I stopped over in Istanbul Airport en route to Muscat with Turkish Airlines. I had a 12 hour stopover and decided to head into the city. I landed at 4am from London.
Going into Istanbul city during a stopover
If you have a stopover in Istanbul, it’s definitely worth popping into Istanbul so long as you have more than, let’s say, four or five hours (bearing in mind it takes a good hour to get into the city by public transport).
Like London, many of the important, worthwhile sights are actually condensed into the ancient old-town which is small and walkable. So even if you only have two hours to walk around, you can still see quite a lot.
Most countries require a Turkish eVISA.
This is a $20 VISA which requires an online application and payment and will allow you to go through immigration. It does appear as though they have kiosks at the airport selling visas however I wasn’t able to check the prices. There weren’t any queues when I was there, but then again, it was 4am.
Other passports, such as the German passport, can go straight through without a visa.
Getting into the city
Note that the metro only opens at 6am.
There were about six Cash ATMs in the arrivals hall so I withdrew the Turkish Lira directly. There were also Bureaus de Change but these were still closed.
I decided I couldn’t wait another two hours in the cold, boring arrivals “lounge” so I took a taxi. The going rate appears to be about $20 into the centre. I managed to negotiate €15 to Sultan Ahmed Mosque. Paying in Euros suited me fine as I wanted to save the Lira for the day – and preferably not take any more out. The exchange was was just under 3 Turkish Lira to the Euro.
There was no traffic at 4am but the journey can be chockablock at other times of the day, meaning that the metro may well be a better option.
Tip: if your stop over lasts longer than 12 hours and there is no quicker option, Turkish Airlines with invite you to a free overnight stay or free trip around the city. My 12 hours was deliberate (there were quicker options) so no freebies for me!
Walking around Istanbul
I was dropped of at Sultan Ahmet Mosque and walked around the back, cobbled streets until I found the shoreline.
Three mosques are close by and visitors times are 8-11. It was a Friday when I went and the Friday Prayers attracted a lot of people, especially for the midday call.
As I hadn’t had slept much on the flight, I grabbed a strong Turkish coffee at a cafe next to the docks. The place was piled high with sweets, pastries and delights. I also took a fresh, fatty cheese borek. The strong coffee and fatty borek woke me up and helped me warm on the cold, clear February morning. It had been raining in the night so the streets were still wet.
I then headed towards Galata bridge. This bridges two of Istanbul’s peninsulars, but not the two continents, that was in the distance.
On the Galata bridge, hundreds of local men were trying their luck with the early morning catch.
I then went up to Tünel and took the short metro line up to the Galata area. The lift up to the Galata tower (and restaurant) seemed quite expensive so I gave that a miss and started walking over to Taksim square. There were plenty of restaurants and cafes en route and I stopped for some fresh juice in a grand looking building.
Taksim square wasn’t anything special and presumably the only reason for a tourist to go to this square is because the old traditional tram takes you there! I wanted to relax on the benches but felt uncomfortable due to the sheer amount of suspicious looking blokes loitering around so I carried on. Pickpockets do exist in Istanbul and tourists are advised to stay alert. I didn’t have any trouble, though.
On my way back, I grabbed something to eat – a fairly standard Turkish lunch consisting of aubergine, potatoes, rice and sauce. Nothing special and, in honesty had higher hopes for the Turkish food. It came in at around €8.
I did expect that 5am in Istanbul would be no different to 5pm in terms of liveliness and hub-bub, like in other cities in the Middle-East. The city was distinctly quiet. Half the city is, after all, in Europe.
I carried on walking round the whole city for about eight more hours till, at last, the missed-sleep caught up with me. I nodded off in a cafe then decided it was time to head back to the airport – onwards to the Middle-East.