The beauty of a layover trip in a foreign city is that it adds another adventure to a vacation at minimal cost. Istanbul, the ancient city that straddles Asia and Europe, is an excellent destination for the quick layover tourist. There are dozens of flights every week between Tel Aviv and Istanbul’s biggest airport and major international hub Ataturk International. For a pit stop to remember in Istanbul, all that is required is around nine to ten hours of time in between flights, some basic research about the city prior to arrival, and good walking shoes.
Ataturk International is located around 20 km from the city center and has its own metro station that is connected to the city’s extensive metro and tram network. You’ll need to buy a disposable metro card with three rides at the airport for 10 Turkish lira. Be conservative and budget an hour each way to get to and from the airport, although it takes a bit less. At the point where you swipe your card ask the attendant for a free transit map of the city. Nothing ruins a layover more than missing the next flight on your journey.
First mission: Get to the historic center of the city where the Grand Bazaar, and the two iconic mosques the Haghia Sophia and the Blue Mosque are located.
To get there you’ll need to transfer from the airport metro to a tramline at Zeytinburnu station bound for Kabatas station. For the Bazaar get off at Beyazit tram station. The Bazaar is enormous and has over 4000 shops that you won’t have time to explore but you can walk down the main market artery which leads in the direction of the two famous mosques. It is hard to err on this walk. Just follow the signs and ask locals if you are going in the right direction.
A note on public transportation: The metro and tram cars in Istanbul are comfortable, the trains arrive frequently and there will always be someone around who knows enough English to answer your questions. But most important of all, on a short sojourn anywhere, public transportation is the optimal way to get acquainted with the residents of a place and see them in their every day routine up close.
I chose to enter the Blue Mosque that was commissioned by Sultan Ahmet I and was completed in 1616. There was a quick moving line and visitors are required to take off their shoes so it kind of smelled like stinky feet. I took a couple minutes to look around and gazed at the impressive gold and blue ceiling and then I left.
Istanbul’s European and Asian sides are divided by the Bosphorus strait, the waterway that connects the Black Sea in the north with the Sea of Marmara and the Mediterranean Sea in the south. The Bazaar and the landmark mosques are on the European side as is another important area of the city, the Beyoglu district where Taksim Square and Istikal Caddessi, the city’s famous pedestrian avenue are located.
Beyoglu is separated from the historic districts by an inlet of the Bosphorus called the Golden Horn. To get to Beyoglu from the old historic center, hop on the same tramline you took earlier bound for Kabatas station. Look out the window for fine views of the Bosphorus and at Kabatas get off the tram and take a funicular up the steep hill towards Taksim. When you get off you will see the square and Istikal Cadessi that is lined with trendy shops and packed with people.
Istikal Cadessi slopes down the hill in Beyoglu back to the direction of the Golden Horn and to Karakoy station, which is on the tramline that you need to take to get back to the airport. But before heading back to the airport there is still some time to explore a few of the smaller streets that branch off from the bustling pedestrian mall. It was on one of these streets that a local recommended the restaurant Beyaz Lokanta on Iman Adnan Sok. # 10.
For ten and-a-half lira I ate a delicious meal of Kebab with hot sauce and peppers stuffed with rice and pine nuts, an eggplant salad with cream sauce and a sparkling water. The restaurant has a casual diner vibe and was filled with Istanbullular – what the locals are called.
The last stop before departing for the airport was Galata Tower, a very old 65 meter tower dating from the year 507. Waiting in line for half an hour to take the elevator ride to the top was worth it for the panoramic views of the city and the Bosphorus.
Getting back to the airport with a comfortable three hour cushion before my next flight gave me plenty of time to browse the duty free and have a coffee.Israeli tourists do not require a tourist visa for Turkey but citizens of some other countries must purchase a visa at the airport before passport control. Americans must pay $20 for the visa and Canadians and Australians pay $60. One Turkish lira is around 45 cents US or 1.5 Shekels. Lira are not accepted at the airport.