Hello! I will have a layover (I'm traveling alone) in Istanbul this July that goes from 3pm on a Monday to 1:30pm the next day. I know this is pretty common so I'm wondering if anyone has any tips on what to do? I know there is the Touristanbul free tour but my timing isn't right for it. I feel like I will definitely have a few hours that night and a few hours in the morning and have heard many of the sites are really close to each other so I would love to see those rather than just sit at the airport or in a hotel. Any info on a good location to stay or what is still open after 5pm or anything else will be helpful. Thank you!
Stay in the Sultanahmet area near the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. Beautiful area with lots of sights. Based on the time of day that you'll arrive and leave, you won't be able to go into many locations (plus most museums are closed Mondays) but you can marvel at them from the outside. You may be able to make it into the Blue Mosque. I think the Underground Cistern may also be open until a little later ~6 or 7. You can also walk the Hippodrome at any time or head over to the Galata Bridge. You may even be able to make it to the Grand Bazaar or Spice Market but probably just for a quick visit. We particularly enjoyed Hotel Sultan Hill right behind the Blue Mosque for it's location and tasty breakfast. It's not fancy but the rates are certainly reasonable and it's hard to beat the location. Note - you WILL hear the call to prayer very well from here but that's the case in many parts of Istanbul. Enjoy it.
Even for this short stay, I'm sure you'll feel more comfortable with some guidebook info that includes maps, local transit tips, etc. Your local library may have some that you can selectively photocopy. Lonely Planet sells chapters in downloadable/printable PDF format for $5. Rick's Istanbul book is available in regular printed or e-book formats; look for the 2014 edition.
The Blue Mosque is open for visits outside of prayer time, until one hour before sunset. Sunset will be about 8:40 p.m. in July. After that, your main evening entertainment can be people watching and window shopping in that Sultanahmet area. Like other warm parts of the Mediterranean, people wait for the heat to break and take an evening stroll. (The first time that I flew in, I was lucky to happen upon a rock concert in that park by the Blue Mosque.)
Just take a van to Sultanamet. If you are lucky you will be in Istanbul during Ramadan.If so, head for the Hippodrome. Check the times for Aga Sophia. You might be able to get in. The Blue Mosque you can do later during daylight hours. You probably won't have time to go to Topkapi Palace, home of the Sultans, but there is a lovely public park you can stroll through which is contiguous to the Palace. It is also a nice place to sit down and also escape the heat.
If you walk down below, and around to the east of the Blue Mosque you can have dinner in a nice outdoor restaurant in front of Arasta Bazaar. There is a Whirling Dervish show each night at 8 P.M. Yes, a bit touristy, but the music is lovely and it is a great place to sit outside while having dinner. If you were interested in Turkish textiles you would want to visit Jennifer's Hamam. She (Jennifer is a Canadian who has helped to restore an industry) has two shops in the Arasta Bazaar. Also, if you had time, stop at Troy Rug, beside the outdoor restaurant, and have some tea with Mustafa.
Thank you so much for your responses! I just booked a hostel near Hagia Sophia so even if I can't get in to anything I'll be happy to just walk around. There was mention of a van going to Sultanahmet - is that something that is offered from the airport? Others have said to take a shuttle to Taksim Square and then make my way from there to Sultanahmet. I would be interested in walking across the Galata bridge or taking a quick ferry ride to the Asian side and back. Do any of you have experience with that or tips on what would be the best route to take from the airport with those things in mind? Also, Pam, you mentioned something about Ramadan. It will still be going on while I am there, is there something I should specifically look out for? Thank you!
I'll echo some of what's already been said. Sultanahmet is your best bet to see a top site or two given your limited time. I would not take a shuttle to Taksim, but would look at options that will take you straight to Sultanahmet. Check with your hostel as there maybe a private shuttle bus company they recommend. You could also take a cab.
You will be in town during Ramadan this year, so there may be a few wrinkles to what I have below:
Here are some idea for sites based on your available times. This is a bit of a loaded schedule and assumes that you want to do some walking/exploring.
Monday - Check out the Blue Mosque when you arrive if you're able to and then go over the the Hippodrome (always open). Walk down to the Galata Bridge cross it and hike past the Galata Tower to Istiklal street. At the bridge you'll be near the Spice Bazaar, the Rustem Pasha mosque and may be near a few other sites depending on your route. Somewhere along your route stop at a restaurant that catches your eye and grab some dinner. Hike back following a different route. The Aya Sophia/Blue Mosque Hippodrome area should be nicely lighted and active depending on what time you get back - enjoy the scene. Assuming your hostel has a rooftop terrace, grab a beer, sit on the roof and wind down.
Tuesday - see the Aya Sophia. This is my top recommended site in all of Istanbul. I think it opens at 9:00. A good visit will take about two hours. Rush it a bit and you'll have time for an early lunch before you head back to the airport.