During my trip to Israel, I had a 5 hour layover at the Ataturk Airport in Istanbul and did not want to miss seeing this amazing city. I applied for my Turkey e-visa ahead of time so I could make a mad dash to the city after landing. With a long list of spectacular sights, it was challenging to figure out what to see in a limited time. I felt like I was in the show The Amazing Race. Here's what I was able to see in the city on a time crunch.
Istanbul In Hours Layover Tour Video:
There were many different options to get to Istanbul quickly from the Airport.
1. Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Mosque)
We drove along the Bosporus ocean front and about a half hour later, we reached the Blue Mosque. This is one of the architectural crown jewels of Istanbul. It was built in 1616 by Sultan Ahmet when he was only 19 years old. It was built in Islamic late classical Ottoman style with 6 minarets, as opposed to the usual two to four for mosques. The interior consists of 260 windows and 20,000 blue tiles, hence the name.
Before going inside, visitors must remove their shoes (they provide plastic bags for them) and also adhere to the dress code (there are scarves to rent). Basically, shoulders, knees, collarbones, and hair (for women) must be covered. There is no entry fee as this is a practicing mosque to this day.
2. Hagia Sophia
Adjacent to the Hagia Sophia is the Blue Mosque. This is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the architectural wonders of the world. The enormous domed building and towering minarets can be seen from afar. It was originally built as an Eastern Orthodox church in 537 AD, then converted to a mosque in 1453 adding Islamic disks and minarets, and has now been secularized into a museum starting in 1935. Many symbols from the original church were covered and not removed during the conversion.
There is an entry fee and optional tours (they take credit cards). Seeing this building in person is truly magical. The massive dome is the epitome of Byzantine architecture at 180 feet high. This church has been standing for over 1400 years.
3. Basilica Cistern
Last but not least, we walked across the street to the Basilica Cistern. Unfortunately, the Cistern only takes Turkish Lira for the entrance (no credit cards), so I wasn't able to get inside. Instead, we visited the bazaar and got some street food.
Istanbul is one of the most unique cities in the world. Demographically, it is one of the largest cities at roughly 15 million people and has a 99% Muslim population, although it maintains neutrality between church and state. It was ancient Byzantium and straddles two continents - Europe and Asia. It used to be known as Constantinople thanks to Roman Emperor Constantine. However, it is not the capital of Turkey (that is Ankara). It is also one of the most photogenic cities with colorful markets everywhere.
- Outside the Blue Mosque- Beware of aggressive shopkeepers at this mosque who will offer to be a tour guide for exchange for a visit to their shop. The Blue Mosque website warns about this.
- Outside the Hagia Sophia - People will offer you different tours with the promise of allowing you to skip the line. If you want a tour of the Hagia Sophia, make sure to go with a reputable guide.
- Wear appropriate clothing - This means cover up and wear a headscarf in mosques for women. Also, wear shoes that are easy to take off for the mosques.
- Ataturk Airport Turkish Airlines Lounge -Allow for extra time to get to the airport. And if you have extra time, don't miss the Turkish Airlines business class lounge. It is one of the most architecturally beautiful lounges where you can get a taste of the Turkish cuisine.
What are your must see places to see in Istanbul?
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