Long Layover in Istanbul? Visit Istanbul for Free with TourIstanbul

If you are visiting Istanbul during a layover and are flying with Turkish Airlines, you may be eligible for a fantastic free tour of the city, with transport, a professional guide, entrance tickets, and meals included. TourIstanbul is a free Istanbul tour organised by Turkish Airlines, that offers tourists on a long layover in Istanbul to experience a glimpse of what the city has to offer.               

I have always wanted to visit Istanbul and even planned a trip to the city a few years ago, but I had to cancel when the friend I was going with had an emergency and couldn’t commit anymore. As the holiday was booked as a package I couldn’t go on my own without paying double, so I abandoned my plans. When my flight to Tanzania had a long layover in Istanbul, I decided that this was my chance to see a little bit of this fantastic European-Asia metropolis, the largest city in Europe. Thanks to Turkish Airlines, I got to see it for free. Now I want to go back and spend at least a few days in Istanbul, to see the sights, indulge in the delicious cuisine and shop for spices and Turkish delight in the Grand Bazaar. 

How to Get a Free Tour of Istanbul When You Fly with Turkish Airlines

A lane from a small bazaar in Istanbul. There are shops on each side of the small street, and people walking up and down looking at the products sold

If you fly with Turkish Airlines and have a layover in Istanbul for between 6 and 24 hours, you can benefit of a free tour of the city or, if your layover is over 10 hours, a free hotel. Keep in mind that you can’t have both in the same layover though. When I went to Tanzania I chose the free tour of Istanbul on my way there, and the hotel on my way back, as I landed at 5pm and my connecting flight wasn’t until 1pm the following day.  

Make sure that your connection is an international one as well, because the free tours don’t apply to domestic flights. Also, don’t forgot to check that you have the right to enter Turkey and that you don’t need a visa, or you have applied for an electronic one beforehand. I didn’t need a visa to enter Turkey, so getting into the country was very, taking almost no time at all. You can check here to find out if you need a visa for Turkey.

Is the TourIstanbul tour really free? Yes, it is!

How to Book a Free Istanbul Tour – Can I Book Online?

The hotel desk at the new Istanbul airport

The simple answer is no, you can’t book a TourIstanbul tour online. You can only book it in person after you have gone through passport control and cleared customs.

The TourIstanbul desk is located in the main hall in the airport, at the end, on your right as you exit from the baggage area. If you turn right as you exit through the door and look straight ahead, you will see a giant yellow cube hanging from the ceiling indicating where the tour desk is.

Choose the tour you want to book and pick a number from the machine. When your number shows up on the electronic panels, register yourself at the desk for the desired tour. The lady will give you a tag to put around your neck, and tell you were to wait and what time your guide will pick you up. You need to be in the waiting area 15 minutes before the tour starts.

Free Istanbul Tours Offered by TourIstanbul: 

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Depending on what time you land in Istanbul, there are several tours which you can join. I landed close to midnight, so I booked a hotel near the airport for the night and joined the half day tour starting at 8:30am the following day. I could have chosen the free hotel, as my layover was long enough, but I really wanted to see Istanbul as it has always been on my travel wish list. With not much time on my hands, I preferred to go with a professional guide and not worry about getting back to the airport on time. The new Istanbul airport is huge, and a long way from the city centre so it’s essential to get back in plenty of time to navigate it and not miss your flight.

At the moment there are five different TourIstanbul tours that you can take, with varying start and finishing times. There is one short sightseeing tour leaving at 8am and returning at 11:30am, one departing at 8:30am and returning at 3pm, another one leaving at the same time but returning at 6pm, a midday tour departing at 12pm and returning at 6pm, and an evening tour leaving at 4pm and returning to the airport at 9:30pm.

The itinerary of the tours depends on which day you book, so it’s best to check out the website for more details. In summer, some of the evening tours include a cruise with dinner and a dance show on the Bosphorus.

TourIstanbul Review – Half Day

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The guide showed up at 8:30am and called out our names from a prepared list. There were close to probably 60-70 people waiting, and we were divided into different groups depending on the duration of our tours. It took a while to go through the list, but after that, we soon got to the buses. Most people were traveling either in pairs or with their family/friends. Very few people were on their own like I was, however I did find a Romanian couple who was returning from the Maldives, and we stuck together.

The bus was clean and comfortable, with reclining seats, air-conditioning controls, and a light above the head.

Guide:

Our guide was fantastic, so knowledgeable and funny at the same time. He started the introduction with his name and the fact that he is the shortest guide from TourIstanbul. Whilst I don’t remember his name, I definitely remember this fun fact.

As the drive into the city was over an hour long, everyone on the bus had the chance to introduce themselves and say a few words. We were tourists from all over the world, from so many different nationalities. My seatmate was from Peru, which made me very happy as I could chat with him about the beautiful time I had spent in his country.

As we started our drive towards the centre of Istanbul, the sun began to rise over the highway. The guide told us an overview of the history of Istanbul, from Constantinople to modern times.

Breakfast:

A plate with the Turkish breakfast: a selection of cold cuts, cheese, vegetables and eggs.

Our first stop of the day was at a local restaurant, a stone’s throw away from the Blue Mosque, where we had a traditional Turkish breakfast. I couldn’t refuse the second breakfast of the day, even after the one I had eaten at my hotel about 3 hours earlier. The Turkish breakfast is a selection of different ingredients, such as a variety of fresh cheeses, cold cuts of meat, olives, slices of tomatoes and cucumbers, a fried or a boiled egg, dried fruits, cheese filled pastries, bread and spreads such as butter, jam, or chocolate. For a drink, we had Turkish tea.  

The ground floor of the restaurant was like a small bazaar, with spices, Turkish delight, baklava or kunefe. If that had been the end of my trip and not the beginning, I would probably have bought a little bit of everything to bring back home. Baklava is my weakness. 

Sights Visited During the Free Tour of Istanbul

During the free TourInstanbul we visited several sites which were close to each other. As I mentioned before, the schedule does change, so it’s worth taking a look on the website first so you can see what you will be visiting during your layover in Istanbul. On some days you can visit Hagia Sophia, whilst on others you can go to Topkapi Palace.

The Blue Mosque

A wide angle photo of the Blue Mosque, capturing it's facade and three of its six minarets.

The Blue Mosque is one of the most popular landmarks in Istanbul. It is still a functioning mosque, so you have to be respectful and keep this in mind when you visit. At the entrance we were each given a scarf to cover our heads, and we also had to take our shoes off before we went in.

The Blue Mosque was built between 1606 and 1616 A.D.. Its name originates from the blue tiles used to decorate the walls of the interior. The official name of the Blue Mosque is the Sultanahmet Mosque, after Sultan Ahmed I, who commissioned the build, and who’s tomb is inside. As it was built to rival with Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque has six minarets, whilst other mosques usually have one, two or four.

It is believed that there was an architectural error, and instead of building golden minarets, the architect misunderstood and built six minarets. The words gold and six in Turkish are similar.

Our guide also told us the significance of the minarets and what the numbers mean. For example, if a mosque has only one minaret, it means that it was built by a private benefactor. If it has two, it means it was built by a community, whilst four means it was constructed by a Sultan. The Blue Mosque is the only one in the world with six minarets.  The mosque in Mecca has seven,  the highest number of minarets. Before the Blue Mosque was built, Mecca used to have six minarets but to avoid being criticized, Sultan Ahmed I paid for the seventh to be added.

The Hippodrome

A view of the rectangular square which was once the Hippodrome, with the obelisk of Theodosius in the left hand side of the photo

Sultanahmet Square sits today on the old site of the Hippodrome of Constantinople, the social and sporting centre of the capital of the Byzantine Empire. Horse and chariot racing was the preferred entertainment in the ancient world.

There are several monuments which stood the passing of time, reminders of the glory days of the Byzant: the Obelisk of Theodosius and the Serpent Column, among other artefacts taken to the Istanbul Archaeological Museum.

The Obelisk of Theodosius

The Obelisk of Theodosius is the Ancient Egyptian Obelisk of Pharaoh Thutmose III, re-located in the Hippodrome in the 4th century by the Roman emperor Theodosius I. It was transported up the Nile river to Alexandria, before being moved to Constantinople.  Each side of the monument has a single line inscription which celebrates the Pharaoh’s victory over the Mitanni people. The pedestal of the obelisk is decorated with bas-reliefs showing scenes of the chariot races at the Hippodrome, with spectators, musicians, dancers, and the Emperor Theodosius I crowning the winner of the chariot race.

Many of the elements of the Obelisk have been damaged during the transport to Constantinople, and also by earthquakes over the years. However, it still has an impressive shape, taking in consideration its age.

The Serpent Column

The remains of the serpent column

It is hard to imagine when seeing just the base of the Serpent Column, how this monument used to look in its golden age. The Serpent Column was a sacrificial tripod celebrating the victory of the Greeks over the Persians during the Persian Wars, and moved to the centre of the Hippodrome from the Temple of Apollo in Delphi. The top of the tripod, depicting three serpent heads, held a golden bowl.

The German Fountain

A view of the German fountain from the outside. Its golden dome is visible as well.

A much newer site in Sultanahmet Square is the German Fountain, built in 1900 in a Neo Byzantine style, to mark the visit to Istanbul by the German Kaiser Wilhelm II. It was a gift from the Kaiser to Sultan Abdulhamid II. It was built in Germany and assembled in Istanbul. It has a beautiful dome covered with golden mosaics in geometric motifs on the inside. 

Hagia Sophia 

A view of the interior of Hagia Sophia with both Muslim and Christian decor elements

About Hagia Sophia, it is said to have changed the history of architecture. It was first built as the Cathedral of Constantinople in 360, and for over 1000 years it was the largest of its kind in the world. In 1453 Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque until 1931, when it was converted into a museum. The interior is a work of art, with so many elements from both the Christian and Muslim religions.

However, a few months after my visit, Hagia Sophia was turned back into a mosque and unfortunately, I believe that the visiting experience has drastically changed. I am grateful to have been able to walk freely around this beautiful monument,and see both Christian and Muslim artefacts. Comparing the experience of visiting both the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, the first was definitely limited to how much space was open to visiting tourists and culture seekers.

Lunch

A plate with two types of kebabs, one chicken and one lamb. On the plate there is also rice with bulgur, a red cabbage slaw, a wedge of tomato, onions dressed with a red condiment, and chopped parsley on the side

For lunch we went to the same restaurant as we did in the morning for breakfast. We had a small three course meal, starting with a vegetables soup, followed by a traditional mixed Adana kebab and a selection of Turkish sweets for dessert. For a drink, we were served Ayran. Now I love Ayran, and I used to have it often during my summer holidays on the Romanian Riviera where there is a large Turkish community. But it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. Ayran is a salty yoghurt-based beverage, with a liquid consistency. It tastes quite tart and salty, and it’s very refreshing. 

After lunch, we headed back to the airport in plenty of time for my flight. I thought that I could have easily gone on the longer tour that returned at 6pm as my flight to Dar es Salaam wasn’t until 8:30pm. However, to be on the safe side, I chose the tour returning earlier, at 3pm.

Video of My Experience:

Useful Tips:

A view of two domes of the Hagia Sophia, seen through a window at the second floor
  • If you have luggage, you can either bring it with you and leave it in the under the bus storage, or you can store it for a fee at the airport. There is a left luggage desk just next to the TourIstanbul office. I can’t remember how much I paid, but it wasn’t more than five euros for my large backpack.
  • If you want to buy souvenirs, spices or Turkish delight, make sure you have some local currency with you. There are ATMs at the airport, between gates 13 and 14 in the Arrivals Hall. There are ATMs between gates 8 and 9 as well, but it will take you a good 15 minutes to walk to them from the TourIstanbul desk.
  • Make sure you get to the TourIstanbul desk at least half an hour before your tour starts in order to guarantee a spot.
  • When you book your tour, mention if you have any dietary restrictions so that the restaurants can be notified in time to prepare your meals. The food was already on the plate when we arrived at the restaurant, and the vegetarians had their own table.
  • If it’s mentioned that the tour lasts until 3pm, that means that you will be back at the airport by 3pm not that you leave the city at 3pm. The new Istanbul Airport is quite far away, and during a quieter time without too much traffic, it takes around an hour to reach from the city centre.
Long Layover in Istanbul - TourIstanbul Review

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19 thoughts on “Long Layover in Istanbul? Visit Istanbul for Free with TourIstanbul

  1. Farrah says:

    That’s awesome that they have free tours there–perfect for a long layover! :] Nice to know that there’s a place to store luggage too!

  2. Sophia Bawany says:

    What a GREAT way to make a layover exciting and making the most of your time while traveling. Istanbul has soo much to see this would be a great start.

  3. Ummi says:

    I have heard of this layover tour. It’s such a fantastic idea, isn’t it? I think every country should do this to give first-time visitors a taste of their country

  4. Jenni says:

    Great tip! The first airline I heard advertizing city guides was Icelandair, but I’m glad to see this spreading as it seems like a very useful service. I must save this for future travels. I don’t know when that will be, but someday!

  5. aisasami says:

    Istanbul looks like a really sweet place to visit. I would love to explore the history of Istanbul as it has so a pretty interesting history since long ago.

  6. Jamie Sharpe says:

    I’ve always thought about this, but never thought I could get it done quickly. Next time I’m headed East I will reference!

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