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Exterior view of arrivals and departures floor of Istanbul Airport

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Considering it’s the busiest airport in Europe, it’s no big shock that you may find yourself spending a layover in the Istanbul Airport (IST). Layovers may range from a manageable 2 – 3 hours to up to 24 hours. Luckily, depending on the length of your Istanbul layover, there are plenty of things to do in the Istanbul Airport as well as options for leaving the airport to do some city sightseeing.

I’m breaking down your options so you’ll know exactly how to spend your layover in Istanbul Airport.

Here's exactly how to spend a layover in Istanbul Airport including where to sleep, things to do in Istanbul Airport, shopping, restaurants, bars, and lounges in IST. Plus, click here to learn about guided layover tours of Istanbul, the Istanbul Stopover Program, and things to do in Istanbul during a long layover.

Where is Istanbul Airport (IST)

Istanbul Airport (IST) lies on the European side of the city, about 35 minutes (without traffic) from the city center.

A relatively new airport, it opened in 2018 when the Atatürk Airport closed. It’s the busiest airport in Europe and the 4th largest in the world! Needless to say, if you find yourself with a layover in Istanbul Airport, there’s plenty to keep you busy.

How much time do you need to Leave IST Airport

In order to get into the city, see some things, and return to the airport with enough time to check in and go through security, you’ll need at least 6 hours on the safe side.

Once you make it through customs, which in my experience is pretty quick despite seemingly long lines, it takes about an hour to travel to the city center and another hour back. Plus, you’ll want to arrive at the airport 2-3 hours before your flight departs. So, to sightsee, you’ll need at least an hour or two, in addition.

If you have less than 6 hours, I recommend staying in the airport or booking a guided tour.

Spending your layover in Istanbul Airport

Luckily, if you are limited by time to stay in Istanbul Airport, there is plenty to do. In fact, you can enjoy many Turkish foods, drinks, and experiences from within the airport to learn more about Istanbul and Turkish history and culture.

Things to do in Istanbul Airport during a layover

1. İstanbul Airport Museum

You probably wouldn’t think that there’s a full museum inside an airport, but Istanbul really delivers with this one!

This museum opened in 2020 and features over 300 artifacts on loan from 25+ museums in Turkey including humanity’s first peace treaty, the Kadesh Treaty. The artifacts within the museum span 12,000 years of Anatolian history and are displayed chronologically.

If you can’t make it out of the airport, this museum is certainly worth your time. Tickets are 13 Euros (~ $14.50 USD) and it’s located on the second floor of International Departures. The escalator is right next to the LEGO Store.

They’re open from 8:30 am to 11 pm, daily.

Red front desk and walls at the Istanbul Airport Museum at IST, one of the best things to do on a long layover at Istanbul Airport
The Istanbul Airport Museum is certainly worth your time on a layover if you can’t leave the airport.

2. Lounges

Of course relaxing in a lounge is a great way to pass the time on layovers. In the international terminal, there are 5 lounges.

i) iGA Lounge (past security) is open 24 hours, has food, drinks, and showers, and a TON of seating. Plus, a duty-free shop, prayer rooms, children’s area, and smoking terrace. 

You can access this lounge with a Priority Pass membership or by paying the walk-in fee of $65 per person.

ii) Another iGA branded option is their Pop Up Lounge also past security around gate A5. Similarly, they are open 24 hours with food, drink, and daybeds. Because they are celebrating their grand opening, you can access the lounge for 32 euros, which includes a 20% discount using code POP020 at checkout online. Alternatively, use your Priority Pass for access.

English 300*250

iii) The Turkish Airlines Miles & Smiles Lounge past security near gate C1 is a great option for Miles & Smiles status members including Elite Plus, Elite, Business Class ticket holders, and credit card holders. Passengers can also use Miles & Smiles miles to purchase access to the lounge. 

They have food, drinks, showers, and a children’s area and are open 24 hours.

iv) The Turkish Airlines Business Lounge has similar amenities to the Miles & Smiles Lounge but is limited to passengers who are traveling on a Turkish Airlines flight in Business class. 

The standout at this lounge is that they have sleeping rooms that you may use if your connection time is between 4 and 9 hours and the duration of your flight is 8+ hours. 

v) Finally, the SkyTeam Lounge is open 24 hours and is located in the West Wing on Level H, near Terminal A. You can access this lounge if you are an international First or Business Class ticket holder or are an Elite Plus Frequent Flyer traveling on AirFrance, KLM, Korean Air, MEA, Tarom, or Saudia. 

The SkyTeam Lounge has food, drinks, showers, and plenty of seating with power outlets.

If you happen to be flying domestic from Istanbul to say the thermal pools of Pamukkale or the incredible sights in Cappadocia, you can access the iGA Lounge in the domestic terminal past security with your Priority Pass or the Turkish Airlines Lounge outside of security with similar access to the Miles & Smiles Lounge above.

Istanbul airport lounges serve freshly cooked food like pide, shown here
Fresh pide is served at the iGA Lounge and it was so good!

3. Shopping

Shopping in the Istanbul airport is no joke. You can find everything here in over 175 shops!

You’ll see recognizable brands like Bvlgari, Cartier, Celine Paris, Dior, Ecco, Fendi, Gucci, Guess, Hermes, Lacoste, Lee Wrangler, Lego, Levis, Louis Vuitton, Michael Kors, Miniso, Nike, Pandora, Ray Ban, Samsonite, and more!

If you’re looking for general shops like America’s Hudson News, the equivalent in Istanbul Airport is D & R.

  1. Duty free shops for Turkish souvenirs

Of course, duty free shops in Istanbul Airport are popular and have so many great souvenirs, especially if you can’t make it out of the airport. I recommend the Old Bazaar with locations near the Terminal A – B Pier and F Pier, where they have everything like Turkish delight, coffee, tea, baklava, textiles, and more!

Stacks and stacks of colorful pashmina scarves in Turkey
I love shopping for pashmina scarves when I’m abroad!

4. Prayer rooms and Ali Kuşçu Mosque

Inside the Istanbul Airport, there are 3 prayer rooms for all religious backgrounds with 22 masjids for women and 22 for men. 

You’ll find them on the departures floor at Pier F, airside on the international departures floor, and at the international departures meeting point.

Additionally, there is a mosque at Istanbul Airport, called Ali Kuşçu Mosque where up to 6,200+ people can worship. There is a courtyard, beautiful dome, and two minarets, and it’s the world’s first LEED Gold certified mosque, making it an incredibly sustainable building.

To get there, follow the overhead signs for the mosque. You will need to go outside and leave the airport, so take that into account when noting your timing.

Interior of Istanbul Airport mosque
The interior is just stunning!

5. Grab a drink

When I tell you Istanbul Airport has everything…they have everything. From elevated cocktail bars to sports pubs, you can certainly find your perfect spot to grab a drink.

For my beer lovers, try Brewmark Pub with local and craft beer options.

Try Bottega Bosphorus for a Venetian-inspired bar with unique cocktails and flavorful appetizers.

Cocktail on a cocktail table with a candle and glass of water adjacent

6. Enjoy a meal

Yes, you can enjoy some Turkish cuisine even from the airport. These options are in the international terminal.

Try the famed #saltbae restaurant, Nusr‒Et, for burgers among other menu items. I’ve heard mixed things, but it’s fun to try such a internet crazed spot!

Tadinda Anadolu and Cuisine Anatolia both feature a Turkish menu with staples like kebab, meze (small appetizer plates), and soups.

There’s also a food court with a range of options like Simit Sarayi, which has (my favorite) simit, a sesame bagel type food, Pidem with pide (a Turkish pizza), or HD Doner known for their doner kebab.

Manti dish which are Turkish dumplings
This is manti! Yum yum yum, please give it a try!

7. Get some work done

Blended travel is all the rage, so if you find yourself on a long layover in Istanbul, it might be time to cue the work part of this vacation.

You’ll find plenty of working spaces in the Istanbul Airport. Look for signs for the business centers (usually the symbol is a person on a laptop or phone) so you can set yourself up to get some work done.

And of course, should you have access to any of the airport lounges, you’ll find business centers in there, as well.

8. Explore a bookstore or visit the library

Would you believe that Istanbul Airport has an actual library?! Like is this an airport or a self-sustaining city?

But they do! They house over 2,000 books in multiple languages and can be checked out from the Istanbul Airport and returned to any public library in Turkey! That means if you are traveling around the country, you can grab a book and keep it with you until before you depart.

Alternatively, visit D & R around the airport, a bookstore and general store. They have great collections of books to purchase if you won’t be able to check out and return a library book.

Inside of IST airport during the winter holidays with Turkey flags hanging from the tall ceilings.
The IST Airport is massive!

9. Indulge in Turkish tea

It wouldn’t be a trip to Turkey without trying their iconic (and delicious) tea out of a tulip shaped glass. Luckily, you can get it pretty much everywhere. 

I recommend sitting down for a meal and ordering it alongside your entree. It’s also popular to drink after the meal.

Two cups of Turkish tea in tulip shaped glasses.
Turkish tea is the best!

10. Try Turkish coffee

Similarly, Turkish coffee is another traditional drink and one to try while you’re in the airport. Look for cafés where the name and/or menu is in Turkish (rather than English) for a more authentic shot at real Turkish coffee.

Turkish coffee being poured from a cevze pot into a small mug
Turkish coffee is an experience in Istanbul. Don’t skip it!

11. Experience Turkish ice cream

Turkish ice cream is an experience, not just a food to try. This is because actually acquiring your ice cream after ordering is a show. The person serving the ice cream does all sorts of tricks like putting it in your hands only to pull it away, making it disappear or change in size, and moving it around like it’s a hot potato…or ice cold potato.

I recommend walking the airport and keeping an eye out. These vendors aren’t listed on the official airport map otherwise I’d direct you somewhere specific. Look for ice cream cone neon signs and venture into the food courts to spot them!

12. Hit the spa

A full massage, steam room, and rain shower at an airport? Yes, please! At Ambassador Spa and Beauty Salon, you can indulge or refresh after a long travel day.

They have a range of services and packages including massages, a hammam bath experience (I highly recommend for a uniquely Turkish experience), facials, body scrubs, manicures, pedicures, waxing, eyelashes, eyebrows, and makeup application. 

If you want to access a private suite that includes a bed for a nap, you’ll need to opt for a package. Prices range from 30 to 600 euros, but there are some great package options for around 150 euros.

This can be a wonderful option if you don’t have access to a lounge to shower and rest.

You’ll find Ambassador Spa and Beauty Salon at International Departures airside (past security) near the Terminal A – B Pier.

Interior of Turkish hamam with marble slab in the center and cleaning stations along the edges.
Here’s an example hammam. You might be unable to get the full experience in an airport, but it’s worth it to try!

Overnight accommodation at Istanbul Airport

There are two options for overnight accommodation at Istanbul Airport without leaving the airport.

Both are Yotel properties. There is one Airside (past security) and another Landside (outside security).

If you have a long layover and need a few hours (minimum 4) of shut eye, you can book the Airside rooms. You will need a valid boarding pass for an international flight to stay here. You’ll also find Yotel’s Recharge Cabins in the Duty Free area upstairs. This is a good spot for a shorter stay.

If you want a longer stay, I recommend going to the Landside location, which is on the Departures floor across from door #7 outside.

While these rooms aren’t necessarily something to write home about, they certainly get the job done. They’re clean, provide everything you need for a night’s stay, and are a very welcome sight for sore eyes after trying to sleep on an airplane for hours.

If you're on a long layover at Istanbul Airport, consider staying at Yotel the only hotel (pictured here) that is both airside and landside.
Yotel has a number of options at the Istanbul Airport for overnight stays including these Recharge Cabins airside.

Leaving IST Airport during your long layover

Should you have enough time (6+ hours), you can certainly leave the Istanbul Airport. Here’s exactly how that would work and what to do.

Can you leave IST airport during layover?

Yes, you can! Of course, there are some logistics like luggage storage, visas, how to get around Istanbul, and what to do.

Luggage Storage in Istanbul Airport

If you are planning to leave the airport, you won’t want to be hauling your luggage with you. There are lockers that you can rent and use in the airport near gates 1 and 6 on the departures level. If you can’t find them, I recommend asking someone at one of the information desks.

Alternatively, check out this super helpful travel app called Bounce, that locates luggage storage around the world.

Do you need a Visa?

Depending on your country of origin, you may need a visa to depart the airport and visit Turkey. If you are a US Passport holder, you do. 

You can purchase one easily via their online system here. It’s best to do this ahead of time so you don’t need to enter the (longer) line to acquire a visa.

It’s tied to your passport number, so although I always recommend printing a hard copy, they didn’t even look at ours.

How to get to the city center

I have an entire post dedicated to getting around Istanbul including how to get to the city center from the airport. 

If you are not joining a guided layover tour, I recommend hopping in a taxi as it’s most time-efficient. Having cash is helpful as it costs ~ 850 TL each way. Look for ground transportation signs and ask the information desks where to go for taxis should you need help.

Alternatively, you can take the Havaist bus of which there are multiple lines that travel all over the city. Make sure you’re grabbing the appropriate one for where you want to go.

Havaist purple and white bus on the road during a cloudy day
Catch the Havaist bus in lieu of taxis from the airport.

What to do in Istanbul on your own

While I’ve written a day itinerary for Istanbul, you might not have a full day so here are some highlights to consider.

1. Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque

Both of these mosques are historic, have stunning architecture, and are centrally located. I recommend a guided tour of both if you have time as the context for what you are seeing can be easily missed without a tour.

Interior of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul which showcasing both Islamic and Christian adornments
Inside the Hagia Sophia.

2. Topkapi Palace

Also located in Sultanahmet Square (with the mosques) is Topkapi Palace, where the sultans and Ottoman administration used to live and operate from. The palace is now a museum and houses relics of the Ottoman empire. It’s quite a sight and worth your time.

Consider adding on a Harem ticket to see the living quarters of sultans and their wives, children, and mother.

Interior of Ottoman Empire sultans throne room in Topkapi Palace in Istanbul with blue tile work and gold embellishments everywhere
The sultan’s throne in Topkapi Palace 🤩

3. Basilica Cistern

Right next to Sultanahmet Square is Basilica Cistern. While I don’t recommend this if you haven’t done the first three activities, it’s certainly worthwhile should you find yourself with more time. 

The cistern provided water to Topkapi Palace and beyond and is made of over 300 ancient Roman columns.

View of the interior of Basilica Cistern in Old City of Istanbul
This place is huge!

4. Bazaars

Enjoy the Spice Bazaar and Grand Bazaar, especially if shopping is of interest. They are always bustling with activity and are great for souvenir shopping (although prices are inflated for tourists). 

Don’t miss the coffee from Kurukahveci Mehmet Efendi and beyran soup from Lezzet-i Sark!

Lamps on sale at the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul with colorful bright glass
Lamps are always a favorite photo spot!

5. Bosphorus Cruise

One of the best parts of Istanbul is it’s location on the Bosphorus Straight. Getting out on the water is a must. 

I recommend either a Bosphorus Cruise (although night cruises are most popular) or a ferry ride, which is part of their public transportation system. For an extra special experience, ride the ferry to Kadikoy, the Asian side of Istanbul.

View of Istanbul from the Bosphorus Straight
The views from Istanbul ferries are unmatched!

6. Eat your way through the city

Food in Istanbul is fantastic and there are so many amazing things to try. Don’t miss kebab, pide (Turkish pizza), manti (dumplings), simit (sesame bagel), baklava, Turkish tea, hazelnut paste, menemen (eggs with tomato), mussels, and more!

Street food is very common and inexpensive, so I guarantee you’ll find some goodies.

If you have time, I highly highly recommend a food tour of Istanbul!

Slices of baklava and Turkish vanilla ice cream on a plate to taste.
Baklava is one of the most iconic foods in Turkey.

Istanbul layover tours

Another option is to go on a guided layover tour. You can find tours with and without airport transportation, so it’s really up to you how much you want to do on your own!

Personally, if I were choosing a guided layover tour, I would go with this one or this similar one where both include all transportation including airport pickup and drop off. After reading the reviews, it sounds like the guide will adjust your itinerary and tour duration based on your layover timing, which is much appreciated.

Connection longer than 20 hours? Apply for the Istanbul Stopover Program

If you are flying on Turkish Airlines and have a layover in your flight plan, you may be eligible for the Istanbul Stopover Program

This is a program to encourage tourism in Istanbul and provides accommodation to passengers with layovers longer than 20 hours. If you are flying Economy Class, you’ll get one night in a 4-star property and if flying in Business class, you’ll get two nights in a 5-star property.

Be sure to apply more than 3 days before your first flight. You’ll need your reservation number (PNR), ticket number, and last name, so keep those handy!

Stunning Ottoman Empire style hotel room with King bed, lavish Turkish rug, and mother of pearl tortoise chairs
This was our room in AJWA Sultanahmet.

My Travel Essentials

  • Travel Insurance – Going on an international trip? Don’t forget travel and medical insurance with SafetyWing.
  • Travel Card – If you’re new to travel hacking, fear not! My favorite card for beginners gives you $750 in rewards when you spend $4,000 in the first 3 months, plus lounge access, 10x points on hotel bookings, and free TSA pre-check!
  • Get Your Guide – Check out Get Your Guide for a one-stop-shop for booking travel activities.
  • Booking.com – This is my favorite hotel search aggregator, specifically for reading reviews. On Booking.com, the reviews can be searched for keywords like WiFi, breakfast, pool, amenities, etc.! So helpful!
  • Anti-pickpocket bag – Worried about having your valuables swiped? PacSafe makes the best travel bags with zippers and straps that lock and with mesh steel enforced fabric.
  • Give the Gift of Travel – This is the perfect gift for travelers in your life! Tinggly allows you to gift experiences around the world, perfect for birthdays, weddings, or anniversaries.
  • Staycation Idea – Check out Resort Pass, which gives you day passes to resorts so you can use their pool, spa, and fitness center, a great staycation idea!

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Here's how to spend a layover in Istanbul Airport including what to do in Istanbul Airport, how to leave the airport, what to do in Istanbul, and tips for experiencing Turkish culture from inside the airport.
Have a layover in the Istanbul Airport? This layover guide has everything you need to know about spending a travel day in IST including where to sleep in the airport, the best shopping in Istanbul Airport, and lounges in IST. Plus, learn about the top guided layover tours of Istanbul and things to do in Istanbul once you go to the city center.
Here's exactly how to spend a layover in Istanbul Airport including where to sleep, things to do in Istanbul Airport, shopping, restaurants, bars, and lounges in IST. Plus, click here to learn about guided layover tours of Istanbul, the Istanbul Stopover Program, and things to do in Istanbul during a long layover.
Read this long layover guide to Istanbul Airport including things to do in IST like the Istanbul Airport Museum, lounges and how to access them, and where to eat. And, see the top things to do in Istanbul during a long layover.

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Recent PhD graduate and hyper-planner of Periodic Adventures, my goal is to share travel inspiration, budget tips, detailed guides, and fun travel stories!

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