Help me maximize my Istanbul time
September 11, 2014 10:15 AM   Subscribe

It turns out that the least bad of pretty terrible options for getting from Capetown to Ouagadougou on the day I want is via a 12 hour layover in Istanbul. Help me make the best use of my time!

I have seen this question and perhaps even more relevant, this one. Unfortunately, I'm looking at somewhat less time than that person - I land at 5:20am, take off at 5:45pm.

I've already gone online and gotten the e-visa, so I won't have to make that stop at the airport at least. Other than that, what do I do? Where do I go? How long will it take? Do I just grab taxis off the street? How hard will it be to change money? About how much should I change? When do I need to get back to the airport*? Help me create a plan that lets me see some of the best of what Istanbul has to offer without having it all end in a frantic rush to make my connection.

*Do I need to grab my checked baggage then re-check it? I hope not, but I've never left the airport between connections like this.
posted by solotoro to Travel & Transportation around Istanbul, Turkey (7 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Istanbul is a European city. You can use an ATM to get Lira. No need to change money or anything like that. You can take a cab to Sutanahmet very easily. Unless its changed - your other options are a bus. I don't think the rail system had a great solution.

If you are on a scheduled flight you may not see your bags again, or you'll be able to recheck them once through immigration. I'm not sure what they do at IST. Regardless you won't need to bring them with you.

With that amount of time just check out Sultanahmet - more than enough for the half day. Check out Istanbul Eats for some places to eat - and just check out the major sights.

ETA: I'm assuming you are flying through IST and not SAW.
posted by JPD at 11:06 AM on September 11, 2014

I think Cwell's proposed itinerary from Curiosity Delay's askme that you linked to would work for you, and that's what I'd recommend. Definitely take the bus he recommended (way, way cheaper than a taxi) and if you do make it down to the Hagia sophia you can either reverse the route to go back, or you can take light rail back to the airport (you'd be going from the Sultanahmet station on the T1 line to Havalimani (the airport) on the M1 line. I've done both and the rail option depends a little bit on how good you are at navigating, as it's a bit tougher to figure out than say the NYC subway with the different language and often poor signage.

On preview - if you don't want to do a lot of walking then JPD's proposal works too.
posted by MillMan at 11:08 AM on September 11, 2014

If you do Cwell's - which is great - you may not have time for Ortakoy.
posted by JPD at 11:12 AM on September 11, 2014

Best answer: Ask the airline about your baggage. I expect that it will be transferred automatically.

Before leaving the airport, hit an ATM for Turkish lira. I'd get 250: 100 for cab, 50 for food, 40 for tickets, and the rest is cushion.

Take a cab (from the taxi stand if possible, but street pickups are usually OK) to the Sultanahmet area--in fact, go ahead and ask for Aya Sofia. It usually takes about forty-five minutes to an hour, but traffic can get crazy. I recall it being about fifty lira (approximately 25 USD). Check out Aya Sofia, the Basilica Cistern, and the Blue Mosque. Each of these is magnificent and they are all within a stone's throw of each other. There will be lines, but they're worth it.

When you're done with those, grab some food that will necessarily be extremely touristy. I wouldn't spend much time trying to find good food in that area with such a constrained time budget.

If at that point you're short on time, find a cab where you are. (Keep in mind that traffic is ─░stanbul can be extremely bad--my friends have spent two hours getting to the airport from downtown. Again, taxi stands are best, parked taxis are OK, and street hails are OK.) If you have time to explore further, head downhill (north) from Aya Sofia, where you'll get to see either the New Mosque, the spice bazaar, or the waterfront. All these options are fun. When you're ready for a cab, voila--you're right on the highway.
posted by daveliepmann at 1:08 PM on September 11, 2014

Best answer: I just got back from a two week trip in Turkey last week and remember vividly my last 24 hours in Istanbul. In my opinion, it's quite possible to accomplish a good chunk of stuff in the city so long as you've got a good plan, can navigate twisty streets, and are flexible. A few details to help with your planning.

You can take the tram from IST to the city and, imho, navigation was fairly easy. Since you're only going to be there for a day, get a bunch of tokens rather than a refillable card. With an e-visa it took me about 20 minutes to get off my plane, clear immigration and emerge from customs. It was about 10 minutes to find the Metro stop and a good hour to get from Ataturk to Sultanahmet park. Conservatively, budget two hours to go from Ataturk to the city and 2-3 hours for your return. A cab can cut your travel time in half if there is no traffic. I don't think you'd save any time if there was traffic. Ditto for the Havatas bus. My recommendation -- take the Havatas for going into the city when it's early and there's no traffic. Consider the tram for your return leg. If you're going to be there on a weekend, then a taxi is viable in both directions as traffic should be lighter.

So, that basically leaves you with 7-8 hours of actual touring time in Istanbul. That's plenty for hitting some highlights, especially if you just stick with the European side.

(advance caveat: this is the super dense, Death March version of Trying To See All The Things. You do not need to do this, and if you just want to spend your entire day in Istanbul on the shores of Karakoy, eating a fish sandwich and watching the sun travel over the Old City, then that's perfectly fine too. I write this out mostly as an exercise in showing what you can do if you try to min-max things.)

I like CWell's itinerary, but I wouldn't start with Taksim, Istiklal and the Galata Tower, if you're interested in sightseeing. Start in Sultanahmet and knock off the Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Basilica Cistern and Grand Bazaar and Spice Bazaar and Sulheimaniye Mosque in the morning before all of the cruise ship tour buses arrive. All of these open at 9 am (the Blue Mosque is open earlier) and you can knock them out by 1 pm if you don't have to wait in lines. The first three are most likely to be invaded by tour groups first, and the bazaars and Sulheimaniye are a little less vulnerable to lines.

Since you're arriving at 5:30, I'd assume you'll arrive in Sultanahmet around 7:30 am. There's no point in going straight to the Hagia Sophia as it will be closed. Maybe hit up the Blue Mosque if it isn't in the middle of morning prayers and sit down at a restaurant somewhere for some menemen and tea, spread out your map to plan your day.

Topkapi Palace is worth visiting if you like palace complexes, but it's a huge space and can be a bit of a time sink (a glorious, decadent time sink) If this is on your list, I'd hit it after Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque and Basilica Cistern.

Also, Sulheimaniye is a stretch goal. It's a bit out of the way and not convenient to a tram. It's worth visiting simply because the Blue Mosque is beautiful but it's super crowded, and Sulheimaniye gives you the beautiful mosque experience without the mobs. Both are worth seeing if you have the time. But if you're not a big mosque person then it's fine to do only one.

THEN spend your afternoon in Beyoglu visiting the Galata Tower, Pera Museum, Taksim, and Istanbul Modern. If you're doing well on time, then Ortakoy and/or a quick ferry ride to Kadikoy on the Asian side is your stretch goal.

Wander Istiklal Caddesi and eat street food as much as you can. The restaurants of Istanbul are splendid, but service can be a bit slow, and you can cover a lot more ground if you just graze your way through the city. Also, Istanbul's street food scene is just an attraction in its own right. Lokantasis, which are basically self-serve cafeterias, can be decent option for quick sit down food.

Good options for street food (and here you will certainly need cash)

Fish sandwiches on the Galata Bridge, 6-7 TL per sandwich. .50 to 1 TL for water. Fish caught that day on the bridge, fileted and grilled then loaded into a sandwich with peppers, onions and a pomegranate dressing. Fantastic.

Simit (a turkish bagel) 1TL. Simple breakfast option, get with cheese for something a little more substantial. Very easy to find.

Doner kebab, 6-12 TL. Meat sliced off a rotisserie and wrapped up in lavash or placed in a french bread sandwich, very filling. Generally easy to find throughout the city

Gozleme, 3 TL. A crepe that can be filled with various things ranging from chocolate and honey (also a great breakfast option) to eggplant, minced meat or potatoes. Good to consider for vegetarians. Oddly hard to find in the Old City, but there are places in Beyoglu, esp. along Istiklal.

The amount of cash that you'll need will depend on your travel budget and your sightseeing goals.

For restaurant recommendations: Istanbul Eats is great but tough for figuring out good places near where you're going to be. Spotted By Locals - Istanbul is decent about overlaying recommendations by location.

All mosques are free though appreciate donations. The bazaars are free to enter, but of course everything in the bazaars has their price.

Expect that most other tourist destinations (Aya Sofya, Pera Museum, Galata Tower, etc.) will have a 20TL entry fee.

Budget 40-50 TL for a taxi. 10 TL for the Havatas bus. ~2 TL for each time you have to take the tram (x2 for the ride to/from Ataturk as you have to make a transfer and each transfer still has a fee)

So, assuming all street food for 3 meals, entry fee for maybe 4 tourist attractions and using the bus, you can probably enjoy a day in Istanbul for 120 TL. I'd pull out 200 TL and keep some reserve for souvenirs or a splurge at the Grand Bazaar or Spice Bazaar.
posted by bl1nk at 2:31 PM on September 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

oh, and I've done surgical strike, sub-24 hour layover before (5 hours in Amsterdam, 10 hours in Paris, etc.) and it's totally do-able and not a big deal. With regards to your luggage, so long as your onward destination is in another country, you will never have to pick up checked luggage.

This is good from the point of view of not having to wait to claim bags, pass through customs and recheck. This also good in that your return to the airport will be faster since you just have to clear passport control and security and head to your gate with your boarding pass. (you don't even have to check in at the departures desk). You do, however, want to plan to have everything for your day in your carry-on. Toiletries to freshen up are very good to have. An empty water bottle is also useful so that you can just fill it up and use it for hydrating during your walkabouts. Bring a European adapter and charger cable for any electronics that you may need to recharge during your day.

If you're going to go mosqueing, plan on wearing jeans or slacks. Men should keep their knees covered out of respect for the faith. If you have female companions, they should bring a scarf or something to cover their head and shoulders. If you don't have these, then the mosque will provide one for you, but it's easier and more respectful to bring your own. The Blue Mosque's loaner garments are garish, but the Suleimaniye's are actually quite fetching. Also wear shoes that are easy to slip on and off.
posted by bl1nk at 2:46 PM on September 11, 2014

Response by poster: My thanks to everyone! I marked as best those that focused on the specific logistical details, but I appreciate all the answers.

I ended up taking the rail both ways, and I'm glad I went ahead and bought two tokens on the way out since apparently you can't transfer without exiting?

Anyway, I ended up being there on a lousy day for hitting the big attractions - it was the third day of Eid so the Grand Bazaar, the Spice Market, and several of the museums were closed, and it was a Monday so the Aya Sofia was closed, too. But I got to enjoy the Blue Mosque and the Basilica Cisterns, then I just wandered around the old city for a while; some of the shopping district was open, and the area around the spice market in particular had a lot of vendors. I almost went to a Turkish bath, but the only obvious one I saw had a big sign out front that said "We have woman masseuses for men" and I wasn't sure if that was a friendly warning to traditionalists or a creepy invitation to tourists, so I took a pass. In the end I decided not to push my luck by heading farther out than that, since I wasn't sure what would be open anyway. Though for any future readers, if you happen to be there on the third day of Eid, it will take you no longer to get back to the airport at 2 in the afternoon than it took you to leave at 6 in the morning - there was extremely little traffic.

Again, thanks to everyone for the input! I now know what Istanbul looks like but have very little idea of what a typical day is like ... so obviously I have to go back!
posted by solotoro at 3:35 AM on October 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

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