Quite a while ago, in December 2015, I had a long layover in Istanbul and I had a chance to take the TourISTanbul city tour offered by Turkish Airlines to its transit passengers. I finally decided to finish up the review, and post it as Turkish Airlines still offers this great service.
What Is TourISTanbul?
TourISTanbul is a free Istanbul city tour offered by Turkish Airlines to all its international transit passengers, the only condition being a transfer time longer than 6 hours (and shorter than 24 hours).
You can check all the details here, but in short, Turkish Airlines offers five different tours of varying length every day to allow as many of its passengers to participate as possible. Even though I am not a big fan of organized tours, I took the opportunity to participate, as I had a day in Istanbul and I wanted to see the city without any hassles.
The fact that you are picked up and dropped off at the airport, shown all the main sights, and even given breakfast and lunch – all free of charge – helped, as it meant I did not have to bother with exchanging money and similar things.
Signing-up for the Tour
No advance reservation of the tour is necessary. After clearing immigration, head right in the arrivals hall. There is a Starbucks at the end of the hall, and right next to it is a Turkish Airlines hotel desk. Go to the hotel desk, tell them you want to participate in the city tour and hand them your boarding pass.
Once you hand them your boarding pass, you are asked to wait at the Starbucks until they call you. At the beginning of the tour, a Turkish Airlines representative comes, reads the names of the tour participants and takes you to the tour bus. As simple as that.
As I had the whole day, I was able to take the longest tour (officially) lasting from 9AM until 6PM. While each individual tour is slightly different depending on how crowded each of the places are, etc., the below should give you a rough idea of what your tour would look like if you decided to take it.
The Tour – Meal by Meal, Sight by Sight
After spending a couple of hours relaxing at Starbucks after my early morning arrival from Tokyo, I went to the hotel desk and signed up for the tour. Some more time at Starbucks later, at 9:05AM, a Turkish Airlines agent came and after going through all the participants, he took us to the two buses that were waiting for us.
As we were riding towards the city center, we were told “first, forget about historical things – you are going to eat.” The tour guide used the bus ride to give us a brief (but very informative) overview of Turkey’s and Istanbul’s history, and about 35 minutes after departing the airport we arrived at the restaurant where we were served a very nice Turkish breakfast consisting mostly of cheese and bread.
During the breakfast, the tour guide took orders for lunch to help speed up things later on – very smart. We had three choices – grilled chicken, adane kebab and vegetarian. As we had a lot to see, the breakfast only lasted 30 minutes, and at 10:10AM we left the restaurant to start the tour.
Blue Mosque & Hippodrome
An important thing to note at this point is that it is a walking tour. If you expect to be driven from sight to sight, this is not the tour to take. Leaving the restaurant, we started walking towards one of the main attractions in Istanbul – the Blue Mosque.
On the way there, we were shown the restaurant – Tamara – where we would be eating our lunch and which would be the meeting point in case someone got lost. Once we got to the Blue Mosque, we received a nice short explanation of the place. The most interesting thing is the number of minarets – six – which at the time of building was as many as the mosque in Mecca had. Being criticized for that, Sultan Ahmed ordered a seventh minaret to be built in Mecca.
As there was no line to enter the mosque, we also went inside to admire the beautiful mosaics. Here we were given a couple of minutes of “free time,” and then it was on to the next site – the Hippodrome of Constantinople.
The Hippodrome consists of a couple of obelisks. While at first sight, it is one of the less “visually appealing” sights of Istanbul, it certainly has a lot of historical importance which the guide described in details. Besides the obelisks, there is also a beautiful fountain – the German Fountain – which was built to commemorate the second anniversary of Emperor Wilhelm II’s visit to Istanbul.
Our next sight to visit was Topkapi Palace, however, not before a brief stop at Hagia Sophia – perhaps the most famous sight in Istanbul. While we would be returning there in the afternoon, the guide gave a short explanation about it to the short tour participants who would not have a chance to be there.
Topkapi Palace is comprised of couple of gardens and buildings. The former palace buildings have been converted into museums with each building exhibiting some different part of Turkish history.
Furthermore, there are several places offering great views of Istanbul. While regularly, there is an entrance fee to enter Topkapi Palace, this as well is covered by Turkish Airlines. How nice!
We spent about one hour at Topkapi Palace, and then it was time to head back to Tamara for lunch. We were offered mineral water, Cola or Fanta, soup and salad, main course and a dessert – a full lunch!
Basilica Cistern & Hagia Sophia
After lunch, it was time for the 9AM to 3PM group to board the bus and head back to the airport. For our group, it was time to walk some more. Next stop: Basilica Cistern – an amazing underground structure for holding water supplies.
The final “big” sight of the day was Hagia Sophia. This time around, we got to go inside as well. Once again, entrance fee was paid by Turkish Airlines. The guide talked about Hagia Sophia and its history extensively. It was interesting to hear about the mosaics of Christian figures that were covered by Muslims as their religion does not allow showing faces of religious figures. As a side effect, they also managed to conserve those mosaics and leave them in perfect shape to this day.
Around 3:15PM we finished at Hagia Sophia and headed back towards Tamara where our bus would pick us up. On the way there, we had about 30 minutes of free time in one of the bazaars – the Arasta Bazaar which had many small stores with clothes, spices, etc.
Finally, at 4PM we met at Tamara and a few minutes later, once we confirmed that no one got lost, we got on the bus to go back to the airport. This time the journey took about one hour, and shortly after five we arrived at the departure floor, tired and ready for our flights.
TourISTanbul is a great service offered by Turkish Airlines. It made my long transfer go by very fast, and it allowed me to see the most important sights in Istanbul in a very convenient way.
It certainly is great that Turkish Airlines offers this for free, including meals and entrance fees, meaning there is no hassle of figuring out how much money to exchange for the short stay.
On the other hand, there are drawbacks that come with organized tours – especially the lack of freedom and the lack of time at some sights, since they try to pack as much into the short time as possible.
That said, I would recommend anyone with a longer transit at Istanbul airport to participate in this tour as their peek into Istanbul. It will give you a brief idea of what the city is like and will provide you with a good base for your next visit, this time on your own.