In transit: 21 hours in Istanbul

When flying long distance, I like to stop along the way. Two 7-hour flights are infinitely preferable to one 14-hour flight. This was doubly true when the kids were little. Through the years, we’ve stopped in Copenhagen, London, Reykjavik, Paris, Amsterdam, Dubai, Bangkok, Singapore, Doha, and probably others I have forgotten, either to get a proper night’s sleep – or to wear them out so they would sleep onboard.

Now, although airlines have offered complimentary stopover programmes for years, it has never occurred to me to take advantage of them. (René Artois from ‘Allo ‘allo is whispering in my ear: You stupid woman!)

But after Ethiopian Airlines forced me (in the nicest possible way) to try their stopover package in Addis Ababa recently, well, I’ve been keen to do it again. So when Cat and I were off to Saudi Arabia, I thought we’d give the stopover in Istanbul offered by Turkish Airlines a try.

And here we are!

Istanbul in the rain


Booking a complimentary stopover was very easy. I made sure to book our flights through the airline’s own website. (In fact, I recommend always doing that. It will save you a lot of hassle – and money – in case of even the slightest irregularity.)

Turkish Airlines has two types of complimentary services to entice flyers to explore Istanbul: Stopover and Touristanbul.

If your connection in Istanbul is minimum 20 hours, the Stopover service includes a complimentary hotel room for one night in a 4-star hotel for passengers flying Economy, or two nights at a 5-star hotel for those in Business. If you have a layover between 6 and 24 hours, you can choose Touristanbul, a complimentary tour of Istanbul, including transport to and from the airport. There is a choice of 8 tours, so you can select one that fits your flying schedule. More on the Stopover here, and Touristanbul here. Note: remember to check if you need a visa for Türkiye.

When you book your flights, look for the logos to find flights that are eligible for the two offers:

I booked a flight arriving in Istanbul at 00.05, and a connecting flight which departs Istanbul at 21.05. This gives us a 21-hour layover, which meant we could choose either option. Arriving so late, the Stopover was the logical one for me. And since I have been here a few times before, we’ll easily find our way around without a tour anyway.

After the flights were confirmed, I went to the Stopover page where I was given a choice of 3 hotels: two modern convention type hotels near the airport, and one historic hotel in Sultanahmet.

Good morning, Istanbul: hotel room views in Sultanahmet

Things to see and do on a 21-hour stopover in Istanbul

Sultanahmet is the old city, where you will find the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Grand Bazaar, parks, gardens, shops, obelisks, cool cafes, etc. It was a no-brainer: I like living amidst the old and quirky, so chose the latter option: Hotel Grand Yavuz – a short walk away from just about everything we want to see.

Whilst I have been in town before, it is Cat’s first time here, so I’m thinking a few of the world famous mosques and museums (but not too many), and of course the Grand Bazaar and the Pudding Shop. Other than that, just wandering around Sultanahmet, taking in the vibe is enough. This is meant to be fun and relaxing. Especially since we are off to explore Jeddah tomorrow, a new city to both of us.

We begin with a spot of shopping. Or mostly browsing, since we only have carry-on.

The Grand Bazaar

Grand Bazaar is one of the world’s largest covered markets, with more than 4000 shops! A 15th century shopping mall, which has retained much of its charm and old-world feel.

Jewellery, textiles and Turkish Delight abound. Shopkeepers are trying their best to draw us in to just their shop. I sympathise. We buy a couple of Christmas presents in one of the shops, just little things – and the vendor says it is his first sale of the day. At noon! Can’t be easy to make a living being one of very many here, all selling similar things.

This one stood out because the shopkeeper spoke a little Norwegian. (Doesn’t take much, does it). And we needed to get a head scarf for Cat.

Tea and conversation is always on offer in Istanbul’s many shops.

Just outside the Grand Bazaar is the Nuruosmaniya Mosque – and cats!

Warning: there will be more cats!

We skip that mosque, since I think Hagia Sophia is more interesting, and one mosque/church is enough for one day.

Hagia Sophia

The queue for Hagia Sophia looks long, but is very quick and efficient – and entrance is free, even for tourists. For now. (This will change on 15 January 2024.)

Hagia Sophia (best name ever!) has gone through some major changes in its 1500-year-old history. It started life as a church in the Roman Empire in 537 CE, first as Eastern Orthodox, then Catholic from 1204, and then back to Eastern Orthodox 57 years later. When the Ottomans conquered Constantinople in 1453, it became a mosque, and remained a mosque until 1935, when it was converted to a museum.

The last time I was here, it was indeed a museum. But then, as recently as 2020, it reverted to a mosque. As you will have guessed, that didn’t happen without controversy. In 2022, the first Ramadan prayer in 88 years was held here.

Cisterna Basilica

The Basilica Cistern is one place I haven’t been before, but have been curious about.

In the 6th century, Emperor Justinian had hundreds of water reservoirs built underneath Constantinople; Cisterna Basilica is the largest of them. It must have been a massive project; legend has it, it took 7,000 slaves to construct. Over the centuries, it was mostly forgotten, until a French traveller named Petrus Gyllius, who visited Istanbul in 1565, wrote about rowing through the columns, with fish swimming in the water.

Imagine rowing through the columns here! Oh, to be a traveller when the world still had secrets waiting to be discovered.


We have lunch in one of the many restaurants in the cosy little alleys next to Hagia Sophia and the Basilica Cistern. The halloumi salad and chicken skewers are all perfectly fine…

… but this one, looking out for her baby, steals the show:

Told you there would be more cats

The Pudding Shop

Back in the days of free love and the American war on Vietnam, Lale Restaurant was the rest stop for people on the overland trail between Europe and Asia. This is where they met, discussed their experiences, and sent messages home with those going in the opposite direction.

Apparently, Lale was a difficult name to remember (!), but the travellers did remember the desserts, and so it became the Pudding Shop.

Have you seen (or read) Midnight Express? The film that reminds us not to do anything that could land us in prison in Türkiye? (Or almost anywhere else, for that matter). The Pudding Shop was featured in the film.

Notice the bulletin board? This is where travellers would schedule lifts, communicate with family and friends, or leave rather personal messages. A famous one was from Megan to Malcolm, where she asked for his forgiveness for ‘that business down in Greece.’

Wonder what happened with the Megan and Malcolm situation

Today’s messages are rather more prosaic. Have we lost something in this era of easy digital communication? I only ask.

Will there be more airline sponsored stopovers in our future? I shouldn’t be at all surprised. Watch this space!

Historic Areas of Istanbul is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Here are more UNESCO World Heritage sites around the world.

In transit: 21 hours in Istanbul is a post from Sophie’s World