Earlier this year we were fortunate enough to crack an invite to join friends from the UK for a week of sailing in Greece. It took us exactly 2 seconds to answer that invite!
I’m sure you know what the answer was 😉
The plans took a few months to come to fruition, but as one of my favourite aspects of travelling is the planning beforehand I didn’t mind the wait.
Once our flights were confirmed I found out we would be flying via Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and Istanbul, Turkey… and my first thought was “Can we get to see some of Istanbul in our few hours of layover?”
It didn’t seem possible at first… Our layover was only 6 hours.
But with some investigating I found out that it actually just might be…. I found an amazing FREE offer courtesy of Turkish Airlines. For all Turkish Airlines flying in and out of Istanbul on the airline there is a FREE TOUR OF ISTANBUL on offer. The length of your layover at Istanbul airport determines the length of the tour but even those on 6 hour layovers like ourselves could take up the offer…
But there was no way to confirm it until we actually arrived because as you know when it comes to travel things go awry… flights get delayed, immigration lines are endless, visas don’t get issued. There were endless things that could have gone wrong. So I didn’t hold my breath or bank on this outing. I just hoped (and prayed) that all would fall into place so I might be able to catch a glimpse of this incredible city I’ve heard so much about.
And then we flew, just my husband, myself, our hand luggage and my hat! (My mom wasn’t convinced it would make it there and back in one piece)
Our flight landed in Addis around 11pm and we were due to leave again at 2:30am so this meant we had about 3 hours to wait in the airport… What I can say is that we arrived into Africa! This airport is an experience in travel in Africa – all manner of people in all manner of garb were filling the dismal airport building to capacity – and it was the middle of the night. We wandered around in a daze trying to work out where our gate would be, weaving our way through the crowds (and crowds) of people.
We found a spot to charge our phones, frequented by a crew of Chinese construction workers, and then gave up and trip to find one of the rather well worn lounger seats to put our bags down on and rest our feet. Another spot opened up and we both managed to shut our eyelids for a while, still clutching all our luggage. An hour or so later I opened my eyes only to discover that there was NO ONE around. Literally the whole airport had emptied and there were about 5 fellow passengers and a few cleaning staff about. A Twilight zone indeed.
Finally, it was time to board our flight to Turkey… and catch a few winks!
We landed around 6am and I had researched to find out that the first (and only) tour of Turkish Airlines’ TourIstanbul service would be leaving at 8:30am and returning at 11:30am, just in time for us to check in for our 1pm flight to Athens.
This meant we had approximately 2 hours to make our way through the airport, apply for the e-Visa at the airport and then make our way through the endless line at passport control…. Except we first went to passport control and stood in the endless line without realising we needed to apply for the e-Visa at the self-service machine. Back we went to the visa station only to have to wait in ANOTHER line behind some VERRRRY slow people. When we eventually got to the front of the line the e-Visa was super simple to apply for and only cost us, as South Africans, xxxx . All we needed to have with us to apply for the 180 day Turkish visa was a passport (valid for at least 6 months from the date you enter Turkey). Then it was back into the queue. I kept checking the time… and it was inching closer to 7:30am. I knew I wanted to have signed up for the tour by 8 latest! Stress levels were rising.
Then, fortunately, an official recognised us as having already queued earlier and allowed us to go straight to a newly opened immigration desk!
We were in! Now to find the TourIstanbul meeting point. My research had said to look for the Starbucks. And it worked! We located the Starbucks and found the TurkishAirlines office to put our names down for the tour and then join the crowd milling around. Relief! Excitement! We were going to see a sliver of Istanbul. Well, what you can get to see in 3 hours! This would most certainly prove to be a whirlwind tour of Istanbul.
At 8:20 we boarded the bus, our hand luggage easily popped into the boot so there was no need to worry about where to leave it. And then our tour guide started to tell us more about this historically significant city while we weaved our way through the morning traffic!
But we were in Istanbul and it was a perfect day to sightsee. I couldn’t have been more thrilled.
I had no idea what to expect. I hadn’t researched the schedule in advance just in case it raised my hopes too high, so the whole morning unfolded as an unexpected gift…
This is a city full of historical places and natural beauties. It’s a city that’s played a huge part in the history of various civilizations and to get out to explore it and see these places for myself was wild… and far more pleasant than a 6 hour airport wait!
We headed out on the Coastal Road alongside the Bosphorus Sea. Along the way our bus passed Yedikule Fortress, Old Samatya Armanian District, Yeni Kapı Harbour and the ancient Walls of Constantine.
Then we stopped for a quick photo break of 10mins on the Galata Bridge to enjoy incredible views of the sea and the city.
From here we could see the iconic Galata Tower and many, many mosque spires! (I think I spotted the Blue Mosque, but it was hard to tell from this distance.)
The Galata Tower is a medieval stone tower that was built in 1348 as the “Christea Turris” (Tower of Christ) by Genoese colonists at the highest point of the citadel of Galata – which was then a Genoese colony independent from Constantinople.
According to the Seyahatname of Ottoman historian and traveller Evliya Çelebi, In 1638 Hezarfen Ahmed Celebi glided on artificial wings from the top of the tower to the slopes of Chrysopolis on the Asian side – becoming one of the first men in history to fly.
It was from here that we could also see two continents at once – Europe (where we stood) and Asia (just across the Bosphorus bridge!)
Here’s my (rather hazy) attempt to capture 2 continents in one photo…
This is where the local fishermen come to enjoy a chat and a catch. I’m sure you can see why they like to hang out here. What a way to spend a day!
From there it was on to the Dolmabahçe Palace where we spent about 20 mins meandering around the grounds, taking photos and enjoying more of the views.
The Dolmabahçe Palace, a blend of various European architectural styles, was built between 1843-1856 by Karabet Balyan, the court architect of Sultan Abdulmecid, at a cost of five million Ottoman gold pounds, the equivalent of 35 tonnes of gold. It is located on the European side of the Bosphorus and served as the main administrative center of the Ottoman Empire from 1856 to 1922.
The Dolmabahce Clock Tower is a clock tower situated outside Dolmabahce Palace and it was constructed by the famous Armenian architect Sarkis Balyan between 1890 and 1895 with the order of Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II (1842-1918).
Designed in Ottoman neo-baroque style, the four-sided, four-story tower stands at a height of 27m. Its’ clock was manufactured by the renowned French clockmaker house of Jean-Paul Garnier, and installed by the court clock master Johann Mayer.
Our tour then took us via Taksim Square, back across the Galata Bridge via the Golden Horn area and then under the Aqueduct Of Valens and back on to the airport.
A whirlwind indeed but I am so pleased to have discovered this incredible free offer – which is why I’m now sharing it here with you. No one’s paid me for this post… I’m just sharing my discovery to encourage you to explore more on your own travels and adventures!
I hope this story inspires you to travel through Istanbul on your next trip. I most certainly would love to fly via this city again and take advantage of the TourIstanbul offer.
Next time I’ll plan for a longer layover so I can get to do the tour that offers visits to the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia and the Grand Bazaar – two must-see spots in Istanbul that unfortunately I didn’t see this time around…
To be very honest I don’t think 1 day will be enough. I think I’ll have to plan a dedicated trip to Istanbul and Turkey… and I’m sure that is exactly the purpose of the whirlwind tour of Istanbul with TourIstanbul, to give you a taste that leaves you wanting more!
Anyone who flies through İstanbul on Turkish Airlines (both legs of your flight need to be with the airline) and has a waiting time at least 6 hours and not longer than 24 hours is able to use the TourIstanbul service.
Passengers need to be ready for boarding and pass the passport and custom control a minimum of 1 hour before their scheduled departure time.
After you arrive at Istanbul Atatürk Airport head to the hotel desk in the International arrivals hall (as you come out the passport control entrance turn right and head towards Starbucks).
You will need to arrive about 30mins before the start of the tour. The first one for the morning, a Sightseeing tour, leaves at 08:30am (this is the one we did) and then there are longer and shorter tours offered throughout the day and even into the evening when there is a cultural walking tour on offer from 4pm – 9pm. Click here for the full TourIstanbul schedule
What’s even more incredible is that the longer tours include lunch and all museum entrance fees!
For more info contact: [email protected]
Turkish Visa Information for South African passport holders
As of October 2017 ordinary South African passport holders are required to have visa to enter Turkey. They can obtain a three-month period multiple entry visas from Turkish representations abroad or a one month period single entry visa via the website www.evisa.gov.tr
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Images: Kathryn Rossiter