Thanks to our multi-entry visa, we had the opportunity to explore both sides of Istanbul during our layovers. This post covers our adventures on the European side, later we also explored the Asian side like locals.

Our flight from Denver to Almaty cost 40,000 points each, which was an incredible deal. It also came with two extended layovers: 4 hours in Houston and 7 hours  in Istanbul.  Since we now have the luxury of time for our travel, we opted for routings like this that gave us big savings in air fare cost.

We also tried to make the most these layovers. In Houston, our friend Maneesh picked us up from the airport and took us out for TexMex, quite the send off meal for saying goodbye to America for a few months!

Free Istanbul Layover City Tour

For our Istanbul leg, we landed shortly after 5pm had until 12:45am.  Unfortunately we just missed the last free city tour provided by Turkish airline. We have a give a big shout for this program as it’s a phenomenal deal and a great way to make the most of a Istanbul connection. Turkish airline pays for all entrance fees, transfer and provides a tour guide.

Turkish Visa

Travelers are responsible for getting their own visa. Upon arrival we found out you can purchase visa on arrival or you can pre purchase an e visa through here. The cost is $20, are for multiple entry for 6 months. You can purchase your e visa up to  This enables you to bypass the visa line and go straight through customs.

Where We Stored Our Luggage

Knowing we had these layovers we opted to check out larger backpacks through to Almaty. However we each had the smaller backpacks that we did it want to bring into the city. The Turkish airport offers luggage storage. Upon exiting the international terminal (just after baggage claim) make a right. The luggage storage is next to the Turkish Airline tour desk and nestled between a Cafe Nero and Starbucks. It cost is 40 Lira or $11 to store 2 bags. Later we found out that the Turkish Airline lounge offers free luggage storage for guests. If you happen to have lounge access through your airline it may be useful to check if they do the same.

Layover Checklist

Here are our goals for the layover:

  • Unwind with a Turkish coffee, indulge on a a few Turkish delights, eat a Simit (Turkish bagel).
  • Find a place to watch the sunset over a glass of wine
  • Unwind from our travels at a Turkish Hammam (bath house)
  • See the highlights. The map below shows a layout of Istanbul and it’s main tourist attractions. We opted to focus our time on the area within the black circle.

Getting to the City Center

There are a few options for getting to the city center from Ataturk airport, we found this site useful for evaluating our options.

We headed down to the metro with the thought of trying to cheapest, most adventurous way of getting into the city. Upon arriving we found a bit of chaos around the ticket machine and also spotted a couple with backpacks looking at maps that seemed about as lost with the metro as we were. We approached them about splitting a cab into the city. The metro into the city center would have costed about 15 (~$4) Lira for the two of us. We had read that a cab into the city is about 45 Lira (~$12) so splitting it with another couple got us to just about the price of taking the metro.
Our Turkish cab driver had amazing spacial perception. There were numerous times he came within inches of hitting women, children, the elderly or other cabs that happened to be in the direction he wanted to drive. He had singular focus on getting to the destination the fastest route possible as we had pre negotiated the rate. This worked to our benefit as he successfully rerouted us along local roads when the highway was clogged due to an accident. He was not alone in offensive driving. Here is a video of other cabs backing out of a HIGHWAY because up ahead were delays:

Highlights of Our Evening in Turkey

There were not a lot of tourists in Istanbul, tourism in Turkey is still recovering from an 18 month slump.  We found this article useful in learning about the impact of the Russian ban (which was recently lifted) as well slow down due to terrorist attacks. We felt very safe walking around downtown Istanbul and found it quite unique that to have such a historical touristic place to ourself.

We asked to be dropped off near Hagia Sophia and walked along a busy street filled with food vendors.

We also passed the German Fountain:

We also picked up a Simit from a street vendors. This is sometimes referred to as a Turkish bagel. As a native New Yorker Jesse gave the Simit a big thumbs up.

From there we proceeded to the park leading up to Hagia Sofia

We didn’t go into the Hagia Sophia. Quan didn’t bring a shoulder covering and didn’t want to enter the mosque without it. We also wanted to be walking around outside as long as possible given the long flight we just finished and the one we had ahead of us.

Right across the street from the Hagia Sophia is the Blue Mosque. We also did not enter (it actually closed at 5), but the courtyard was still open for visitors.

Can you spot Jesse below?

By this time the sun was starting to set and it was time for us to find a rooftop and a glass of wine:

By the time we finished with our sunset we had about two hits before we had to be back at the airport.

Next on the check list was a Turkish Hammam (bathhouse), we chose Cemberlitas Hamami, which was built in 1584 by the great architect Sinan and is among the most beautiful in the city.

This is our TOP RECCOMENDATION for an Istanbul airport layover. $50 gets you entry into the bathhouse (men and women are separated), a 15 minute exfoliation scrub (they essentially end up bathing you), and a 30 minute oil massage. There really isn’t a better way to recover from a flight. Inside the Cemberlita, the bath chambers have a huge marble sıcaklık (circular marble heat platform) and a gorgeous dome with glass apertures. Before and after your exfoliation and massage you can lie on the heated marble platform and take in the amazing architecture of the building.
We reunited after our bathhouse experience and it was time for us to go back to the airport, but not before completing the final item on our check list, Turkish coffee and delights:

With our check list done we headed back to the airport with plenty of time leftover before our flight boarded. We wanted to make a final shout out to the Turkish Airlines lounge for the Istanbul layover bucket list.  We were lucky to have access and it is probably the prettiest and most well stocked airport lounge either of us have ever been to!

Turkish Airline Lounge in Istanbul

So that completes our 7 hours in Istanbul, next up Almaty, Kazakhstan!