Turkish Airlines offers a free tour of Istanbul to business class passengers laying over for more than seven hours and for economy class passengers with at least a nine hour layover. I had spent an hour in the Turkish Airlines Business Class Lounge at Istanbul Airport and had to make my way back out to passport control and to the tour desk.
I'm not sure if there was a quicker exit (please comment below if so) but I walked back through the entire terminal to the food court where I first came up from arrivals and down the stairs. I was back at the security area, but behind a turn style with a security officer asking me where I was going. I explained that I wanted to go through passport control to tour the city and he waved me forward.
Just before passport control is a visa desk, a 90 day visa was USD $ 20. With the visa in hand I headed to the now empty passport control and two minutes later I was outside of customs in the main terminal. The tour desk is to the right as you walk out of customs, at the end, near Starbucks. Once checked in, they asked us to wait until 9am when we would all board the bus together.
Right at 9, we all boarded the bus and drove for 30 minutes (depending upon Istanbul traffic) to our first stop -- breakfast. I had just eaten an entire business class breakfast on my Turkish flight at 4am, but I didn't want to be impolite so I ate again.
After breakfast we made our way to the Blue Mosque. From Wikipedia:
The Sultan Ahmed Mosque (Turkish: Sultanahmet Camii) is an historical mosque in Istanbul. The mosque is popularly known as the Blue Mosque for the blue tiles adorning the walls of its interior.
Walking outside the Blue Mosque and onto the Hippodrome you can see the Obelisk of Theodosius, the Serpent Column and the Walled Obelisk.
Our next step was the Basilica Cistern originally used as underground water storage for the city. The dark lighting, pooled water, and Medusa heads on many of the pillars (reused from old pagan temples) gave a eerie feeling to the entire place.
We then had lunch (also complimentary) and headed to the Hagia Sophia which was built in the 4th century. Interestingly the building was constructed in a relatively short time frame by, again, using components from old pagan temples and other buildings. This building served as an Orthodox Basilica for 12 centuries before becoming a mosque for 5 centuries. It was converted to a museum in 1935 and contains many Christian, Muslim and Pagan features throughout.
As my flight was at 5pm, I then took the bus back to the airport at 3pm. Others stayed on until 6pm.
Unfortunately no first class (or even economy plus!) here. ;)
One day is hardly enough time to spend in Istanbul, but if you are short on time or want to get a sample of what the city has to offer, then this free tour provided by Turkish Airlines cannot be beat.