Istanbul in an Overnight Layover (or two)

Hi friends – I’m baaaaack! I’ve missed you guys – thanks for sticking with me! Matt and I had an amazing vacation in Malta over the past 2 weeks – but before I recap that portion of the adventure, I wanted to share what we got into in Istanbul! We found really cheap flights to Malta (like, half the price of all the others and practically what it costs to fly to California) on Turkish Airlines, and the only catch was that we had an overnight layover in Istanbul on both ends. Sweet – sounded good to us!

istanbul what to do overnight layover

Thank you to all of you who gave suggestions for ways to maximize our short amount of time in Istanbul! We basically had part of an afternoon, the evening and a morning there on each end, so we wanted to be sure to hit the main spots!

istanbul with matt

We stayed at a lovely hotel right in Sultanahmet (main touristy area) called The Premist Hotel – highly recommend it if you ever end up in Istanbul and want to be close to all the touristy highlights. We were able to easily walk to most of the stuff we wanted to see from our hotel, which was perfect for maximizing time! Here’s what we crammed into our time there.


We were totally exhausted when we arrived and checked into our hotel the first day, since we’d just taken an overnight flight and not slept much, but we wanted to make sure to stay up so we got over jetlag quickly! As soon as we checked in and showered we headed out to explore. We ended up walking all the way from our place over the Galata Bridge and back, with really nice views of the city.


galata bridge istanbul

There are restaurants lining the bridge, but they were pretty crowded/touristy so we decided to keep moving.

galata bridge istanbul

Random aside: street corn is apparently a thing in Instanbul. It was everywhere! We didn’t try it – hot, messy corn in hot weather didn’t really seem appealing… maybe next time. ;)

istanbul street corn

For dinner that night, Matt and I ended up at a place that cooked the food in a clay pot, then let you chop the top of the pot off before eating. Fun!



Tasty, too. :)


Post-dinner, we bought (and sampled) some baklava! We got a big thing of it to bring to our group house in Malta and share with the others. It was a big hit!

istanbul baklava

Goodnight, Istanbul!

istanbul twilight

We were up bright and early the next morning thanks to a combination of jetlag and wanting to seize the day! We had until 11 a.m. when we would need to head to the airport for our Malta connecting flight and were determined to do some power sightseeing.

First stop: breakfast! Our hotel included a complementary Turkish breakfast in the room rate. Sweet!

hotels with free turkish breakfast istanbul

My favorite was the menemen, which is a Turkish take on scrambled eggs (bottom right of the plate below) with tomatoes, peppers, and onions. So good! I love that they have olives and raw veggies and nuts at breakfast, too, in addition to lots of fruit.

premist hotel istanbul breakfast

Our next stop, at 8:30 a.m. right when it opened, was the historic Sultan Ahmed Mosque, commonly known as the Blue Mosque due to the blue tiles that adorn its interior. It was built in the early 1600’s and is still used as a mosque.

blue mosque

The inside was stunning!

blue mosque istanbul

Women need to cover themselves when entering, but they give you a covering garment at the entrance so no worries if you forget one.


We got latched on to by a random local guy who decided to make himself our (unwanted) tour guide and then press us for tips, which was a fail, but at least he gave us a little bit of history of the Mosque. We finally ditched him (with the assistance of a tip) before heading to our next stop, Hagia Sophia.

hagia sophia istanbul

Hagia Sophia reflects an interesting mix of religions. It was originally built in 537 (whoa) as a Greek Orthodox cathedral. From 1204 to 1261, it was converted to a Roman Catholic cathedral. In 1453, it was changed into a mosque. Finally, in 1935, it was secularized and opened as a museum.

hagia sophia

The artwork inside reflects all the changing it has been through. Very cool!



Next up on our whirlwind morning was a quick stop at the underground Basilica Cistern, which is right by the Hagia Sophia. This cistern was built in the 6th century as a receptacle to hold water. It was really cool and kind of creepy since it’s so dark! Apparently it was used as a location in a 1963 James Bond film, and was also featured in Dan Brown’s book Inferno.

basilica cistern

Two of the pillars have Medusa heads under them, which no one knows the origin of – or why one is sideways and other is upside down.



After our action packed morning, it was off to the airport! Sidenote: Turkish Airlines is pretty sweet. Their food is actually decent, and they even fed us a full meal on the 2 hour flight from Istanbul to Malta! Nice.

turkish airlines food

When we returned to Istanbul on the tail end of our trip, we had a tiny bit more time in the afternoon when we arrived, so we squeezed in a visit to the Grand Bazaar, which is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world.

grand bazaar istanbul

I was expecting the Grand Bazaar to be total madness – super crowded and with people harassing you nonstop to buy stuff – but it actually ended up being more low key, maybe because it was a Thursday and kind of random timing? Matt and I bought just a few things to bring back with us (we just had little backpacks because we checked our big bags through back to DC so we didn’t have to deal with them) – two pretty food prep bowls, two espresso cups, a pair of sandals for me, and some Istanbul guitar picks for Matt. :)


Sadly we did not take this cute kitty home with us!


For dinner that night, we had something fun planned: meeting up with my friend Jackie! Jackie and I met while teaching English in Prague, and have stayed in touch ever since; after Prague, she ended up spending 4 years teaching English in Istanbul. She’s back in the US now, but was randomly back in Istanbul for a visit that coincided with our final layover – awesome! Dinner it was.

istanbul dinner at kiva

Jackie met us at our hotel and from there we took the tram over to the medieval Galata Tower, which was also on our “to see” list – perfect!


The Galata Tower was built in 1348, and at the time it was the tallest structure in Istanbul.

galata tower

You can pay to take an elevator to the top of the tower to see the views. Worth it!

galata tower views

galata tower

istanbul twilight

After checking out the tower views, the three of us had dinner at a place called Kiva right by the tower; Jackie used to eat here a lot when she lived in Istanbul and highly recommended it. It was perfect because it had all sorts of little mezze dish options that you could go inside, look at, and pick from, so we were able to try a ton of different things!

kiva istanbul

kiva istanbul

Sooooo good. I loved all the savory yogurt dishes and the vegetables stuffed with meat/rice!

kiva restaurant istanbul

We all shared a bottle of local Turkish red wine, and Matt was brave and also tried Raki – a Turkish alcoholic drink that tastes like licorice. It’s made from twice-distilled grapes and anise, and you mix it with a little water and pour it over ice. Strong!


Cheers – or şerefe in Turkish!

So there you have it – how to do Istanbul in two overnight layovers! Stay tuned – I’ll share a few posts recapping our Malta adventures, too – coming soon. :)


  1. 1

    Looks incredible! Such a different place to visit, admittedly it wouldn’t be top of my list but it does look beautiful!

  2. 2

    My dad is from Istanbul so I’m quite familiar with (and a huge fan of) Raki. Definitely an acquired taste, though! Can’t wait to hear more about the trip at Blog Brulee!

  3. 4

    Thank you for sharing! I saw your tweets and was hoping you’d post something on Istanbul. I am heading to Italy via Turkish Airlines in Nov., and have an overnight and morning in Istanbul as well. Good to know I can fit in a few of the sites during my layover! I may have to check out that hotel too!

  4. 5

    Istanbul is on my must visit list, I’ve been to Turkey before but only to the beach! I listened to Dan Brown’s Inferno last year while marathon training so I feel like i have to see the places he talked about!

  5. 6

    I love that you guys squeezed so much into such a short time; it looks like a stunning city! I have a friend studying abroad in Istanbul this spring, and I’m so excited to hear about her adventures, too. Can’t wait to see your recap of Malta!

  6. 7

    Wow! What an awesome city! Well done making the most of your time there!

  7. 8

    Looks like a fun time. I love Istanbul and Turkey is an amazing country. I spent 4 weeks travelling there in 2013 and it wasn’t enough time! Planning to go back soon.

  8. 9

    Sounds like you had an awesome time!! :) Glad you were brave enough to try the Raki- or Matt was at least ;) Hagia Sophia I think is my favorite building in the world, I could have stayed there for a week! I didn’t get time for the tower or the cisterns so I’m jealous you got to go, next time I will make it I hope :) Glad you had fun with Jackie too! Hungry for Turkish food now that I read your post.. yum! :D

  9. 10

    woa, you managed to see almost everything I did when I had 4 whole days lol. Istanbul is such a great city, there’s so much going on and the food is delicious!

  10. 12

    Such gorgeous pictures! I didn’t realize how beautiful Istanbul is!

  11. 13

    Great pictures!!! Looks like you had a blast! :) I love that you can easily get into the city with the metro from the airport.

  12. 14

    Wow how beautiful! That clay pot meal experience sounds so fun!

  13. 15

    Awesome, awesome post. Loved learning about Istanbul (on the fly ;0 ) Looks beautiful and loved seeing the food…looks so delicious. Hope to visit some day. PS: Loved your dress and jean jacket! ;)

  14. 17

    That food looks amazing!

  15. 18

    This is seriously SO cool! I think it’s amazing that you packed so much in during such a short time – way to make the most of it :D

  16. 19

    Awesome trip!! We’re doing a long layover in Istanbul soon, and was hoping to check luggage all the way through like you did (GREAT idea)! Can I ask how that worked? Did you have to pick it up in Istanbul and re-check through to DC, or could you check all the way from Malta? Did they just keep the luggage in Lost Luggage in DC?

    • 20

      I wish I remembered — I’m pretty sure it was just checked all the way through though, and that our luggage waited in Instanbul in storage until our flight out the next day! It didn’t go on to DC or Malta without us – I’m pretty sure for security reasons you have to be on the same flight as your luggage (unless they mess it up and lose your bag or whatever).

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