Long Layover: Istanbul in 5 Hours

When connecting in Istanbul, you might find yourself with a long layover in Istanbul.  Nine, ten, and eleven hour layovers at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport are common.  If you are wondering what you can accomplish on a long layover in Istanbul, here is some practical information about visas, transportation, and Istanbul’s sights, to help you plan.

Galata, Istanbul
Galata, crowned by the famous Galata Tower


There are very few countries that don’t require a visa at all to visit Turkey. Most visitors need to purchase a tourist visa for about $20. You have two choices: you can purchase your visa using the online portal (be sure to print a copy or save it to your phone), or you can purchase it in the airport.  Purchasing a visa online could save you time in the airport visa line (located just before passport control), however if you don’t have access to a printer it might be better to purchase the visa at the airport.


Public transportation from the Airport into Sultanahmet – Istanbul’s Historic District – is pretty straightforward.  Catch the Metro from the Airport to the Zeytinburnu stop where you transfer to the T1 tram (toward Kabatas) which will take you all the way down to Sultanahmet.  There is a stop next to the Grand Bazaar and one opposite the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque.

If you need more help planning your trip, Istanbul’s public transit system has a website with route maps, timetables, and a trip planner.

What to do

Most visitors confine their exploration of Istanbul to the old  Sultanahmet district and the more European Galata district. You will find plenty to fill your layover in Sultanahmet alone.

Sultanahmet is the historic neighborhood below the golden horn.  It is in Sultanahmet that you will find most of Istanbul’s most famous landmarks and sights.  I’ve listed these attractions in a circular order that will flow easily from one to another depending on your timing and attraction hours.

If you have a very long layever (longer than 12 hours), you might expand your visit to the attractions in Galata.



Egyptian Obelisk, Istanbul
Egyptian Obelisk

The Hippodrome is really more of a public square in the place that once held the Roman Hippodrome. Nevertheless, there are a few items of interest in this square, and since it lies between the tram stop and the Blue Mosque, you might as well know what you are seeing:

Egyptian Obelisk At the far end of the oblong square you will see a giant stone obelisk. Believe it or not, what shows here is only the top third of a monument that was transported from Egypt to Byzantium during the 4th century. Only the top third survived transportation. This is the oldest monument in the city of Istanbul. more information

Serpentine Column The bronze column of three intertwined snakes was taken from the temple of Apollo in Adelphi, Greece. It was installed in Istanbul by Emperor Constantine.

German Fountain (Fountain of Kaiser Wilhelm II) is an octagonal public fountain with water taps on each side.  It was installed in 1898.

The Colossus or the Column of Constantine Porphyrgenitus is the other obelisk on the square.  It is more eroded than the Egyptian obelisk and was thought to have been erected to create parallelism with the older monument.


Blue Mosque

Inside the Blue MosqueAfter visiting the Hippodrome, continue across the square to the Sultanahmet Mosque (commonly called the Blue Mosque),  This mosque was constructed between 1609 and 1616 during the reign of Ahmed I.  It is free to visit and is open to the public except for during prayers. Don’t forget to remove your shoes before entering (if you do forget, someone will certainly remind you) and to cover your hair with a scarf if you are a woman.

The mosque is huge.  It has six minarets, a large courtyard area, and the interior is decorated with blue floral ceramic tiles (giving the mosque its nickname).


Hagia Sophia

Just across a large public courtyard from the Blue Mosque you will see the unmistakable domes of the Hagia Sophia.  The Hagia Sophia was a project of Emperor Justinian. Construction was begun on February 23, 532 and the church was completed in just 5 years.  For a Mellinium, the Hagia Sophia was the largest church in the world. In 1453, the Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque. The four Minarets were added, and interior icons were removed.

Today the Hagia Sophia is a Museum. The size a beauty of this ancient structure is sure to inspire, and if you see only one thing in Istanbul, make it the Hagia Sophia.

Entrance: tickets for the Hagia Sophia Museum cost 30TL (about 13USD, or 10 Euro).

Winter hours: 09.00 to 17.00, with the final entry being at 16.00 (Closed Monday)

Summer hours: 09.00 to 19.00, with the final entry being at 18.00 (Closed Monday).

Hagia Sophia, Istanbul
Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

Bascilica Cisterns

Basilica Cisterns, Istanbul
Basilica Cisterns, Istanbul

The Entrance to the Bascilica Cisterns is just across the street from the Hagia Sophia (opposite the yellow police box). the entrance is small since the bulk of this attraction lies underground.  The Bascilica Cisterns were built in 532, about the time that work on the Hagia Sophia was completed. The cisterns are a giant underground room complete with columns (336 of them) and vaulted ceilings created to provide water to the palace complex.  Water was delivered to the cisterns by way of aqueduct.

The ambiance of the cisterns at a time when there aren’t a lot of people is unbeatable.  When there isn’t too much of a crowd, the huge, dimly-lit underground inspires a reverent hush. Walkways guide visitors over the water through the neat rows of stone columns. Don’t forget to walk all the way to the furthest corner to check out the Medusa heads at the bottom of two of the columns.

Entrance:  Tickets for the Bascilica Cisterns cost 10TL (around 5USD, or 3.5 Euro).

Hours: Open daily from 9:00am to 5:30 pm.


Grand Bazaar

From the Cisterns, walk up the hill following the tram line until you reach the top.  On your right you will find one of several entrances to the Grand Bazaar.  Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar can be an overwhelming experience.  My advise is to don your sense of humor, forget what you want, and explore the endless isles of souvenir, lamp, and carpet shops at a liesurely place, remembering that the agressive sales techniques and long conversations about how you couldn’t possible put a rug in your carry-on over cups of apple tea are all a part of the experience.

Hours: Open Monday-Saturday 9:00 – 19:00. Closed Sundays and Bank Holidays.

From the grand Bazaar, you can catch the T1 Tram back out to the airport.

Grand Bazaar, Istanbul
Grand Bazaar, Istanbul


If you have more time to fill, you can go down the hill toward the Golden Horn to the Egyptian Bazaar or Spice Market, or cross the Galata Bridge, ride the Funicular (one of the oldest in the world) up the hill, visit the Galata Tower, and stroll along Istiklal Street. Don’t rush things though.  Istanbul is a city to be savored and trying to go too fast might give you a belly ache – besides, you can always visit those places on your next long layover in Istanbul.


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