check the airport website for more info).
Then I really suggest going to the bathroom, washing your face, and brushing your teeth. It just makes you feel like maybe you haven’t actually been on a plane for the past nine hours. It’s like starting a new day.
6. Getting Money:
Before you leave, call the bank that issued you your debit card or the card company, and tell them that you will be traveling abroad and using the card.
That way, you won’t get locked out of using your card by their fraud detection services. If you have a card that does not reimburse ATM fees, there will be a fee, so try to take out all the money you think you’ll need in one go.
The ATMs all have English on them, so it’s just like withdrawing money at home. Remember the exchange rate when you decide how much to take out.
At the airport, go for an ATM kiosk associated with a bank that you recognize. There are HSBC kiosks there, which is what I used.
When I went to Turkey in 2014, the conversion to Turkish Lira was about $0.55 to 1 TL. I took out 280 TL, or about $150, which was enough for entry tickets, food, transportation, and a few souvenirs. Since then, political instability and economic policy concerns have dropped the exchange rate to just $0.17 to 1 TL (April 2019), making that 280 TL I took out worth a little less than $50.
By the time you read this post, that number may have changed, but again…whenever you plan to go, check the travel advisories and consider whether travel to Turkey is safe!
7. Getting from the Airport to the City
OK, for the new traveler, this is the scary part. Venturing out of the sterile airport and into the unknown.
Instructions from Istanbul Atatürk Airport (i.e. the old airport):
You can take a taxi, but the metro is a lot cheaper. You can buy the necessary little red plastic tokens at electronic kiosks. 1 token/ride. If you transfer from the subway to the tram system, you’ll have to use another token.
Follow the signs in the airport for the metro, which is accessible from the arrivals area by taking an escalator downstairs (there’s a convenience store down there where I bought a big bottle of water. There were a bunch of security guards in there getting breakfast, so I figured the prices would be a lot more reasonable than in the tourist-heavy areas), and buy tokens. If your destination isn’t convenient by public transportation, opt for a cab.
If you want to go into the Old City where all the major sites are, it’s dead easy to take the Metro to the Zeytinburnu stop and then transfer to the Tram system. When you get to Zeytinburnu, follow the signs for the tram, get on the platform going towards “Kabatas” and take the tram to the Sultanahmet stop, where you’ll see the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, and Hippodrome in plain sight. Click here for a map of Istanbul’s metro/tram system.
You can retrace your steps backward to get back to the airport at the end of the day. All told, it’ll take about 45 minutes to get from the airport to Sultanahmet, for 6 TL.
That said, since flights have recently been re-routed to the new Istanbul Airport, and it is quite a bit farther from the old city than Ataturk Airport, your best bet might be to take a taxi (taxi do’s and don’ts), depending on time of day.
You can also check out more info on public transport available from the airport.
Ah, the ultimate millennial concern. Don’t worry, a lot of restaurants around Istanbul have wi-fi. Just ask the seating host or waitstaff if they have it, and they’ll give you the password.
Things to Do: My 15 hours in Istanbul:
I finally saw the inside of the Blue Mosque.
And the outside.
The Blue Mosque was my first stop because it opens early (generally, other museums and sites open at 9:00. I arrived in the city at 7:15, so I was way early), and because it’s right by the Sultanahmet tram stop. It was an amazing way to start the day.
Note that mosques are closed 5 times/day for prayer, but the services last only about 30 minutes.
I also saw a 1500-year-old Byzantine Church that was converted to a Mosque by the Ottomans. This is Hagia Sophia, which is right across from the Blue Mosque. Literally a five minute walk. The ticket line can be long, but it generally moves pretty quickly. I read up a bit on the history of some of these places before going, so I’d know what I was looking at when I saw them in person. But I’m a nerd. So.
I visited an underground Roman reservoir…
This is the “Basilica Cistern,” or the “Underground Cistern,” which was built in the sixth century A.D. and used to hold the city’s water supply. It was quiet and eerie, and one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen. It’s a five or ten minute walk from the aforementioned two sites.
And then I walked over to Topkapi Palace, where most of the Ottoman sultans lived. People were all gung ho about going into each and every room, getting an audio guide and all that, but I just wandered around the grounds. There’s also a kind of grassy park area outside the palace where you can plop down on the grass and take a breather.
Note: The ticket line here was SO long, I nearly turned around when I saw it in the distance. I didn’t want to waste any of my precious time on an enormous ticket line. But there are actually these little electronic kiosks where you can buy tickets as well.
They’re cash only, but all I had was cash anyway, so that wasn’t a problem. There were about ten people on this line. Don’t ask me why no one else dared to try it. Herd mentality I suppose. I got into the palace within ten minutes.
Then I checked out the Spice Market. You can take the tram from Sultanahmet to the Eminonu Stop to get there, but you could also walk if you’re up for it.
Take a good lay of the land–and the prices–before buying anything. In general, the fancier the stall, the higher the prices are. I bought a bunch of spices and ended up seeing them not long after for half the price. Sad face.
The Grand Bazaar is also not far from the Spice Market. You have to walk up a pretty steep incline for about fifteen minutes, and you’re there.
As you walk around Istanbul, there are lots of other things to see that aren’t on the tourist map, of course.
For instance, I noticed a ton of stray cats and dogs roaming the city, sleeping under benches, and hanging out in grassy parks.
I found out from a local that they’re vaccinated and released back into the city–to be petted by eager tourists and fed by local restaurants. Seems like a decent system.
This guy kept me company while I had dinner.
Because I spent most of my time in the Old City, I spent most of my day on foot seeing things, as opposed to trying to get on buses and metros and trams to get from faraway place to faraway place. Which is why, if it’s your first time in Istanbul, I would recommend spending it in the Old City.
But I talked to the waiter at the restaurant where I had dinner, and he suggested that the best food? That’s in the newer part of town near Taksim Square…or probably in someone’s house. Let’s be honest. I’ll head over there next time I find myself back there. I also wouldn’t mind checking out one of those fancy Bosphorus boat rides.
In general, though, I would just say that the best thing to do would be to go into any city with an open mind, a general plan (which you can deviate from, of course, but it’s good to feel like you have a plan, isn’t it?), and a sturdy pair of shoes.
The experience of hearing the call to prayer for the first time, the flap of wings as a flock of birds zoom across the sky, and the many haggling negotiations going on in the Spice Market behind me–it is one of those moments when I take a minute to really appreciate where I am.
The miracle of the fact that just hours ago, I was sitting at home in a New Jersey suburb, and have now found myself in the middle of this busy square, hearing these sounds and smelling the breeze coming off the Bosphorus.
That in just a few more short hours I’d be landing in Beijing. Three timezones in under 48 hours. It was after that that I began to experience the city in a quieter way, more removed from the tourist track.
I spent most of the second half of the day just wandering around back alleys, people watching on park benches, sipping Turkish apple tea, and uh…accidentally falling asleep–mouth fully agape–in a quiet mosque that I wandered into (not advisable. But I was running on empty.).
As night began to fall, I made my way back to Sultanahmet, where I strolled around the area between the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque and watched the sun go down.
Before getting back on the tram, I took a last look at the skyline, and said goodbye to the small part of the city that I had spent the day getting to know.
I may not have seen everything, but I left with the hope that I would come back.