How to spend a 12 hour layover in Istanbul?

Having a longer layover can be a great thing, especially if you can spend it in a city as magical as Istanbul. Last year, despite the terrible November weather, Istanbul amazed us and we knew we were coming back soon. So when we found affordable plane tickets to Bali with Turkish Airlines we were actually looking forward to the 12 hour layover. Even with new airport being further from the city and with no metro lines yet, you can still enjoy the beauty of Istanbul. Here is my little guide on how to spend 12 hour layover in Istanbul.


Getting to the city

The old Istanbul Ataturk airport was a lot closer to the city center and you could reach it easily with shuttle bus and metro as well. This new airport is a lot further from the city and there are no metro connections yet, which leaves you with shuttle bus and taxi to get to the center of Istanbul. Luckily they have great shuttle bus connections Havaist with different stops all around the city and they are quite frequent, running every half an hour. The price is 18 TL (2,76 EUR) and you can buy ticket at the kiosk outside the airport, where all the buses stop or pay with card on a bus, you can’t pay cash on a bus.

To get to Sultanahmet you need to take IST-20 bus and for Taksim take IST-19. There are no timetables for the return to the airport, as it depends on the traffic. It will take around an hour, hour and a half to get to the city.

Find more information here.

Important note: check if you need visa or something else to be able to leave the Istanbul Airport.



If you fly with Turkish Airlines and have a layover over 6 hours, you can sign up for Touristanbul and enjoy your layover without fuss and for free. The tour, entrances and food with Touristanbul is all free. It is perfect way to see the best of Istanbul in a short amount of time and with no fuss.

We debated weather we should go on this tour or plan our own, but since we saw most of the things we would cover in this tour last year, we decided to DYI our Istanbul layover. But if it is your first time in Istanbul or you just don’t want to worry about anything, then this is perfect for you. I would suggest you check out the tours they are offering anyway as it might also serve you as a great inspiration for your own itinerary.

Layover in Istanbul (1)


What to do in the city?

Well, Istanbul is huge and with lots of stunning sights, so it is nice to be prepared if you want to squeeze in as much as possible. With 12 hour layover I believe you have around 6 to max of 8 hours to spend in the city, which is not much, but it is also quite a lot and you can experience tons of things. I came up with 3 itineraries that can be your inspiration for how to spend your layover in Istanbul.

1. First time in Istanbul: Sultanahmet

If it is your first time in Istanbul you will probably want to see all the important sights in the city and lucky for you most of them are located very close together and your shuttle bus from the airport will drop you right there.

Take bus IST-20 to Sultanahmet and head straight to Hagia Sophia Museum to buy your ticket. As of 2019 the entrance fee is 72 TL. Hagia Sophia is stunning and if you are paying attention while walking around admiring the architecture you will notice the mixture of Christian and Islamic influences.

Before going to Blue Mosque I suggest you visit Basilica Cistern, where they stored water for the Great Palace of Constantinople and later Topkapi Palace with surrounding buildings. It is definitely a unique sight to see. The entrance fee is 20 TL.

Visiting the Blue Mosque is free, but since it is a fully functioning mosque, you will maybe need to wait for the end of prayer, when it will be open to visitors. If you happen to come to the place while it is closed for visitors, you can just grab a simit from one of the many red carts around and enjoy the beautiful surrounding while waiting or you can check the times when it will be open again and return later.

Don’t forget to get something to eat, as Istanbul has delicious food. Last year we enjoyed lunch in a local place with local prices Ortaklar Kebap Lahmacun. If you are a coffee lover also don’t miss out on having some Turkish coffee, maybe even with a view of Hagia Sophia? Then Seven Hills Restaurant is a place to pin on your Google maps for that incredible view with Turkish coffee or tea. There are tons of cafés everywhere so just go to the one that looks cozy and inviting to you.

No visit to Istanbul would be complete without some shopping in Grand Bazaar. Even if you don’t want to buy anything, because you still have a plane to catch later you should visit this place. It is such a maze of shops with incredible products, some clearly fake, but some really great hand made artworks.

If you still have time to spare you can go to Eminönü by the Galata Bridge, maybe walk the bridge a little to get some lovely views and grab a fish sandwich from one of the boats before catching a shuttle bus back to the airport from the Eminönü transit station.


2. Long walk from Taksim to Eminönü

Take the IST-19 bus to Taksim and head down the Istiklal Caddesi, a most known shopping street in Istanbul with over 3 million people walking along it every day. It is a busy street, but full of shops and cafés, so stop somewhere to get baklava, and somewhere else to get that Turkish coffee you are craving for. Wander into one of the beautiful passages and then back to the street to catch a glimpse of the nostalgic tram.

Istanbul (10)

On our layover we had great lunch at Çağrı Karadeniz Pide Kebap Salonu and last year we warmed up in Galata Kahvesi café. If you are coming to Istanbul in the morning and are craving a breakfast you can check my post from last year with 3 amazing breakfast places in Istanbul all quite close to Istiklal Caddesi. I would especially recommend Cuma Cafe, with their great selection of pastries and desserts. And to get some extra vitamins before catching your next flight don’t miss out on some pomegranate juice you will definitely come across while walking down the shopping street. There are also numerous lovely cafes in Karaköy if you prefer to just chill out.

Let the street guide you to Galata Tower, where you can (if the line doesn’t seem too long) get an amazing view of the city, but if you see that it will take too much time to get up there, you can head a bit further down to Salt Galata, a library and cultural center where you can enjoy some time around the books and admire the spectacular views for free and with no crowds.

Istanbul (5)

From there you can decide to cross the Galata Bridge and catch a IST-20 bus from Eminönü transit station so you don’t need to walk all the way back to Taksim. Crossing the Galata Bridge is a sight of its own and such a great way to finish your day with stunning views of the both side of the Golden Horn.

Layover in Istanbul (7)


3. Our Istanbul layover itinerary

Since we were already in Istanbul last year and visited all the “important” sights of Sultanahmet, we took it quite easy and decided to just visit Süleymaniye Mosque, that we skipped last year, due to bad weather. So we took a IST-20 bus that goes to Sultanahmet but we went down one stop earlier at Eminönü transit. A short walk through the market and a bit uphill we reached the magnificent Süleymaniye Mosque, that greeted us with no crowds and stunning views. The whole complex is truly beautiful, so it is worth to walk around a bit, see the mausoleum of Hurrem Sultan and pet some cats.

Layover in Istanbul (8)

Layover in Istanbul (11)

As we got back to Eminönü the sun was already setting and it was so beautiful to just watch the people and the seagulls around the Galata Bridge. This is definitely one of my favourite places in Istanbul, with people just going places or sitting down to enjoy the lovely sunny November day.

Layover in Istanbul (12)

Layover in Istanbul (13)

We crossed the Galata Bridge and walked to Galata Tower, to find out that the first place we ate at last year was closed and had to find another one. Still, good food is easily found in Istanbul and if they have pide we are sold. After delicious dinner at Çağrı Karadeniz Pide Kebap Salonu we took a little walk up the Istiklal Caddesi to experience it also in a lovely, no rain weather. We stopped at Sent Antuan Kilisesi church, because they already had Christmas tree out and it was really lovely.

We walked back to Eminönü, crossing the Galata Bridge when it was already dark and got some great views of the city on both sides, before heading back to the airport and check it out a bit as well.


Istanbul Airport

The new Istanbul Airport is huge, beautiful and surprisingly quiet. Last year when we arrived to Istanbul, it was still in the old Ataturk airport and the lines were crazy long, it took a while to get through all the security, but here it went so smoothly and with almost no lines at all. And I seriously doubt there was more traffic last year then it was this year, since it was almost at the same time and we got to experience the new airport in the middle of the day, night and early morning.

Layover in Istanbul airport

There is plenty to do in Istanbul Airport, from shopping in luxury boutiques, normal duty free shops and a little version of Grand bazaar, to eating in one of the restaurants where you feel like you are in a lovely Turkish village just there in the modern airport, or just getting some pastry and coffee from many other smaller places around the airport. And these are just the things we found, but there is supposed to be a spa somewhere, playground for kids and of course you can relax in one of their lounges, which I would really love to try out at some point.

One of the most important things while waiting at the airport is having a wifi. Some airports make it though to connect, and some are very open with it. Istanbul Airport is somewhere in between with this. You can receive one free hour of wifi by typing in your phone number and then log in with the code you receive by text. If you need more time, you can scan your passport at one of the many wifi stations around the airport and then log with the code you receive. I am sure you can easily get wifi in one of the lounges, or just pay for more time. I tried both with phone number and by scanning my passport and only received 50 minutes with each, which is not really nice.

Layover in Istanbul airport

What I really loved about this airport is that there is also natural light during the day, that it is quiet and doesn’t seem crowded. I guess that is because it is so huge and it is still growing, so it will maybe become more crowded in the future. Overall we had great experience with both Istanbul Airport and Turkish Airlines.

A few little extra tips on how to make the most of your layovers:

  • If possible choose the flight with layover during daytime, as this will give you the best chance to explore the city and visit some sights.
  • I also prefer to have my long layover on my way to destination, not on my way back. When I am returning I just want to get home as soon as possible, but that is just me.
  • Check the weather and dress appropriately. You might be heading to a tropical destination, but your layover destination might be in full winter mode, so take this into consideration.
  • Look into different ways of getting to and from the airport, so you know beforehand what are your options. This will save you time on transport and give you more time to enjoy the city you are visiting.
  • Check if your airline offers free tours (like Turkish Airlines with Touristanbul) or if you are eligible for hotel stay during your layover.


Which Istanbul layover itinerary would you choose? Which cities did you visit during your long layovers? 

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22 thoughts on “How to spend a 12 hour layover in Istanbul?

  1. Istanbul is up there as one of my all time favourite cities and each time I’m there I seem to spend days walking around just taking as much in as I can (and eating their bread). I would love to have a long layover in Istanbul like this – any visit I’ve made has had the city as my destination or my layover has only been three hours 😍♥️

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Istanbul is perfect for just wandering around. There are so many pretty details everywhere you look. We usually go for shorter layovers when possible but this was some promo price and we couldn’t avoid the long layover, but it turned out to be a great thing, since it meant we get to return to this wonderful city once again.

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    1. I can’t recommend Istanbul enough. You should check out some of my other posts on Istanbul from last year. It is a lovely city to visit, and it definitely deserves more than just a few hours during your layover. I also get a bit nervous about missing my flight, it came quite close few times, but now we had lots of time and got back to the airport more than early enough.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve always had a soft spot for Istanbul but somehow never made it to it. It is such a bucket list destination and I would love nothing more than to wander around its charming streets and gawk at the interior of the Blue Mosque. Thanks for sharing yet another great article and safe travels 😀 Aiva

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This is a great post! I honestly never even considered Istanbul for a layover… it seems like such a sprawling city (which I’m sure it is), but you’ve managed to highlight plenty of meaningful things to do that would make such a short “trip” worth it. Beautiful photos, as well!
    All the best!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much. Istanbul is huge, but luckily most big sights are quite concentrated so you can get a little taste if what the city has to offer in those few hours. For more you will just need to come back another time. Hope you decide to visit soon.


  4. I’ve wanted to visit Istanbul for so long…so much history there…amazing pictures too..that tour from the airport sounds good!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Istanbul is still on my top five favourite cities I’ve ever visited. There’s something about it that makes me want to visit again and your photos makes me want for more!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I miss the chance of seeing Istanbul outside the airport (Zurich-Abu Dhabi via Istanbul) I was a bit more scared of going out on our own with a child in tow. That was the time also that something bad happened to tourists in the City. I am not sure now if I can still have a chance next time.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Istanbul had its own share of troubles and I would probably stay away at those time as well, but I found it really safe on my last 2 visits. Its definitely worth checking the situation before going somewhere for your own safety.

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