Layovers in Istanbul

Since the beginning of this year, I’ve been thinking about a visit to South Africa to see my family after not being able to go for a couple of years. So when I found a flight from Atlanta to Cape Town via Istanbul, Turkey for a very reasonable price, and during a time frame that would work for my husband, kids and job, I immediately booked it. I have not flown Turkish Airlines before, and have never been to Istanbul either.

My brother-in-law David, a seasoned traveler (go check out GeezerAbroad) heard about my plans and since he was thinking of a trip to Portugal, he decided to fly via Istanbul as well. Soon we were planning on what we can see during my two 10 1/2 hour layovers. David and Ilse have been to Istanbul before, once spending a couple of nights there, so they know the area and know how to get around.

Istanbul Airport

The new Istanbul International Airport is huge! It has only been in operation since 2019 and is already one of the busiest airports in Europe. Not only that, but it is also the world’s largest airport terminal building under a single roof. Once it is fully completed, which they expect to be in 2025, it will offer flights to more than 350 destinations and have an annual capacity of up to 200 million passengers.

Istanbul Airport

First Layover

We landed at 3:40 in the afternoon and were bussed to the terminal. We had quite a walk to get to Passport control, but lines were moving fast and we had no issues getting through and all the way to the taxi area. Since David would be staying a bit longer, he booked a hotel and we dropped his bag off on the way to Istanbul city centre. At the moment a taxi, bus or rental car are your only options to get from the airport to downtown Istanbul. The new metro line is under construction and should be operational towards the end of 2022.

I am not going to lie, the taxi ride to downtown Istanbul was a scary experience for me. There was a lot of traffic and not a whole lot of traffic rules were being observed at all. Our driver must have been reliving a PlayStation race, or maybe he was a retired Formula 1 racecar driver… Even at the speeds we were travelling, and the roughly seven hundred and ten abrupt lane changes he made, it still took us about an hour to get to our destination. I did manage to take in some scenery along the way, but I’m sure I missed a whole lot more when reflexes forced my eyes shut!!

Downtown Istanbul

We were dropped off at Taksim Square and started our sightseeing walk with a view of the Republic Monument and the Taksim Mosque right behind it.

Taksim Square, The Republican Monument and Taksim Mosque

We followed the main pedestrian boulevard, which turned into a nice cobblestone walkway, and I tried to take in all the shops, eateries, bars and cafes along the way. This area was busy with visitors enjoying the nightlife, shopping or choosing from numerous dining options. I loved the little ice cream stands and shops. They were offering quite a show along with the actual ice cream. It was early evening and the weather was great, so we were dealing with huge crowds of locals and tourists also taking in the sights.

View walking down the Istiklal Cd.

You don’t realize it at the time, but it is about a 2.5km / 1.5-mile walk and it takes you downhill all the way to the Galata Bridge. I enjoyed the walk, especially since we just had a 10 1/2 hour plane ride and I had another one like it coming up to get to Cape Town.

On the walk down, we stopped for pictures at the Galata Tower. This tower was built in 1348 (!!!) and was the tallest building in the city at that time. It is nine stories high with an observation deck below the top ornament. While it had many functions originally, including being a watchtower, it is now a museum and exhibition space.

Galata Tower

Galata Bridge

We were met with a fantastic view when we finally made it all the way down to the Golden Horn waterway (an inlet of the Bosphorus river). Our walking route ended at the Galata Bridge, which crosses the Golden Horn and we could see the ferries going back and forth. We could also see so many mosques in the distance. The current bridge is the fifth known as the Galata Bridge and was only completed in 1994. The first version was constructed back in 1845. The bridge’s top deck has car lanes and a pedestrian walkway in each direction. Below, on the first floor, is a market area with many different restaurants.

Galata Bridge across the Golden Horn

We got an outside table at one of these restaurants and enjoyed a beer and some appetisers while watching the day turn into night. Plenty of locals come to this area as well and were strolling by taking in the sights.

Beer and Appetizers with a View

After our light dinner, we crossed the rest of the bridge passing more pedestrians and even local fishermen trying their luck. We made our way to the taxi rank and ordered our ride back to the airport. This was a much quieter and more enjoyable ride than our earlier one, so much so that I took a short nap! Soon I was saying goodbye to David and making my way back through security, passport control and into the airport.

View back at the Galata Bridge

Time to Kill

After browsing a couple of duty-free shops and buying some Turkish Delight to take with me to South Africa, I settled down at a second-floor table to read a bit and watch my fellow travelers down below. Here I waited more than an hour for my gate announcement. It was an uneventful walk to the correct terminal and gate, where I could easily spot fellow South Africans waiting for boarding to start. Again we were bussed out to where our plane waited. I was finally on my way to South Africa.

Second Layover

I spent a great couple of weeks in South Africa (more on that later) and all too soon it was time to start the travel process back home. I had my Covid test appointment on the morning of my return flight and after receiving a negative result, travelled from Cape Town to Istanbul without any issues.

This time my flight arrived just before 5am local time and I was not in a big hurry to go through passport control. David was going to pick me up from the airport and I figured he could use an extra hour or so of sleep before the drive. It was an even longer walk this time to get to passport control and I called Pieter from there to chat a bit. I then called David before passing through passport control and making my way to the passenger pick up area.

Istanbul is really pretty so early in the morning. Not a whole lot of traffic on the roads and the air is clear and bright. It was still too early for breakfast so we had to wait around a bit. David got a restaurant recommendation from his hotel and we excitedly made our way there for a true Turkish breakfast.

Turkish Breakfast

You might want to know what a classic Turkish breakfast is. Well, it is generally comprised of black and green olives, cucumbers, cured meats, dips and sauces, eggs, fresh cheeses, fresh tomatoes, fresh-baked bread, fruit preserves and jams, honey, pastries, and sweet butter. So this was what we were expecting. And boy, we were not disappointed! The staff just kept on bringing out more and more plates of food! The pictures say it all.

Classic Turkish Breakfast

We were seated within view of the bakers and since they heard we were from the USA, they even customized and baked a special bread for the two of us. The staff didn’t speak much English, but were so friendly and seemed to like the idea of having international guests.

Heading Back Home

After breakfast (which we couldn’t finish) we headed back to the airport to return David’s rental car and catch our flight back to Atlanta.

Overall, I will definitely recommend travelling with Turkish Airlines and utilizing the stopover in Istanbul. While a 10 1/2 hour layover is way too short to see everything, there are options to stay a bit longer and get the full Istanbul experience. Maybe next time 🙂

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