Making the Most of that Istanbul Sabiha Gokcen Airport Layover
On my way to Russia for the I had a 20+ hour layover in Istanbul. Normally this type of delay would excite me as I love seeing as much as I can on a trip however I was less enthusiastic once I realized I was landing at Winter Olympics Sabiha Gokcen Airport (SAW) and not the much closer to town Atatürk (IST) airport. Add to it the fact that we would be back in Istanbul for 5 days after the Olympics and the desire to spend that layover time seeing Istanbul seemed less intriguing. Still, curiosity got the better of me. I started looking for Sabiha Gokcen Airport layover ideas and was surprised to find forum posts saying to stay close to the airport and offered up weak suggestions like going to a nearby mall or day spa. Surely we could do better than that? Reading on the consensus seemed to be the same, a Sabiha Gokcen Airport layover trip to Istanbul’s city center wasn’t worth the effort. You simply would not have the time to see and enjoy the sites. Scafaw.
Like a man with something to prove I set out to see just how much one could tick off on a Sabiha Gokcen Airport layover. The results were shocking, even for me, Jammy McJamerson.
Disclaimer: I had plenty of daylight hours to pull off this itinerary. We arrived late one evening and left early in the evening the following day. This allowed us to get a hotel on the Asia side and start the following itinerary fresh in the morning. Obviously plan accordingly based on your flight times.
Getting into town
If you’re flying domestic or on one of Europe’s many discount airlines chances are you will end up at Sabiha Gokcen (SAW). This airport was built to handle Istanbul’s booming air traffic, which Atatürk (IST) airport could not keep up with. Unfortunately it is on the Asia side of the city and is a bit of a hike at out-of-town. No worries friend, you have options.
You can take a cab or Havatas bus all the way to Taksim Square however getting off at Kadikoy on the Asia side and taking a ferry will save you the stress, cost, and experience of sitting in the heavy traffic trying to cross the Bosphorus. This will also give you a cheap cruise across the river – something tourists pay for. No need to take a boat tour, just take the local ferry which will still give you an excellent view of the city, bridges, and Maiden Island.
From the Kadıköy ferry terminal you have two options depending on your layover time and tastes:
1. Head to Taksim Square by taking the ferry to Kabataş then hopping on the world’s shortest subway line. Taksim Square is considered the hub of modern Istanbul and known for its brand-name shopping and political protests. From there you can walk İstiklal Avenue which is lined with nice cafés and shops all the way to Galata Tower or…
2. Take the ferry from Kadıköy to Karaköy and head straight to Galata Tower, bypassing Taksim.
If you’re pressed for time or like me, have little interest in stores you can see anywhere in the world, head straight to the tower. From there you get a sweeping view of the busy streets and rivers in this bi-continental city.
From the base of the Galata Tower head down the hill then along Bankalar Caddesi to Kemeralti Street. Along the way you will pass the beautifully windy Camondo Steps which is worth a climb and a picture or two.
Make your way across the very busy Galata Bridge. There you will find seemingly endless fishermen jostling for position. Those that are daring can by fish straight from the bucket but I wouldn’t recommend – especially since you are on a layover.
On the opposite side of the Galata Bridge you will find the Spice Bazaar. Take a quick stroll through the many shops and be sure to do a tasting of various spices and Turkish delights. You may be hard pressed to leave here empty handed.
If you’re not over being asked to try and buy things take the T1 tram to the Grand Bazaar stop. Hop on at the Eminönü stop (end of Galata Bridge) and give your legs a rest – which is welcomed as the Grand Bazaar is massive. You could spend hours wondering it’s similar halls, perusing the similar items. To be fair there are plenty of cool and interesting trinkets, antiques, and jewelry. For me though after a few minutes the rugs and lamps all looked the same so hours are not necessary here. What was more interesting to me is the colors, light, and people. There is always a flurry of activity – men frantically delivering tea, merchants eagerly waiting for tea, shops trying to lure tourists in, tourists trying to say no thank you, men washing their feet while the call to prayer blares through loud speakers etc… It really is a fascinating place.
Istanbul’s Historic Center
Walking back along the T1 Tram line will take you past one of the oldest Roman ruins in the city – the Column of Constantine. This “Burnt Column” was constructed in 330 AD and still stands (sort of) today. As you can imagine over time strong winds, earthquakes, and fires have taken its toll on this historic pillar.
Continuing on you will arrive at Istanbul’s most iconic building, the Blue Mosque. Heading inside is a must. The blue tile work in which the mosque got its name is stunning. Amongst all the people, chaos, and noise of the big city, I couldn’t help but feel at peace while sitting inside this historic building.
Heading north-east from the Blue Mosque will take you through a beautiful courtyard where you can get that postcard picture. It is also a great place to relax and grab a tea, people watch, and listen to the call to prayer bounce between the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia – your next stop.
Depending on your departure time you have a couple of options. Pick and choose based on your time frame!
Hagia Sophia – This historic building has seen it all. Built in 537 (537!) as a Greek Orthodox Church, it was later converted to a Roman catholic Church then a Mosque, and finally a museum in 1935. The building itself is worth the visit alone as it is an impress feat of architecture. The changes over the years and recent restorations have kept this building and its collections of mosaics and frescos a big part of Istanbul’s history.
The Basilica Cistern – This massive underground water way is as fascinating as it is odd. Walking through the massive cavern I couldn’t help but think “what does it all mean”? I’m still unsure. What I do know is it is impressive and worth a visit. It is said to have once provided filtration to the surrounding palaces, churches, and mosques in a most elaborate way. The roof is supported by a field of over 300 decorative columns made of marble. The most interesting being the columns with the faces of Medusa, the mythical Greek monster with snakes for hair. The statues origins are unknown which only adds to the intrigue of this odd underground Istanbul attraction.
Tokapi Palace and the Istanbul Archaeology Museums
The palace grounds are huge. You can get a nice view and appreciation of just how big while crossing the Bosphorus. Based on the size and all that is available inside the walls I am not suggesting you cover it all in an hour or so, rather pick what interests you as the Palace grounds have much to offer. My personal favorites and highlights:
The Harem – It is exactly what you think. This building housed the private life of the sultan which included as many concubines as he could handle. A look into the lives of the women raised and schooled here is fascinating to say the least.
The Treasury – the view from the balcony in this building is worth a visit alone. Besides that the collection of gold and diamond encrusted items is ridiculous. This is highlighted by the Topkapi Dagger and the Spoonmaker’s Diamond – the 5th largest diamond in the world.
Topkapi Palace grounds – Just strolling the grounds and taking in the historic architecture was a highlight of my day. The courtyards, gardens, gates, and trees are all worth noting.
Istanbul Archaeology Museum – This impressive collection of ancient artifacts is spread out over 3 buildings. To read every place card and appreciate every item would take days. You don’t have days. Thankfully you can briskly stroll through at your leisure taking in what intrigues you. For me it was the Egyptian artifacts in the Museum of the Ancient Orient and the massive and elaborate sarcophagus’s found throughout the Archaeology Museum.
By this point you should be pushing the limits of your layover, and perhaps yourself. Thankfully you are close to the Eminönü hub where you can catch a ferry back to Kadıköy on the Aisian side of Istanbul and connect with a bus or cab back to the Sabiha Gokcen airport.
No time to Eat?
Istanbul (and Turkey) has amazing food. You could (and I have) literally spend a day eating in this city. Since your short layover doesn’t allow for that kind of luxury you may want to stick to street food. Thankfully Istanbul is packed with great options.
Kebap’s and Döner’s – The king of Istanbul street food. These broiled or roasted meat sandwiches are served in many forms – pita bread, buns, with fries – and are a filling option for a quick meal.
Pide – Turkish pizza! A little more messy than eating a Döner on the go but worth the few minutes to slow down and enjoy.
Mısır – Grilled or boiled corn on the cob. Cheap and easy. Don’t forget to ask for toothpicks!
Simit Carts – This tasty Turkish bread can be found around transit stops and tourist attractions anywhere the city. Think bagel meets pretzel. They are cheap (usually 1TL), delicious, and quick – perfect for grabbing on the go. For best results purchase in the AM when fresh or late in the afternoon when carts put out another batch.
Turkish Coffee & Baklava – Not street food but this strong coffee and sweet pastry will provide a much-needed pick-me-up along the way. Thankfully Istanbul has plenty of great coffee shops offering up these Ottoman treats.
For the brave – Along the Bophouros and on the Galata Bridge you can find several “merchants” selling shellfish, fish sandwiches, and their daily catch from the waters below. Although I saw many locals buying and sampling items this is not for me! Nor is Kokoreç, a spicy late night snack made from sheep intestines.
Don’t Let the Distance Discourage You
Even though Sabiha Gokcen airport is a ways out-of-town you can see that it is close enough to enjoy Istanbul’s many sights in a relatively compact time. Don’t waste your layover hanging out in an airport. Make the most of it, heck consider extending it or adding the stopover for a taste of one of the most interesting cities in both Europe and Asia.
Landing at IST?
If you are connecting with a major airline chances are you’ll be landing at Atatürk (IST) which handles the bulk of Istanbul’s international traffic. If this includes you then you are in luck, Istanbul’s cheap and reliable metro can take you from the airport to the heart of the city fast – often quicker than taking a cab. Take the underground metro line until Zeytinburnu where you will transfer to the T1 tram line. Take this line all the way to the end (Kabataş) if you are heading to Taksim Square or to Karaköy if you are skipping it and start your tour (and way back) from the Galata tower. Note: the tram transfer is a bit of a walk so I don’t recommend doing this if you have a lot of luggage! Also note that the metro runs from 6:00 AM to Midnight so plan accordingly.
What Say You?
Do you have a great layover experience? I would love to hear where and what you did!