I just need to begin this post by saying that you should not spend merely 48 hours or a long layover in Istanbul. The city deserves much more than that. However, if you have to choose between a short time in Istanbul or no time at all, like I had to, I suggest spending whatever time you can in the city. Turkish Airlines will sometimes offer deals and accommodation to travelers who have an extended layover in Istanbul, so this post can be extremely helpful if you’re one of those travelers. Even if you’re staying in Istanbul for longer, this post gives you great advice on some of Istanbul’s hotspots!
Just like I did in my posts about Dubai here and here and my posts about Egypt here and here, I find it necessary to talk about how I felt as a female traveler in a conservative country with a large Muslim population. Unlike Egypt, where I felt that I needed to cover myself and my head, I didn’t feel that pressing need here in Istanbul. In fact, I felt much safer as my parents and I wandered the streets of Istanbul late at night than I ever felt in Egypt. Many women in Istanbul don’t cover their heads and I also saw a number of women in short shorts and showing off their stomachs. Ultimately, it’s your decision to wear what you are most comfortable in but I found Istanbul surprisingly lax.
WHERE TO STAY IN ISTANBUL
I don’t even need to give many options as to where to stay because in my opinion, Hotel Sultan Hill is the best place. It is located directly across the street from the Blue Mosque and it has a beautiful rooftop terrace overlooking the mosque. It’s relatively inexpensive compared to other hotels in the area (I’m looking at you, Four Seasons) and you can’t beat the view or the location. I promise that the hotel isn’t paying me to say this but they did tell me as I left that if you call, you can get a better deal than offered on the website.
The fact that the hotel also had a cat was a major bonus. It just stays in the lobby of the hotel and lives the high life as it looks at its brothers and sisters who are strays on the street. I’ll get to those kitties later.
WHAT TO SEE IN ISTANBUL
The history major in me is coming out full-force here. Please, please, PLEASE do a little bit of historical research on Turkey/Istanbul before you go. I’m not saying you need a Masters in Byzantine history but at least have a basic knowledge that the city was once called Constantinople and that the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires once played an important part in its history. It will help you out tremendously during your visit.
Another critical thing to have on your short journey to Istanbul is some sort of guidebook. My personal favorite is Rick Steves and I am loyal to him and will always choose one of his guidebooks if I can. He has an Istanbul book available here and that book saved my parents and me so much time and money while we were in Istanbul. Instead of booking lengthy and costly tours, we just read from Rick Steves and received a way more in-depth tour than we would have received from a guide who possibly doesn’t speak your native language.
HOW TO VISIT MOSQUES
Even though my parents and I were only in Istanbul for two days, we were constantly in and out of mosques. Many Muslims in Istanbul welcome visitors of other denominations into their mosques but there are strict rules that need to be followed when visiting.
- Take off your shoes. Everyone – man, woman, and child needs to take off their shoes before entering a mosque. This also applies when entering a sultan’s tomb. In mosques, there will usually be shoe racks where you can leave your shoes. The larger mosques provide you with plastic bags so you can carry your shoes with you and not risk thievery.
- There are separate entrances for men and women. Some mosques that are very popular among tourists will have a designated tourist entrance. Others that are for more local prayers will not. If the mosque you’re going to doesn’t have a visitors entrance, pay special attention to who is entering which doorway. Do not commit the blasphemous crime of entering through the wrong gender’s door. Just follow the crowds.
- Cover up ladies. Even if you’re there in the heat of summer, be prepared to cover up from your head to your knees when visiting a mosque. Most tourist mosques provide skirt wrap things and head covers in case you aren’t covered enough. Men, this also applies to you. I saw several men in shorts who were forced to wear these skirt wraps in order to go inside.
- Be quiet and polite. This should go without saying but it’s amazing how many people I saw talking loudly or speaking on the phone or overall being disrespectful in the mosques. Although visiting a mosque may seem more like a tourist attraction than a religious service, keep in mind that for many Turks, the mosques are their places of worship. So be quiet and respectful and use your common decency.
Well since I’ve already mentioned the Blue Mosque, we may as well start here. Before you head to the Blue Mosque, do a quick Google search to see when the prayer times are and consequently when it is closed for visitors. And then be prepared for the actual closing times to be vastly different than what is offered online. Because no times online seemed to correspond with the actual opening times when I tried to enter. Just know that the mosque is closed during prayers. Visitors can still enter but are not allowed to photograph while the prayers are occurring.
As of October 2019, the Blue Mosque is undergoing extensive renovations on the inside. You can’t see the dome or most of the arches except for one section that has been left open. In addition to the scaffolding, there are hoards of tourists filling up the interior which overall makes for an unpleasant experience. If I hadn’t studied and leaned about the Blue Mosque in uni I would probably not have gone. It’s named for the blue tiles that decorate the interior but I couldn’t see blue tiles (thanks scaffolding). I still recommend paying a brief visit to the inside of the Blue Mosque just because it’s so important in history. Nevertheless, be prepared to be disappointed as long as construction is underway.
Even if you choose to not go inside the Blue Mosque, you must at least pay a visit to the outside. If you want the best photos, go at the crack of dawn. I was able to get these amazing photos because I woke up at 5 am and my hotel was a 3-minute walk from the front of the mosque. When I returned to the Blue Mosque at around noon, the surrounding area was so packed with people that it made my sleep deprivation 100% worth it.
No trip to Istanbul would be complete without a visit to the majestic Hagia Sophia. She was built by the Emperor Justinian (of Justinian’s Code fame) in the fourth century as a church because Constantine had just made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. When Islam took over Constantinople, the mighty Hagia Sophia was turned into a mosque. The Iconoclasts had decided that the beautiful Biblical mosaics were blasphemy and they plastered over them in contempt. Ironically, the plaster helped to preserve some of these mosaics throughout the centuries. But in the early 1900s, Hagia Sophia ended her days as a mosque and became a museum for the world to enjoy.
The Hagia Sophia is just across from the Blue Mosque. So during the call to prayers, I swear that the two Muezzins (singers) are trying to outdo each other. It’s like the dueling banjos from Deliverance, except on a more massive and magical scale.
If you time it properly, you can probably sneak into the Blue Mosque as soon as it opens for 20-30 minutes and then hightail it across the plaza to hit the Hagia Sophia when it opens at 9:00 in the morning. I recommend getting to the Hagia Sophia as early as possible. We were there before it opened at 9:00 and there was still a long queue of people. It didn’t help that the tour groups kept passing us up due to their tour group immunity. There is an option where you can shell out a few more bucks and ‘fast track’ to the front of the line. Looking back we probably should have done that but we were among the first ones to enter the Hagia Sophia. Even then, it was bustling with people and I couldn’t imagine having arrived later in the day.
One of the best places to get a picture of the Hagia Sophia is in the garden in between the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia. Like I said above, the earlier you go, the better!
I won’t detail all of the information about the Hagia Sophia because I could honestly write an entire post on just the Hagia Sophia (probably coming in the future). That’s why I recommend a guide book like Rick Steves that gives you a comprehensive history with step-by-step turns. Be sure to take notice of the early Christian features and how they’ve blended in with the later Islamic features. Even though the first floor is cool, the real magic happens on the second floor. The ramp up to the second floor is a sloped switchback that the emperors used to ride horses up because heaven-forbid the emperor of the Ottomans have to WALK to worship!
The mosaics on the second floor are the best that the Hagia Sophia has to offer. Not to mention, the views are the best here too. Now, you’ll have a bird’s-eye view over the nave and apse of the Hagia Sophia, plus you’re closer to the artwork on the ceiling. The windows also provide a unique view over the Blue Mosque in the distance. I had read about the view from these windows and was excited to see that the view was as great as promised. The problem is that I was about a foot too short to see out of the windows and had to literally pull myself up onto the window sill to see the view…
My best advice is to not spend your entire time taking pictures and fighting the people. It’ll take you anywhere from 1-1.5 hours to see the Hagia Sophia properly – more if the tour groups are especially busy that day. But be sure to climb up to the second floor, lean out over the balcony, and just soak up the magic of the building. Take several moments to appreciate the history and significance of the Hagia Sophia. It’s one of the most important buildings in history and you’re able to see it with your own eyes. It has witnessed the rise of Christianity, the rise of Islam, the crusades, the Ottoman Empire, and is still intact for us to see today.
After you’ve sufficiently soaked up the magic of the Hagia Sophia turn around and get out of there. You still have the rest of Istanbul to see.
I probably wouldn’t have convinced my parents to come here if I hadn’t seen multiple travel blogs recommending that I visit the cistern. Even though it’s just a hole in the ground, it’s a pretty cool hole in the ground.
The Basilica Cistern is also right across the street from the Hagia Sophia and worth a quick visit. It shouldn’t take you more than 30 minutes to explore and you’re transported to another world underground. It doesn’t cost very much to enter, just about $3.30. The cisterns are open from 9:00 am and close at 6:30 in the high season.
It’s the oldest surviving cistern from Byzantine times and once held 28 million gallons of water for Constantinople. Over the years, the residents ¿somehow??? forgot that they had this massive water supply beneath them. The people who lived directly above the cistern thought it was a miracle that God kept giving them water every time they dug a hole into the ground. Little did they know that it was an ancient cistern that had been forgotten.
The highlights of the Basilica Cistern are the Medusa heads. My dad argues that the highlight of the cistern is being where James Bond was filmed in From Russia with Love. My mom argues that the highlight is being where the handsome Sean Connery was when he played James Bond in From Russia with Love. I argue that the highlight is the stone Medusa Heads that are from Athena With No Love (this is a bad Greek Mythology joke, I’m so sorry). These massive stones have Medusa’s gorgon head chiseled onto them. Legend has it that these stones were intentionally placed in the back of the cistern intentionally so that she would never see the light of day again. Thankfully for my poor Medusa (she got royally screwed in Greek Mythology), the cistern was discovered and she is now visited by many adoring tourists.
OBELISK(S) OF CONSTANTINE
The more I travel around the world, the more I learn that most civilizations just steal from other civilizations, and then in turn they have things stolen rom them. Just ask Greece, Iran, and Egypt how many of their ancient artifacts are hanging out in western countries… Istanbul is no different.
Constantine was a huge fan of Egyptian history. But he died in the 300s, so it was Emperor Theodosius in 390 who brought the obelisk to Constantinople to showcase his greatness. This obelisk belonged to Pharaoh Tutmosis III who erected the obelisk in the 1500s BC. By the time Constantine’s descendants got to it in almost 400 AD, it was already an old obelisk. It used to be nearly 100 feet tall but it broke during transit considering it was coming all the way from Egypt. Now, it stands at just 65 feet tall, which is still unbelievable considering its age. In addition to the fact that the obelisk is old as hell, the markings on it are surprisingly well-preserved. My parents and I spent a long time sitting on benches across from the obelisk just staring at it and basking in its glory. History is SO. COOL.
The obelisk itself stands in what was once Constantine’s Hippodrome. The Hippodrome was THE place for horse races and was the center of excitement in ancient Constantinople. Some ruins are still visible, although you have to keep an eye out for them. Back in the day, it could hold about 40,000-50,000 people at once! Interestingly, there used to be lodge at the Hippodrome that belonged to the emperor. That lodge used to be decorated with four gilded bronze horses that had been made in the 4th century BC. Like I mentioned earlier… every civilization steals from other ones. So those bronze horses are now living on in Venice in the Basilica of San Marco. It’s incredible how many things in history are all connected…
There’s also another obelisk there in the Hippodrome that was made by Constantine VII. It used to be covered with gilded bronze but the Fourth Crusaders decided to rip off the bronze in 1204. This Walled Obelisk is much less impressive than Tutmosis’s obelisk, but since it’s right next to it, definitely check them both out.
EGYPTIAN MARKET/SPICE BAZAAR
The Egyptian Market, also known as the Spice Bazaar is different from the Grand Bazaar. Some people don’t know that and get royally confused when trying to plan their trip to Istanbul. The Spice Bazaar is open daily from 8:00 am to 7:00 pm although don’t get there right when it opens. The Turks operate on their own time and it’ll take a little while for them to get their shops up and running in the morning.
Each entrance into the Egyptian Market has a metal detector and security. And every person who walks through sets off the metal detector and the security doesn’t care at all. So even though there is security, I’m not entirely sure how effective it really is…
Once you’re inside the bazaar, be prepared for the shopkeepers to talk to you and try to entice you to purchase something. It’s okay to give them a firm smile and walk away without feeling bad. There are innumerable stalls selling spices and Turkish delight. I ended up trying Turkish Delight because one of the shopkeepers had samples for people to try. He wasn’t happy when I walked away without buying anything but… that’s the point of a SAMPLE???
If you wander through the streets outside of the actual Egyptian Market, you’re likely to run into the streets of the Grand Bazaar. These two can easily be done on the same day since they’re in such close proximity to each other.
The Grand Bazaar has been around for centuries and was once the main trading area for the Byzantine Empire. Unfortunately, the stalls are now full of many touristy souvenirs and tacky brand-name knockoffs. Regardless, there is still a lot to be seen at the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul.
Visiting the Grand Bazaar can be tricky if you’re only in Istanbul for a short amount of time. It is open from 10:00 am 6:00 pm but is closed on Sundays. My parents and I had to visit the Egyptian Bazaar on a Sunday and then return to the Grand Bazaar on Monday when it was open.
The best way to see Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar is to just wander and get lost. Whichever entrance you used to go in, take a picture of it so that you can hopefully find it again. After a while, all of the stalls and paths start to look the same. As you traverse the Grand Bazaar, look for little things that show the bazaar’s deep history. There’s a mosque hidden away up some stairs in the bazaar and several fountains that have been used for centuries. Just outside one exit is an old-time book fair. Back in the day, it used to sell manuscripts, the Koran, and old books. You can still purchase some of those today but lately there has been an increase in modern textbooks for sale since Istanbul’s university is close by.
If you want to learn more about the bazaar itself, I suggest using Rick Steve’s walking tour for the Bazaar. It literally gives you a step-by-step tour of the bazaar and helps you get the most out of your visit.
I personally think that the Süleymaniye Mosque is worth a visit over the Blue Mosque. Ideally you can visit both of them in order to compare but I think this one has a bigger “wow” factor. It was commissioned back in 1550 by the emperor Süleyman the Magnificent when Constantinople was at the height of its power. The sultan and his favorite wife’s tombs are on the grounds of the mosque and are open to the public. The mausoleums were closed for renovations when we were there (of course) but they were still beautiful from the outside.
Süleymaniye Mosque is perched high up on one of Istanbul’s seven hills. It’s a bit of a hike to get up to the tope but the views over the city are completely worth it. Sunset will provide you with gorgeous colors over the city and the Bosporus Strait.
Just like many other mosques in Istanbul, visitors are welcomed here. There is a separate entrance for worshipers and for visitors. The inside is full of pastel colors that have been designed so artfully that the patterns fill the space with a tranquil feeling. Since Süleymaniye is a bit further from the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque, it doesn’t receive the same amount of traffic as the other two sites. Therefore, you can experience the mosque the way that they are meant to be experienced – peacefully.
Once you’re done at the Süleymaniye Mosque, just head down the hill toward the water and all of the boats. You’ve probably been able to see the bridge that goes across the water (not across the Bosphorus) that leads to a tower that’s nestled on the hill. The bridge is the Galata Bridge and probably one of the most entertaining places to people-watch in the old city. It’s even rarer for tourists to make their way here, especially in the late afternoon/evening (which is when I recommend you go).
There are dozens of fishers on the bridge at all hours of the day. Fish don’t sleep I guess. It’s fun to watch, although the smell isn’t the best because… fish. The most unique thing about this bridge is that there are actually dozens of restaurants on the bottom of the bridge. My parents and I had dinner on the bridge with a beautiful sunset view over the mosques. We were able to watch the boats go by and saw Istanbul transform from day into night. I highly recommend eating there if you want to people watch.
If there’s one thing I wished that I had been able to visit in Istanbul, it would have been this palace. Thanks to inaccurate time schedules and opening hours of various sites (I’m looking at you, Blue Mosque) my parents and I were cheated out of about an hour of sightseeing time. If we hadn’t lost out on that time, we would’ve had a few hours to stand in line and see the Topkapi Palace in all its glory. However, it did not disappoint, even from the outside.
The crown jewel of the Topkapi Palace is its harem. Every. Single. Article. Suggested that I visit the harem inside the palace. So I’m going to agree with them and say that it’s a must-see if you have the time. It costs extra to see the harem but everything I have heard says that the extra cost is completely worth it. Topkapi Palace has been there since the Ottoman Empire and construction began in the 15th century!
A downside is since the palace is close to the Hagia Sophia, it’s in the prime location for tour groups to pop over and see. So there will definitely be crowds there no matter what time of day you go. I suggest purchasing your tickets in advance, so that you don’t spend an hour in the line and then don’t have time to see the palace. The opening hours always seem to change, but look to see when the last entrance is so that you can plan accordingly to fit it in your schedule.
Even if you don’t want to go inside the actual Topkapi Palace and pay, go through the first gate, which is in the back right corner of the Hagia Sophia. Once inside that first courtyard, you will have a beautiful view over the Bosporus and onto the Asian side.
WHIRLING DERVISH SHOW
I must admit… I had no idea what these things were when I kept reading about them. Then I saw some pictures of them online and realized how cool they were. Attending a whirling Dervish show is one of those quintessentially Turkish things that tourists love to see. And with good reason.
Round out your whirlwind trip to Istanbul with a relaxing evening watching the whirling dervishes go round and round. Instead of paying a ridiculous amount to sit and see one of these shows, go to the Mesale Cafe by the Blue Mosque for dinner. In the evening, they offer a whirling dervish show that you can see while you enjoy your dinner or hookah. It’s killing two birds with one stone in my opinion because after all, you’re seeing as much of Istanbul with the time that you have.
PET THE CATS
Okay, so maybe this one all depends on if you’re a cat person or not. My mom and I were enthralled with the dozens of cats that roam all over Istanbul and she insisted on petting the friendly ones and taking pictures of them. The cats really are everywhere and the locals don’t really seem to mind. You don’t need to go crazy and take pictures of every single cat, but see if you can find some hanging around the most popular areas, like in the bazaars or the Blue Mosque!
And there you have it… the easiest things to see during a short stopover in Istanbul! There is so much to see in the city that you’d easily need a week to see it all but unfortunately, we don’t all have that time. So hopefully this can give you an idea of what to see and how to plan out your time to make the most of Istanbul when it’s crunch-time!
2 thoughts on “What to See in Istanbul on a Layover”
Istanbul really is worth seeing, plus the food was great and the people are great to strike up a conversation.
Oh yes, the food was pretty cheap and delicious!