It is quite the effort crossing from one end of a continent to the other, in terms of logistics and time. On my way to Thailand, I flew out of Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv with a 15 hour layover in Istanbul followed by an 8 hour flight that would hopefully get me to Bangkok in one piece. If you haven’t figured it out by the fact that this article was posted today, I made it! Typically, I would throw a fit if I had a layover that long, but luckily, I love Istanbul with a passion.
After 1.5 hours of security searching every corner of my bag, swabbing every inch of my clothing, and checking every strand of hair for a hint of a bomb threat at Ben Gurion, I was elated when I stepped off the plane in Istanbul once more. When I landed, the skies were threatening rain, but the day ended up being sunny and enjoyably cool. It was like the city was trying to match my happiness.
And thanks to some friends, I made an amazing discovery.
If you fly Turkish Airlines and have a connection in Istanbul’s Ataturk airport that is 6 hours or longer, there is a free tour [Yes, FREE] that allows you to go out and see some of the city’s major icons instead of wasting time twiddling your thumbs in the airport.
The company that runs the tours is called TourISTanbul (clever, right?), and like I said, the tour is completely free. It includes transportation to/from the airport and around the city with an English speaking guide, and they even throw in breakfast and lunch all free of charge. So what’s today’s word of the day? FREE!
Now, there is a bit of a catch (don’t hate me). There are three scheduled times that the tours run. The options are 12pm-5pm, 9am-3pm, or 9am-5pm. You need to arrive at the tour desk 30 minutes before departure, and once they leave, you can’t join in. The 9am tours leave on one shuttle, and anyone who needs to get back to the airport sooner will be driven by the shuttle. Everyone else will get picked up at the later time.
Where to find the TourISTanbul Desk
In the International Arrival hall, once you’ve landed and claimed your luggage, exit past the declaration desks, turn right, and go the Hotel Desk next to Starbucks. Tell them you want to do the free tour with TourISTanbul, and be ready to show your boarding passes or itinerary. Also, right next to the Hotel Desk is luggage storage where you can leave your bags for the day for the price of 15-20 TL.
What you’ll get to see on the tour
The tour includes stops to Tamara restaurant for a traditional Turkish breakfast, Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Bascilica Cistern, and lunch. If you stay on for the longer tour, you’ll stop at either the Spice Bazaar and the New Mosque or Topkapi Palace. The guide gives you free time to visit each site. Oh, and did I mention they cover the costs of the attractions too? FREE! If you’re not getting the point of this article yet, you may as well stop reading.
Depending on the attraction, you’ll be given about 30-60 minutes to explore at your leisure. You can even skip the tourist spots and just wander around the area. The guide will designate a meeting spot, and so long as you’re there on time to move on to the next destination, you can do whatever you please.
If you have a late night/early morning flight like I did, you also have the option to leave the tour behind at the end to explore Istanbul by night and catch the shuttle bus in Taksim Square back to the airport. Those shuttle buses run about every 30 minutes and cost 12 TL.
What I did with my time
Because I had visited Istanbul a few weeks prior and saw all the sites, I created my own itinerary with the free time we were given. I walked down some side streets and alleys that I hadn’t seen before. After purchasing some apple tea to take along with me on the rest of my trip, I stopped in for a quick chat with my new friends at the Intrepid Travel/Urban Adventures/Turkey Tourism office, and I went to marvel at Hagia Sophia once more. Towards the end of the day, I people-watched outside of the New Mosque and sat to enjoy some hot, fresh apple tea at a nearby café saying goodbye and blowing kisses to Istanbul.
For more information the TourISTanbul tours, visit their website. The next time you have a long layover in Istanbul and the stars align, consider this great alternative to getting out to see a bit of the city. It beats fighting boredom at the airport.
Major props to Turkish Airlines for running these tours. May many more airlines and airports follow in their footsteps. My heart aches to be back in Turkey, and as if I needed another reason to love that country, we can add “best layover to date” to the list.