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Last year, I booked a longer layover in Istanbul en route to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, from Madrid to experience a free city tour, as I had never been to Turkey and thought it would provide a great introduction. Of course, when I was booking all this, I wasn’t expecting an attempted military coup, but I ended up going through with my travel plans regardless. In the end, I was really happy I went, and the tour was a fun and insightful experience.
Turkish Airlines and touristanbul make it easy for transit passengers to take advantage of the free city tour. The official details are as follows:
- The tours are for passengers flying Turkish Airlines internationally with layovers of at least six hours.
- To take the tour, you must present your boarding pass at the touristanbul desk in the international arrivals hall before it starts.
- No reservations are needed, but you can email touristanbul or visit its website if you have questions ahead of time.
- Some tours include free meals, like breakfast and lunch, depending on the length of the tour.
- Itineraries vary depending on the length of your layover, so check to see which one works for you.
Since my layover was about 14 to 15 hours long, it gave me just enough time to do the 9:00am to 3:00pm tour. I’d originally hoped to do the one that lasted until 6:00pm, but was advised not to, as the lines at security and passport control were quite long and could have made me miss my connecting flight to Kuala Lumpur. I landed at 5:00am, having taken a red-eye from Madrid, and promptly headed through passport control, which was a breeze since I’d completed my Turkish e-Visa online a few days before.
I headed to the touristanbul hotel desk at 6:00am and the agent took my boarding pass, registered me and told me to meet at the Starbucks next door at 9:00am.
After putting away my carry-on bag in left luggage ($7 per day), and indulging myself with a nap and a coffee, I headed over to Starbucks at about 8:45am. By 9:00am, we were on the bus. The guide handed back our boarding passes along with a free gift, a circular piece of fabric that could double as a scarf, headband or hat.
We also received a card showing instructions for the many ways it could be worn, which was a nice touch.
The tour was clearly popular, with 42 people from all over the world on our new and comfortable bus.
All tours are conducted in English, by the way, and our guide explained what was included:
- Complimentary Turkish-inspired breakfast
- A visit to the Blue Mosque
- A stroll through the city center to see monuments such as the Hagia Sofia, the Hippodrome, the Serpentine Column and Obelisk of Theodosius
- A visit to the Topkaki Palace
- Free lunch, a fixed menu of traditional Ottoman cuisine
- Transport back to the airport
- Those staying on for the tour until 6:00pm could also visit the Spice Market and Grand Bazaar.
The bus left promptly at 9:02am, driving along the coastal road that connects the airport to the city center, and by 10:00am we were at our seaside breakfast spot. The tables and plates had already been set up to include cheese, meats, olives, bread, jam, honey and a boiled egg. Tea was available but not coffee, so if you need a java to get you through the day, have one before setting off on the tour.
We only had about 20 minutes or so to enjoy breakfast, however, as the tour moved fast. From the breakfast spot, we walked a short way through the city streets toward our first tourist attraction, the Blue Mosque.
If you aren’t properly dressed, the mosque will provide headscarves and items to cover legs and shoulders. I had a long dress, but you need to be nearly totally covered — my dress had slits along the calves, so I had to borrow a skirt to cover up fully.
You must then take off your shoes and place them in a plastic bag to carry around with you. As you might imagine, it took a bit of time for 42 tourists to go through the whole process, so we had only 15 minutes to walk around before moving on to the next location.
Covered in blue tiles with high, arched ceilings, the inside of the mosque was stunning. The people inside ranged from tourists taking photos to those who were praying. The outside of the mosque is just as lovely, with its signature minarets and stone courtyards.
With a brief stop to buy some corn on the cob, I then was able to take in what is apparently one of the oldest monuments in Istanbul, the Egyptian Obelisk of Theodosius and another important site, the Serpentine Column.
From there, we took a brisk walk to photograph the outside of the Hagia Sofia, which started off as a Greek Orthodox church, was turned into a Catholic church by the Crusaders, became an Ottoman mosque and is now a secular museum. In all, this was a beautiful representation of Turkish history.
I loved the overall vibe of Istanbul. I felt very comfortable and safe among the locals and the city center was picturesque and special.
Admission to Topkaki Palace is normally about $15 per person, but was included as part of the city tour. The palace itself was more like a small village, with floral gardens and several buildings and rooms each dedicated to specific artifacts like porcelain or ancient kitchenware.
We had about 50 minutes of free time to walk around, which wasn’t nearly enough, but it still was amazing to see the beautiful buildings and charming gardens.
I stayed at the back of the group so I’d have enough time to enjoy the panoramic views of Istanbul and the famous Bosphorus Bridge, which connects Europe with Asia.
From there, I explored the Sultan’s old rooms, which were beautifully preserved, the weapons room, with plenty of old swords and armor, and the Islamic Holy Relics room, which showcases important artifacts like what’s reputed to be the staff Moses used to part the Red Sea. This room has been the site of people reciting the Quran since the 17th century.
When the 50 minutes were up, we regrouped and headed down the palace stairs to eat lunch at a beautiful spot overlooking the water.
A typical Turkish lunch was served as a preset menu, including salad, juice, water, meat pastries, chicken and lamb shawarma, rice, vegetables and a sweet custard. There was also a vegetarian option available. The food wasn’t incredible, but was still pretty good, generously spiced with the fact that it was totally free and came with awesome sea views.
After eating, it was time to head back to the bus and return to the airport. Those on the 6:00pm tour continued. We even managed to get to the airport on time despite the rush-hour traffic.
Though I am not typically a fan of big group tours, I love that Turkish Airlines offers this. It’s a really nice way to take advantage of a long layover and get a brief peek at such a beautiful city. I loved how they arranged everything for you and included meals, too.
The tours are provided to pique interest in Istanbul and motivate visitors to return to the city later, and it totally worked. I can’t wait to go back someday and see more of this incredible city.
Of course, if you are worried about the state of the country in today’s troubling times, use your best judgment and check in with the US State Department for travel warnings and recommendations.
Keep in mind that if you have a longer layover and there are no earlier flights available, you can choose instead to get the free hotel offered by Turkish Airlines. But if you do that, you can’t do the tour as well, so you’ll have to pick which one you want most.
Have you ever taken the free Turkish Airlines city tour of Istanbul? Tell us about your experience, below.
All images by the author.