We had a layover in Istanbul for 9hrs between our flights from JFK to the Maldives, though what we did can be done easily in about 4hrs of time in the City so if you have a little less that us you can still get out there and check out this wonderful location.
I started writing this from the Prime Class lounge in Istanbul (IST Airport) the ‘Prime Lounge’ was the only one I spoke to that would allow me access with my Priorty Pass (free for me, $27 for one guest) that had showers. Having spent today getting to see some of the sights of Istanbul on route to the Maldives (MLE airport). The lounge is small, but decent. Food is above average and there is the standard fair available on the beverage side. They do allow access to all sorts of card holders, I saw Citigold and was excited, they told me it was for Turkish only accounts so the trusty Priority Pass came to the rescue.
I am a little confused that they didn’t ask for a Credit Card for the $27 visitor fee, so will keep an eye on that to see if perhaps the lounge is uniquely free for guests too (the receptionist said that all guests were free, but in just 6hrs in Turkey I have learned that many folks here either don’t speak English very well, or are completely clueless about protocols like this. If free then this is the place to go for American Express Platinum Card holders who get the Priority Pass Select for free as a perk.
Turkish Airlines is now offering a great way to get to MLE from NYC, the late night flight (TK12) from JFK departs around Midnight, and arrives in Istanbul around 4pm. The next leg (TK730) occurs some 9hrs later at 1am the next day, getting you to the Maldives main Island at 12 Noon.
We flew this trip in Coach, and I must say I was very impressed (considering how much I hate coach) – the little things that made a big difference to the experience were:
- An Amenity Kit – typically only found in Business Class, receiving a nice, if a little smaller, kit from Turkish that included a tooth brush, lip balm, socks and eye mask (perhaps some other life changing thing, but I stopped after the toothbrush myself, which was a much appreciated thing for all.
- Free WiFi – this was a nice touch that we received on the 777 from JFK-IST, no nickle and diming charges on this one and it worked well. I used this to start routing out maps and itineraries for our layover in Istanbul and it helped immensely. It was notably absent from the newer A330 which was a disappointment.
- A Menu – I hate when some old battleaxe of a flight attendant barks “Chicken or Fish, CHICKEN OR F.I.S.H?!” (I’m looking at you AA) when I worry about what part of the Chicken or what type of sauce it is hidden in… a Menu takes away all my doubts and I can relax in my decision making ability. The icing on the cake (or more accurately Lemon Tart during out trip) is the back page that lists beverages that are complimentary, no nickle and diming $6 for a drink with dinner. Where was I going with this? Oh yes:
What to do with a Layover in Istanbul
We were very happy with the prospect of hitting the city and at least wandering about to find something local for dinner, and overall did quite well with out time here, despite the weather being unseasonably chilly and rainy we were glad of the time in this wonderful City, and glad of the hot shower in the lounge afterwards.
1. Get a Visa!
Yeah, it sucks, but you need a Visa to visit, the line for this is near the immigration point – go pay your $20 and get the souvenir stamp in your passport, go to immigration so they can stamp it with another stamp, pass go, collect $200 and get outta the airport, on your way you might want to drop your heavy carry-on bags too..
2. Leave your Luggage – in Left Luggage
Do me a favor, don’t try to ask where this place is located, if Turkish is not at least your 3rd language you will be sent on a wild goose chase. The good thing is that it is actually very easy to find and is located near the Metro Station entrance that you need to get to the city (if you are planning to both avoid traffic and be cheap in one fell swoop).
The tariff for your bags is shown on the right of this pic – my bookbag was rated as being worth 15 Turkish Lira (about $7 for the day) which was worth it since it somehow started weighing in at about 20lbs.
3. Get yourself on the Metro
This is one that I think we messed up – the Metro had two options, one was a pay as you go token (like the old subway Token in NYC) and an electronic card. If you are using the Tokens, like we did, the transfers between the Metro and the Tram service require a second payment – I believe that if you have the pass you can transfer for free- but I didn’t look into the pass to see if it had any other fees or minimums attached to it.
Buying the Tokens costs 3 Turkish Lira each, and the machine takes no bigger a bill than 20 TK – they obviously didn’t talk to the guys at the ATM who dispense 100 TK as a single bill, and breaking it is a PITA. I recommend drawing out an odd amount like 120 TK from the ATM to ensure you get at least one small bill of 20 TK at minimum. FYI the current exchange rate is 1.25 TK to 1USD so the ride is about the same as New York, around $2.25 (per token).
4. Places to Visit
The Blue Mosque
Tram Stop Sultanahmet – take the Metro from the Airport about 6 stops to Zeytinburnu and transfer for the Tram bound for Kabatas, it is another 16 stops to Sultanahmet for the Mosque – you need another Token to transfer (which you know if you read the paragraph above) Here is a link to the Metro Map the airport is in the bottom left corner called Alaturk Airport (this is IST, the main airport) we clocked the travel time from the airport to the Sultanhmet stop to be about 35-40 minutes in total, and the Mosque is a 5 minute walk from the stop.
The Blue Mosque is a wonderful building – it is a functional Mosque and they close it periodically throughout the day at Prayer time, however it is worth noting that they close fully at 5:30pm, so it if you want to see it (free admission and open to all) I would recommend going there first. It really is up there with the Bucket List of things to see in Turkey!
The Mosque was completed in 1616 and is in excellent condition, the inside is beautiful, and I predict it to be shown soon in a Trip Report!
The Grand Bazaar
Getting There – Walk! It is an easy 10 minute walk from the Blue Mosque (5 minutes if you come from Brooklyn) and there are lots of friendly tourist police to guide you in the right direction.
This is another Epic adventure and a fantastic way to spend your layover in Istanbul; be prepared to haggle like crazy and get swept up in the excitement. We managed to escape without buying anything but were very close on two carpets (the main reason is that we have another 12 days on the road to the Maldives, Sri Lanka and Tokyo before we get home). To give an idea on prices a nice leather rug (5×7 ft) was started at $380 USD and we got them down to $150, but they wouldn’t go lower – I left with my bid of $125 (I countered $380 with $75…) but I think we could have closed at $140 if I had wanted to schlep it all the way. The Bazaar is wonderful, and the owners of the best shops there actually still pay their rent in Gold- 7KG of fine gold per year for rent in the best locations.
This Museum faces the Blue Mosque so each are doable in the same visit, unfortunately they close earlier at 5pm and the last entrance occurs at 4pm, so we missed the chance to go there – if you are getting in a bit before we did then go there first, walk around and then head to the Blue Mosque. Hagia Sophia predates the Blue Mosque and was originally an Eastern Othodox Cathedral built in 537AD, it is a beautiful building and has been many things since it was built, including Mosque itself, changing to a Museum about 80 years ago. I would have loved to have seen it, but I do need an excuse to return to the city so this is it!
We grabbed some food at a local looking place, which in fairness was a mistake. They served Kebab by the 100g and we just said ‘give us a small plate to share’ they came back with something mounded up that we forced ourselves through, which turned out to be 600g and cost $37 for the plate, frankly we felt robbed but it was our own fault for not being more specific. I’d recommend a place like this but keep an eye on what you are ordering.
Grab Some Turkish Delight from one of the many shops – we chose Koska, since 1907 sounded like they knew what they were doing, a 1lb box of mixed varieties came in at about $5 which was a bargain!
So next time you are transiting through Istanbul for any reason (hopefully because you are heading to the Maldives like we were, get out of the airport and check out the town, you will have a great time!