I actually had no plans to be in Istanbul, but that changed when I noticed a special promotion on the Turkish Airlines website when booking my flight to Tbilisi. Lured by the promise of a free hotel — so long as I stayed in Istanbul for at least 20 hours — I turned what would be a 5-hour transfer at Istanbul’s airport into a 36-hour layover.

I had been to Turkey only once before. It was around 15 years ago when I was college age and on a cheap all-inclusive resort holiday to the southern Turkish coast with some friends. But ever since I’d mostly forgotten about Turkey as a travel destination.

The Blue Mosque, opposite the Hagia Sophia

Maybe that’s because that trip back then was a lot of fun but maybe not the most sophisticated. We spent most of our time lounging by the swimming pool or drinking free raki at night. Apart from an afternoon excursion to some Roman ruins, I didn’t see much of Turkey beyond the confines of a walled-in resort filled with Russian tourists.

(One guy we met at that resort was supposedly ex-FSB; at the beach he stood straight like a colossus just staring at the horizon for ages, only to suddenly run into the sea like a madman and then swimming into the open waters in a straight line until no longer seen. Interesting character that was. But I digress.)

Anyway, my layover in Istanbul finally got me a fresh albeit brief look at Turkey — and this time, I was able to soak up much more of the culture and local vibe.

 

How to get a free hotel in Istanbul

Similar to other stopover deals offered by countries like Iceland and Portugal, Turkish Airlines will comp you a free hotel if you connect via Istanbul and decide to stay in the city. Obviously, they hope this will promote Turkey as a tourist destination. The offer is open to any economy or business class customers.

Funky shops in Galata neighborhood

Turkish Airlines is a pretty solid airline that I’ve enjoyed flying with several times. They operate a good hub that connects well to Africa, Central Asia and beyond; I once also flew with them from London to Bangkok at a truly bargain price.

To qualify for the free accommodation you need to stay in Istanbul for at least 20 hours. You’ll need to put a deliberate stopover in your flight itinerary, which you can do by using the multi-stop flight search on the Turkish Airlines website. Enter both legs of your flight itinerary separately, and then add an extra day in between the two flights.

The airline website has details for how to request the voucher. I was given a choice of four hotels, of which the Clarion Golden Horn was easily the fanciest one (its standard rooms normally go for 120 EUR a night). I was tempting but it was well out of town, so I went with a smaller hotel in the historical center, the Orka Royal.

The Orka Royal

Was it worth it? Eh, maybe. I must confess I’m not a fan of hotels; the service is always so impersonal, the WiFi is always crappy, and the rooms are so characterless. On my second night I stayed in a 10 EUR a night hostel and this was much more my kind of style. That hostel may not have had AC, a rooftop pool or a gym, but it did have friendly service and a lovely atmosphere — not to mention a chilled out bar where I could listen to stories from some dudes who’d hitchhiked to Istanbul from Ukraine.

But hey, that free hotel got me into Istanbul I guess! Like a true Dutchman, I’m easily persuaded by a freebie, and I clearly wouldn’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth. I’m happy to say that my Istanbul layover was fantastic, and that the city is highly worth checking out even on just a brief visit.

 

Things to do on an Istanbul layover

I’d hate to use such a cliché, but Istanbul genuinely felt to me like East meets West. Located right at the fault line between two geographical and cultural spheres, some aspects reminded me utterly of Asia while others are totally European. It’s a fascinating city with a deep history, serving as the capital of the Byzantine Empire and once a key city in the Ottoman Empire as well.

My layover in Istanbul no doubt covered a few bog-standard sights and places, but each of these were delightful. Should you also find yourself in Istanbul on a brief visit, I can easily recommend the following highlights.

 

Rooftop river views

After arriving in the city in the evening I immediately wandered along the Bosphorus riverside promenade, and then dove into some neighborhoods in the historical center. I came upon an alley covered in colored umbrellas (this seems to be the cool thing these days?) which led up to some stairs to a cluster of rooftop bars. I sat myself down on one of the roofs of the Bab-ı Âli Kahvesi cafe [map].

From here, you can have some brilliant views of the Bosphorus and the Suleymaniye Mosque behind you. The bars around here are all pretty local and English menus seemed to be a rarity, but it shouldn’t be too much of a challenge; with a little improvisation you can easily order something very delicious. (Hint: any sort of grilled meat they do very well in this country!)

 

Hagia Sophia

The Hagia Sophia. Grab some corn on a cob on your way out

This grand building served both as a cathedral and a mosque throughout the ages, going back as far as the times of the Byzantine Empire. For nearly a thousand years, the Hagia Sophia was in fact the largest cathedral in the entire world. Once you step inside, it’s immediately clear that it was surely meant not just to inspire faith in God but surely also to show off the power of whatever empire held it at the time.

It’s a bit of an obligatory stop in Istanbul, so I figured I should tick this off first thing in the morning. The structure is hugely impressive in its own right, though I think even better appreciated with a knowledgeable guide.

 

The Basilica cistern

This ancient underground reservoir and filtration system once provided water to the Great Palace of Constantinople and other nearby buildings. It’s a (literally) cool and mysterious place, featuring several Medusa head columns and other interesting details. I loved going down the stairs into this little underground world and instantly transporting myself to Roman times.

As you may, Istanbul was once known as Constantinople and served as the capital of the Byzantine Empire (which was the eastern half of the Roman Empire when it split into two). The city is known sometimes as the “second Rome”, and you can definitely see this history here and in other locations around the old city.

 

Karaköy neighborhood

Having covered some of the ancient city and strolled through its parks, by mid-day I felt compelled to cross the Bosphorus river to the other side. I followed the Galata Bridge which, somewhat oddly, has lots of restaurants on its lower level. I then stumbled upon Karaköy [map], a riverside neighborhood filled with funky cafes, ateliers, street art, and little alleys covered with vine roofs.

It’s a very browsey part of town that’s clearly a favorite among many locals. I recommend sitting down here for a nice brunch or lunch, maybe having some fine Turkish tea or a shisha, and just watching the world go by. It’s a trendy part of town but seemed rather unfrequented by tourists, making it a fun area to catch some local atmosphere.

Dem Karakoy cafe has an amazing specialty tea and cheesecake selection…

 

Galata Tower

One of my tried-and-tested ways to explore a city is simply to walk towards whatever next landmark I can see off in the distance. On top of a hill I spotted a Romanesque style tower and thought I might as well set it as my goal.

It turned out to be Galata Tower. A quick look on Wikipedia informed me this was in fact built by the Genoans in the 14th century. The republic of Genoa (the northwestern bit of Italy) was once a trading nation that rivaled Venice in its reach and influence, and they built numerous trading posts and colonies around the Mediterranean and Black Sea. Galata Tower was the centerpiece of their Constantinople colony.

There was a huge queue to go up the tower which I couldn’t be bothered to deal with. But looking up, I spotted a nice rooftop terrace inside the Anemon Galata Hotel [map], from where I could get panoramic views of the tower as well as the Bosphorus river below.

Apparently it’s not just cats that are well fed in Istanbul

 

Cats!

Cats rule the roost even inside the Hagia Sophia

While strolling the neighborhood around Galata Tower during the afternoon heat, I observed something truly wonderful. Many people will put out plates with food and bowls with water on the streets there for any thirsty or hungry cat. The felines are highly regarded within the local culture, considered by many to be guardians of the city and the one-time defenders from rat-borne plagues. Jodi Ettenberg wrote a wonderful story on the history of Istanbul’s relation with cats. (Dogs, apparently, are treated with much less reverence.)

 

The Grand Bazaar

As evening approached, I topped things off with a visit to the Grand Bazaar, which is one of the oldest covered markets and often regarded as one of the first shopping malls of the world. It once sat at a key node on the Silk Road, and to this day it’s filled with lantern shops, gold jewellers, silk clothing stores, and so on.

It’s a fun area to stroll around in even if you’re not intent on buying. I was also relieved to find that the sellers here are in no way pushy or annoying (much unlike in Turkey’s coastal resorts or, say, in the souks of Morocco). Still, you may wish to read this article on how to bargain like a pro at the Grand Bazaar.

 


 

At the end of the day my feet were definitely tired from all that walking and I was craving a cold beer on a roof terrace. That said, the historical parts of Istanbul are extremely walkable, and you can pack a ton of sightseeing into a mere 24 hours. While I normally like to stay somewhere longer to get to know it inside out, I felt my layover in Istanbul was entirely worthwhile despite just seeing it in a flash. With its long history at the heart of multiple empires, Istanbul offers a wealth of historic and religious places to take in, and has a lovely street vibe to boot.

I ended the day back at my hostel for the second night — the Istanbul Harmony Hostel — where at its rooftop bar I traded travel stories with some of the other guests. The tales of hitchhiking through Ukraine, seeing balloons fly over Cappadocia, and boating across the Caspian Sea on a once-a-week ferry made me doubly excited to dive into my next travel adventure: a trip through Georgia and Armenia. (Posts coming soon!)



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