It is probably no surprise that I belong to a lot of travel related Facebook groups.  A frequent question is if it is worth it to leave the airport for a long layover in Istanbul.  There is definitely a lot you can do with a single day.  In fact, my parents had a long layover there once and this is the advice I gave them.

First things first – know what airport you are flying through.  New Istanbul Airport is on the European side and Gokcen Airport is on the Asia side.  You can visit the city center from both but it is a little easier from the New Istanbul Airport.  Also, know that if you have been to Istanbul before, the new airport is not as conveniently located as Ataturk airport was. 

You of course also want to confirm if you require a visa to exit the airport, as well as any other requirements. 

And finally, make sure you have enough time.  Plan on two hours to get in and out of the airport each way (security, customs, immigration etc…)  And plan an hour each way for travel.  As such, I think it is worth it to go into the city if you have more than 8 hours, but the official airport website is more cautious and recommends you don’t try it unless you have at least 10 hours. 

There is a shuttle from the airport but it takes 1 ½ hours so I would just splurge on a taxi to maximize your time.  The airport also offers tours which can take the stress out of transportation. 

One hour or less….

Have a taxi take you to Sultanahmet district and just walk around.  There is a ton you can see from the outside in just a short amount of time.  Admire the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Hippodrome, water, and park. You will get a feel for the historical city and immediately put it on your list to come back!

Two Hours…

After walking around and taking it all in, pick either the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia or Topkapi Palace to see from the inside.  Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia are quicker stops than Topkapi Palace.  All three are wonderful, but base your decision on practicalities.  Unless you are Muslim, if it is one of the five daily prayer times, then the Blue Mosque or Hagia Sophia may not be an option.  And depending on the time of day, lines at Topkapi Palace may be too long. 

Three Hours….

Pick two – Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia or Topkapi Palace.  If you go to the Topkapi Palace, it is worth it to have Baklava at the café by the water. 

Four Hours…

Do all three – Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia or Topkapi Palace

Five Hours…

Add either the Basilica Cistern or the Grand Bazaar.  The Basilica Cistern is a quick walk from Sultanahmet.  And if the line isn’t crazy, it is also a relatively quick stop, so you might be able to add this on if you only have four hours. You will need to hop the tram to the Grand Bazaar.  The Grand Bazaar is one of those magical places where you can walk in to see in for just 15 minutes or you can spend an entire day there. 

Of course for any of these options, there are plenty of places to grab a snack, a meal, tea or ice cream. 

If you have longer in Turkey, check out some of my other blogs about favorite things to do and see while there. 

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