After 7 days in Greece, Charles and I hopped on a flight to Jordan that had an 8 hour layover in Istanbul, Turkey. But instead of spending 8 hours inside Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport twiddling our thumbs, we decided to take advantage of this time to explore the sights in the city since it’s about a 40 minute train ride from the airport.
Our first stop: The Sultan Ahmet Mosque a.k.a. The Blue Mosque
The Sultan Ahmet is referred to as The Blue Mosque because of the hand-painted blue tiles that adorn the mosque’s interior walls. It was built in the early 1600’s and still functions as an active place of prayer to this day.
Throughout the day, it is closed for a half hour to non-worshippers during the five daily prayers. We weren’t sure if it was going to be open when we arrived but we lucked out.
It was open.
^^ Before we could enter the prayer room, we had to take our shoes off and put them in plastic bags. I was also given a skirt to wear as I learned that my leggings weren’t considered pants (if we ever visit again, I’ll wear jeans). They also had scarfs available to borrow but I brought my own.
If I had two words to describe how I felt when we entered the mosque, it would be “at peace”. Charles and I were respectfully quiet of the holy space as we explored and internally “oohed” and “awwed” over the stunning interior design.
While there, we also struck up a conversation with a local worshipper about the similarities and differences between Islam and Christianity. What I appreciated most about this conversation was that the focus wasn’t about trying to convert one person to join/believe the other religion, the focus was on simply understanding. While I consider myself agnostic/spiritual, Charles is a believer of Christ and we both felt that we came away from this conversation feeling open to our differences and with a better understanding of Islam.
If only more conversations like this could happen on the regular…
Located right across from the Blue Mosque is the Hagia Sophia which unfortunately was closed for prayer when we left the Blue Mosque. So we wandered a bit before making our way to the Grand Bazaar only to learn that the market closed early on Sundays.
When we arrived at the market, it had been closed for about 10 minutes already… So close.
Since we didn’t have anything else specifically planned to do during our time in Istanbul, we decided to just walk and take in the local scene.
We walked along the train line we took to get to the Sultan Ahmet back in the direction towards the airport, using it as our guiding reference (so we wouldn’t get lost) and simply enjoyed the overcast day.
We stopped in a few shops along the way, grabbed food, some turkish delight and baklava before calling it a day and hopping back on the train to get to the airport.
^^ Our first time hearing the call to prayer. I personally found it soothing to listen to.
Once inside the airport, we had about 2 hours left before our flight departed so we found a restaurant near our departing flight’s gate with comfy seats and TVs, ordered food and a huge mug of Turkish beer to share, and hung out until it was time to leave.
Helpful Sources For Making The Most Of Your Layover In Istanbul
I’m not gonna sit here and act like I figured out how to get from the airport to the city centre in Istanbul all by myself because I didn’t. Below are the sources I used that helped me and Charles to prepare for our layover and have a smooth, stress free excursion in Istanbul.
How To Get Your Turkish Visa and What To See & Do In Istanbul –> This post by Heather who also had an 8 hour layover in Istanbul and broke down what she did while she was there.
Directions From the Ataturk Airport to Where The Blue Mosque Is by Train –> I followed the directions in this super easy to follow blog post by Nikki. I literally took screenshots of the post and referred to them on my phone as we traveled from the airport to the city step by step. I appreciated that her directions included photos for reference.
Thoughts on Safety While Traveling in Istanbul –> When we mentioned to our family and friends that we were planning to leave the airport in Istanbul to explore leading up to our trip, most people responded with “Turkey is dangerous”, ” Ya’ll shouldn’t leave the airport”, “It’s not safe”, “Didn’t they have that club shooting a few months ago?” “Are you sure?”
Mind you, living in D.C., many of our family and friends either work directly with the government, military or as contractors sooooo their opinions were both informed but also biased due to their sensitive work. However, it kind of got to Charles because he started being doubtful about whether we should leave the airport or not.
I found this blog post by Mark about his thoughts on safety and traveling in Istanbul (and traveling, in general) that resonated with me which I shared with Charles. After he read it, we talked through his and my concerns and it was after this talk that we ultimately made the decision to go forward with our plans to leave the airport and explore Istanbul during our layover.
Next Stop: Jordan <– Coming your way next week :)