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When we told people that we scheduled a long layover in Istanbul, en route from the Maldives to Greece, we got a lot of mixed reactions. In the media, we kept hearing that political differences could create a dangerous situation for American tourists. The US State Department even had an outstanding travel advisory, warning of potential danger for visitors to Istanbul. Despite all of this negativity, we decided to take the opportunity for a free tour from Turkish Airlines to visit this historic and unique city. I am happy to report that we felt very safe and found the people we met to be warm and friendly. Come along for our long layover guide to Istanbul.
Ok, let’s talk briefly about safety. This was, and still is, the number one question people ask. WE FELT 100% SAFE IN ISTANBUL. Period. Hard Stop.
From the time we arrived at the airport, until the time we boarded our departure flight 13.5 hours later, we never felt threatened. The closest we came to an issue, was when a boisterous guy in our tour group learned we were Americans. He very loudly asked why we (the USA, not us specifically) had elected Trump. Nobody around seemed to notice or care, and we just ignored him.
Pay attention to warnings, but don’t let them dissuade you from visiting a part of the world that may differ culturally and politically. Keep your wits about you, and you will have a great time.
Turkish Airlines – Free Tour with Touristanbul
As I mentioned, we had 13.5 hours on the ground in Istanbul. We landed at 5am and departed at 6:30pm. This gave us the perfect opportunity to take advantage of the free city tour offered by Turkish Airlines. To take this tour, you must meet a few requirements:
- Arrive and Depart on Turkish Airlines (or codeshare partner flights) – Despite careful planning, we were almost turned away at the tour desk. Our arrival flight was on Turkish Airlines, but we departed on EgyptAir. Before they would allow us to register for the tour, we had to provide the Turkish Airlines flight number for the EgyptAir flight. If you are flying on a partner airline, be sure to find this number before you approach the desk.
- Connection Time Between 6 and 24 Hours – Your connection time must fit during one of the tour times offered by Touristanbul. Anything over 24 hours is a stopover, not a layover, and you will not be eligible. Tour times are:
- 9am – 3pm (half day tour)
- 9am – 6pm (full day tour)
- 12pm – 6pm (full day tour)
- Register at Turkish Airlines Hotel Desk – As you enter the arrivals hall, you should turn right and walk all the way to the end of the corridor. Just before you reach the Starbucks at the end, you will see the Turkish Airlines Hotel Desk. Here you can present your boarding passes and register for the free city tour.
- Obtain a Turkish Visa – This requirement may vary, depending on your nationality. See this site for more details. Brooke and I were able to get our visas online, before arrival.
If your travel qualifies for the tour, I highly recommend that you take it. The free tour is really an incredible perk offered by Turkish Airlines. Not only do they provide a tour guide and transportation, but they also pay for your meals and entry to the sites! This was a particularly great value, since we paid for our flights with miles.
If your layover time does not match up with any of the tours, but you meet the other qualifications, you can request a free hotel stay. This is especially useful for long, overnight layovers. You cannot do both the tour and the hotel, so you will have to pick one.
What We Did
The tour started promptly at 9am, with a roll call in the terminal. Our tour guide greeted us and even gave us Touristanbul scarves. She explained what we would be doing during our half-day tour, and then we boarded the buses to the city.
Breakfast – Tamara Cafe
Our first stop on the tour was breakfast at Tamara Cafe. Here, we enjoyed an assortment of jams with bread, veggies, cheeses, olives, and a hard boiled egg. While it may not be the most exciting meal, it gave us some fuel for the day.
After breakfast, we walked to a public park with three monuments: the Walled Obelisk, the Serpent Monument, and the Obelisk of Theodosius. My favorite was the Obelisk of Theodosius, a transplanted pillar from ancient Egypt, carved from a single piece of stone. Our tour guide told us the story of each monument and what they represent.
The Sultan Ahmed Mosque, or “Blue Mosque” is one of the crown jewels of Istanbul, and it is an absolute must-see during your visit. Its six minarets and central dome are a sight to behold, as they rise above the surrounding area. Our guide brought us into the courtyard and explained some of the history of the mosque. After removing our shoes and grabbing skirts and head coverings for the ladies, we ventured inside.
The inside of the Blue Mosque is absolutely stunning. Its nickname comes from the 20,000+ ceramic tiles and 200+ stained glass windows, predominantly in hues of blue. A massive chandelier hangs low over the lush red carpet. The mosque is still a functioning holy site, so you will find people practicing their faith during your visit.
The Hagia Sophia is one of the most visited sites in the world. Constructed in 537AD, this incredible building originally served as a Greek Orthodox church, then an imperial mosque, and now it is a museum.
Inside the main area, under the central dome, you will find the image of Jesus surrounded by symbols of Islam. With all the turmoil in the world today, it was incredible to see central images of these two religions peacefully coexisting within this historic space.
We wandered the halls and upper floors, finding golden images of biblical figures. We also gazed out the upper windows to catch great views of the nearby sites. Touristanbul covered our 40-Lira ($11) entry fee. Before leaving the Hagia Sophia, I had to try the time-honored, good luck tradition. To do this, you make a wish, stick your thumb into a hole, and rotate 360 degrees.
After leaving the Hagia Sophia, we began our walk back to the starting point. On the way, we briefly passed through the Arasta Bazaar. This bazaar is significantly smaller and less touristy than the well-known Grand Bazaar. Shops lined both sides of the path, and shopkeepers offered samples of Turkish Delight as we walked through.
Lunch – Tamara Cafe
After a few hours of sightseeing, we were ready for some lunch! The group returned to Tamara Cafe for a delicious free lunch. This time, we had a few options. Brooke went with the chicken, and I got the combo meat plate. Each came with soup and and a zesty appetizer salad.
After we wrapped up lunch, our half-day tour came to a close. We hopped on the buses and rode back to the airport with plenty of time to spare for a visit to the Primeclass Lounge (courtesy of Priority Pass from our Chase Sapphire Reserve).
This lounge is HUGE, with multiple oddly designed rooms. In one space, you will find modern details, lots of glass, and Edison light bulbs. In the next room, you will find a seating area and fireplace, and in the next, a much more traditional lounge look with a bar and buffet. Beer here is free, and the food options are actually pretty good. Brooke and I spread out and put our feet up after a full day of walking through Istanbul.
If you have the opportunity for a long layover in Istanbul, you should definitely look into the FREE Touristanbul city tour from Turkish Airways. We had a great time exploring the popular sites in this beautiful city. The Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia are wonderful, both architecturally and culturally. Do yourself a favor, take a chance, don’t believe the negativity, and go see this wonderfully unique place!