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Enjoying a layover in Istanbul: Panda’s Plan

July 23, 2019 2 Comments

Now that I am getting older, I much prefer to spend a little extra money in order to catch a direct flight to my destination. I just don’t have the time or energy to waste in connecting airports the way I did when I was backpacking around Asia 9 years ago. BUT sometimes it is just not possible to fly direct. Like this recent trip I did to Cappadocia, Turkey. There was no way for me to avoid having a layover in Istanbul when I flew from from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. So I just embraced it and booked a long one. The way I see it, if I have to have a layover, I may as well make it worth my time and do some exploring outside of the airport. I have previous posts about how I visited the Pyramids of Giza while on a layover and how I saw the Eiffel Tower as I transited through Paris.

I have been to Istanbul before so I did not use this layover to see the main attractions of Hagia Sophie, Blue Mosque or Topkapi Palace. Rather, I explored different areas of Istanbul that were off the tourist track before making my way to the Grand Bazaar. If you are interested in doing the same, here is a visual itinerary… I elaborate on each aspect of my layover in Istanbul underneath the picture as well as the Google Maps Links.

Landing at Sabiha Gocken Airport

This airport lies on the Asian side of Istanbul is probably the furthest one away from the city centre. Other than an extremely expensive taxi, the only feasible transportation from here to the city centre is to take the HavaBus shuttle. This bus takes you to Taksim where you can connect with the metro, tram or bus.

Price: 18TL to Taksim

Journey Time: It takes about 1 hour and 15 minutes however there may be traffic.

Istanbul Ataturk Airport is now closed for commercial flights. If you are landing at the new Istanbul Airport, you can also catch the HavaBus from there to Taksim for the same price. Check this article for more details.

Getting around Istanbul

At Taksim metro station we purchased our IstanbulKart which is the card that enables you to use the public transportation system (trains, trams, ferries & buses) . I am sure you can purchase this at most metro stations or small shops near bus stops.

Cost: 6TL for the card and then you can load however much credit you want. I put a 20TL note in the machine which gave me 14TL of credit. (I still have money left on my card).

Ortaköy Mosque

Known as the Pearl of Bosphorus, Ortaköy Mosque is definitely on the most picturesque. Since its located at the edge of the Bosphorus River, it makes for a beautiful photo. The government has kindly constructed a small platform where you can walk on and snap photos with the mosque in the background.

The neighbourhood around this mosque is very lively and makes for the perfect place to grab a meal, drink or buy some souvenirs on the side of the road. When I went there, it seemed like we were the only non-locals there.

Note: I did not enter this mosque as I did not know if it was open to visitors.

How to get there: The closest bus stop is Kabataş in the Beyoğlu area.

Süleymaniye Mosque

The Süleymaniye Mosque is the second largest mosque in the city, and one of the best-known sights of Istanbul. I opted to go here since I had already visited the Blue Mosque and heard it is currently under construction. This mosque is far less crowded than the Blue Mosque too!

Remember to stay within the demarcated areas for non-worshippers and do enjoy a stroll around the garden. You will be rewarded with this gorgeous views over the city!

Note: If you aren’t dressed appropriately, you can borrow the scarf, skirts and cloaks at the entrance of the mosque.

How to get there: This mosque is close to the  Beyazit tram stop & the Haliç Metro Station. Buses also stop at this metro station.

Istanbul Grand Bazaar

Its not too far to walk to the Grand Bazaar from Süleymaniye Mosque. This is probably the most authentic bazaar in the region where you can buy all sorts of local goods. Once you get inside its very easy to get lost. Just remember that shops are grouped by what they’re selling, and the spice market is in its own separate quadrant of the bazaar.

I recommend walking around outside the bazaar to find some delicious doner kebab which you can wash down with some fresh pomegranate juice.

How to get there: The closest train station is Vezneciler metro station (M2). You can also catch a tram to Beyazıt, Üniversite or Sirkeci.

Back to the airport

Eventually we exited the grand bazaar, walked to Vezneciler metro station and headed towards Taksim. From the Taksim Metro station, it was a short walk to the Hava Bus pick up & drop off point which you can find here. Alternatively you can type in Point Hotel; the buses stop close by in front of a Nero Coffee shop. On your way there you can pick up last minute baklava, spices, soap or Turkish delights not to mention your last Turkish ice cream.

Last notes on having a layover in Istanbul:

-You need Turkish Lira to spend in Turkey. Euros will not work or you will get a bad exchange rate. You can change money at various money changers around Istanbul especially in the Taksim area.

-Istanbul is a city with a lot of traffic. Opting to take the metro will always save time. Over estimate times to get to destinations as you will distracted by many delicious looking items along the way and those hills are steep.

-A meal for 2-3 people is around 100TL at a mid range restaurant on the street.

-We purchased a SIM card at Sabiha Gocken Airport so that we could use Google Maps to guide us around. I don’t see any way around this unfortunately. We got ours from Turk Cell which seemed to be the cheapest but shop around because the 3 cellphone providers have special offers at different times.

-We stored our luggage at Sabiha Gocken Airport. For more details on this, click here.

-I saw many local women wearing shorts and sleeveless tops. There doesn’t not seem to be a need to dress conservatively within the city. I wore jeans and a blouse with no issues.

-Turkish people are just so friendly and helpful. Don’t be afraid to strike up a conversation with anyone or ask for help! Language may be a barrier but for the most part, you’ll get by.

Remember to read my previous post on Turkey where I discuss Cappadocia, the Turkish visa and hot air balloons.

Having a long layover in Istanbul can provide you with the opportunity to get a feel for the city and inspire a return trip!

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Is Istanbul on your list or have you been already? Let me know in the comments!


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  • vacationhive August 13, 2019 at 5:35 pm

    This is so useful!!! Thank you!

    • expatpanda August 17, 2019 at 3:02 pm

      I am so happy that you find it helpful 🙂

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