Turkey, Istanbul: Top of the stops

Turkey, Istanbul: Top of the stops

Don’t let clients fly via Istanbul without seeing the delights of Turkey’s biggest city

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There’s no such thing as too much time in Istanbul – like waiters serving a never-ending stream of tempting Turkish mezze, there’s always one more sight to see or one more dish to try, even when you think you’ve had enough.

So what can travellers do if they need to squeeze this endlessly exciting city into a flying visit? With flag-carrier Turkish Airlines offering onward connections to 274 destinations – Beijing, Hong Kong, Bangkok, Dubai and Cape Town top the list from the UK – Istanbul is becoming more established as a convenient stopover spot.

“About 25% of our clients visit Istanbul as a stopover en route to other destinations,” says Kim Davey, reservations and customer service manager for Anatolian Sky Holidays.

“We have definitely seen an increase over the past few years in clients keen to book this type of break, and it is an area we are hoping to grow.”

City-plus-beach is an obvious combination, moving on to the Turkish coast or the shores of Asia or the Indian Ocean. Yet Istanbul also makes a good counterpoint for adventure breaks – Anatolian Sky is reporting a rise in demand pairing it with Cappadocia or North Cyprus – as well as wildlife or cultural tours of Africa and the Far East.

No matter how long they have, or where they plan to go next, the key to designing a good stopover is squeezing in just enough of the city to whet your clients’ appetites and leave them clamouring to come back.

One Day: Old City

If clients have a same-day connection out of Istanbul, they might not want to stray too far from the airport, but it’s not that risky.

Sultanahmet – the Old City – packs plenty of history into a compact centre, and is only a half-hour drive from the main Istanbul Ataturk airport (although twice as far from the newer Sabiha Gokcen International airport used by Pegasus Airlines and other low-cost carriers).

So it’s possible to whizz round the ornately tiled Blue Mosque, basilica-turned-mosque Hagia Sophia, the cavernous Basilica Cistern and ancient Hippodrome in just a few hours, even allowing extra time for traffic or queues of cruise ship passengers.

Turkish Airlines offers transiting passengers free daily excursions run by TourIstanbul, combining these sights with the exotic stalls of the Grand Bazaar and vibrant atmosphere of Istiklal Avenue. The option was taken up by 20,000 customers last year, with tours running from 9am-3pm, 9am-6pm and 12pm-6pm each day.

Istiklal Avenue - Image credit: gototurkey
Image credit: gototurkey

If those timings don’t suit, consider a private tour. Most of Do Something Different’s collection can be amended to include an airport pick-up and drop-off, albeit with a surcharge, and going private means clients can tailor it to suit their time frame.

A private day tour including the above sights, though swapping Istiklal Avenue for a tour of Topkapi Palace, and traditional Turkish lunch along the way, costs £102 based on two sharing, or £67 between four, with airport pick-up at a supplement.

Two Days: Asian Odyssey

With an overnight base and time to venture into Istanbul’s other vibrant districts, visitors can get a much better feel for the city. Start with historic Beyoglu, a district just across the Galata Bridge from the Old City, which takes in everything from Catholic churches to the Jewish Quarter, via a 14th-century Genoese watchtower and the flower market.

Classic Collection offers a day tour combining these attractions with stops at a fish restaurant and to try Turkish wine in French Street, and a tram ride from Istiklal Avenue to Taksim Square. The tour can be booked via Classic's concierge service on 0800 008 7289.

This is also home to Karakoy, a warehouse district being regenerated by the arrival of art gallery Istanbul Modern – a must for anyone who likes contemporary design – and a crop of trendy restaurants and boutique hotels.

In 48 hours, there’s time to escape the European side of the city altogether. Pegasus Airlines marketing director Onur Dedekoylu says: “Istanbul is best seen from the water, and a ferry trip the length of the Bosphorus will reward with views of the Black Sea. On the way, spot the two fortresses that straddle the strait, Rumeli and Anadolu Hisar, which Mehmet the Conqueror built to cut off Constantinople before his final victorious assault on the city.

“If you’re short of time, enjoy a half-hour ferry ride from Eminonu or Karakoy to the Asian side of the city at Kadikoy or Uskudar, where few tourists go.”

This side of the strait is home to Camlica Hill, with its sweeping views across the Bosphorus, plus the lavish Beylerbeyi Palace and chic cafes and shops along Bagdat Caddesi.


Three Days: Soak it in

A fortnight-long getaway can easily accommodate a stopover of at least three days, giving clients the equivalent of a weekend break before they’ve even started their ‘proper’ holiday.

Some hotels have packages tailored to suit this city-break length, packing in plenty of activities with free time for sightseeing in between.

Pera Palace Hotel Jumeirah – a favourite of Agatha Christie, Ernest Hemingway and Alfred Hitchcock – has a Taste of Istanbul package that combines a Turkish hammam, cooking class and a tour of Istanbul’s fish and spice markets guided by executive chef Arif Dogan (from €515 for two nights).

And if food is your clients’ real passion, new restaurant Alancha offers 20-course tasting menu The Big Migration, taking diners through the culinary history of Anatolia, with flavours from the ancient Greeks, Persians, Phoenicians and Ottomans. Costing £56, the menu has been devised by cutting-edge chef Kemal Demirasal.

For those with simpler tastes (and budgets), suggest an evening in a lokanta, the tradesmen’s restaurants that serve classic cuisine in an authentic Turkish setting. An alternative is Attraction World’s Home Cooked Istanbul evening for homespun hospitality followed by a game of backgammon in a teahouse (£24 adults, £20 under-11s).

Anatolian Sky managing director Akin Koc also suggests escaping the city for some down time, especially if clients are moving to another fast-paced destination after their stopover. He says: “A day trip to the Princes’ Islands is an excellent idea. These nine islands are an hour from Istanbul by ferry and are an antidote to the bustle of the city, with beautiful scenery and a slow pace of life.”

Sample Product

Attraction World has a full-day Bosphorus Cruise and Beylerbeyi Palace tour starting at £58 for adults and £29 for children aged from two to six.

Do Something Different has a full-day trip to Buyukada, the largest of the Princes’ Islands, including a ferry from Istanbul and horse-and-carriage tour, from £57.

Osprey Holidays can book two nights’ room-only at the four-star Sultanhan Hotel from £150.

Anatolian Sky offers a twin centre pairing four nights at the Best Western Empire Palace in Istanbul with 10 at Riverside Garden Resort near Kyrenia, North Cyprus, from £1,005 on a B&B basis, including flights and transfers, in October.

Ask the Expert

Lisa Mackinnon, reservations consultant, Osprey Holidays:
“To avoid the tourist hotspot of the Grand Bazaar, fashionistas seeking some designer chic should head straight to Nisantasi for Bond Street-style shopping. Alongside the likes of Louis Vuitton and Cartier lie some worthy Turkish designer brands such as Hakaan and Arzu Kaprol.”


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