Touristanbul review: Get your free city tour of Istanbul now!
Do you like going on free tours? We are guessing YES, and this post is going to show you how to get one in Istanbul, what the Touristanbul free tour is about, and how to go about getting it.
Read on for our review of Touristanbul tour!
What's covered in this post
Short introduction of Turkey
Istanbul is the most populous city in Turkey, and no it is not the capital. It is also well known for Turkish baths!
It is somewhat better known than the capital Ankara, thanks to strong efforts by the tourism ministry and being an important commerce centre.
Made up of 15 million inhabitants, Istanbul is often regarded as the top metropolis in Turkey, and is the point where East meets West.
Turkey is right in the middle of the continents of Europe and Asia, and draws influences from both its neighbours, but it’s obvious there are stronger emphasis from a Asian point of view, as is evident from the fact that only 3% of its country in the European continent.
When in Turkey, make sure to convert your currency to the Turkish Lira as it is the official currency.
There are rarely any places that accept anything else, and if they do, you can be sure that the exchange rates will be exorbitant.
Its citizens are mostly Muslim, and through their industriousness, today occupy the 17th spot among the economies of the world.
If you are looking for accommodation in Istanbul, check out the best deals down below!
Is Touristanbul free?
Yes! TourIstanbul is a free tour service offered by Turkish Airlines.
All you need to is fly into Istanbul with a connecting flight that is more than 6 hours and less than 24 hours and you automatically qualify for it.
What is Touristanbul?
Touristanbul is a free (tour gratis Turkish Airlines) service applicable for all international passengers passing through Istanbul. It is free and the only requirements is that the layover is between 6 to 24 hours. You will get a tour of Istanbul during this time.
Turkish airlines has been one of the top performing airlines in the world, flying to the most destinations of any airlines and consistently winning European Airline of the Year awards.
So it’s a bit strange that Skytrax, an airlines ratings agency, decided to drop them to a 3 star rating a couple of years back, which prompted Turkish Airlines to withdraw from the ranking agency.
Good job we say.
We know there are airlines ranked higher but not as good as Turkish airlines.
So as part of the country’s push to bring in higher tourism numbers, it has partnered up with its national airlines Turkish Airlines, to offer a Turkish Airlines Istanbul Tour to spend time in Istanbul, which incidentally is the tourism hotspot of turkey.
As part of the Touristanbul program which is one of many Turkish Airlines offers, travellers who have a short layover in Istanbul are entitled to receive an Istanbul Airport free city tour, which you can select from 6 different options.
If you have the free time and willing to stopover to tour Istanbul, you will be able to sign up for it at the hotel desk at the airport terminal.
No cash nor credit card required!
Touristanbul Visa Requirements
Do I need visa for Touristanbul?
To enter Turkey, you need to have a valid visa. (unless you are in the transit area, which you do not need one)
To find out if you require one, please visit the Turkey Ministry of Affairs site to ascertain.
If you need to apply for one, you may do so here.
Some nationalities are eligible for visa on arrival, but it does cost more than if you applied online.
Where is the Hotel Desk?
Upon landing in Istanbul Airport, you will need to clear and exit passport controls.
Once you’re out, head to the right hand side of the building (while facing the exit), until you reach the Turkish airlines hotel desk. It’s less than a hundred metres away.
For those of you thinking about depositing your bags in the airport while you go for a tour, you have 2 options.
First, you can make a left turn after clearing customs and use the baggage service.
Or you can bring them along on the tour, where you can store your bags in the travel agency’s office. We chose the latter to save a few bucks.
When you reach the desk, be sure to get a queue number first! This step is important and cannot be missed out!
Free Hotel Stay
Some of you might have also heard about a free hotel stay offered by Turkish Airlines, but this is actually not part of a Touristanbul hotel offer, which is only for the tours.
However, if you will be having a stopover in Istanbul, you might be able to receive a free hotel stay if you meet the qualifying requirements.
For travellers transiting in Istanbul, they are entitled to receive a stay in a four star hotel in the city, or a five star hotel if they are a business class traveller.
However, as much as we know, the hotels are not revealed until you reach Istanbul and proceed for registration.
Although this benefit is pretty sweet, it does come with a number of terms and conditions (what’s new right?).
Over the phone conversation with a Turkish airlines representative, we found out that this benefit is only offered to passengers who have a transit time of over 6 hours and less than 24 hours, and it cannot be purposely chosen by the passenger.
What does this mean?
Say you are flying from Vienna to Thailand, and there are a number of flight options with regards to transit time in Istanbul.
If you choose the longest transit time just so you can enjoy this benefit, then you will be denied the privilege, as there’s a shorter option available.
Next, you have to be flying to one of the destinations listed on Turkish airlines website in order to qualify for this.
If you are unsure, shoot an email over to the hotel desk for a clearer understanding. Here is their website that explains a bit further.
Not sure why they have such restrictions though, as it makes it pretty tough to qualify for this.
It seems only if your flight gets delayed or canceled then will you be able to receive the hotel stay.
We thought it makes more sense to offer to all travellers who has long transits, whether deliberate or not, to get the hotel stay.
If more of them are in Istanbul, then it makes sense they will spend more money there right? Isn’t that one of the important points of a tourism program?
Touristanbul allows you to receive a free city tour conducted by a travel agency partner of Turkish Airlines.
They are pretty experienced in Istanbul tours or Istanbul sightseeing tours.
There is no need to register online first or any sort of advanced registration. Simply head to the hotel desk upon arriving to register.
Tours are organised every day of the week and range from a 3.5 hours to half day tours of 6.5 hours.
Check the schedule here.
One cool option is the Touristanbul Bosphorus cruise, which is an Istanbul night tour from Airport.
Organisation of the tour was slightly disorganized.
Although it says at the tour counter (counter 1) that it opens at 6.30am, it was only around 6.40am when the staff sauntered in and started registration at 6.45am.
Take note: you cannot enjoy both the hotel stay and tour at the same time. So if you enjoyed the free hotel stay, you will not be able to take part in the city tour. And of course vice versa.
We were told to report back at a waiting area near the elevator 10 minutes before 8.30am, which we did.
The staff took a bit longer than that to appear and had to spend around 10 minutes just reading out names to confirm the attendance, which we estimated to be 100.
All these delays will have repercussions, which we will share a bit more later.
Once the group was confirmed, we were herded through the airport to the basement bus bay to board the tour coach.
The tour coach left the airport at 9.10am and the tour guide shared some general information about what to expect and a brief history of Turkey.
During the briefing, we were told that the journey into the city will take 50-60 minutes, and that guests were free to leave early and return to the airport on their own.
A letter of indemnity would be required in such cases.
She was also nice to share the ways to head back, which was either a taxi ride, or a shuttle service from in front of Hagia Sofia, that cost 18 lira.
We had over 7 hour layover in Istanbul, and signed up for the 6.5 hours tour, and it included the following sights and 2 meals:
- Blue Mosque
- Serpentine Column
- Obelisk of Thedosius
- Topkapi Palace
It was during this briefing that we received a disappointment: the tour that we signed up for, will only cover the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia, due to shortage of time.
We were slightly bewildered. Lack of time?
But they are the ones who came late and took a long time to organize the buses.
So anyways, the sight of the city when approaching was pretty cool.
The remnants of the city wall were still present in many parts of the city and lends itself to the charm.
Looking out, you could see numerous minarets poking out from the city skyline, showcasing their uniqueness and beauty.
It was also clear that the country was trying to be more green, evidenced by the tree lined streets and wide green spaces where we could see families hanging out and relaxing.
Traffic in the city, just like any other, was rather heavy and drivers were pretty aggressive!
So maybe not considering a rental car here for us.
We stopped near the tour agency’s office to unload our bags and get ready to start the tour.
First stop was to bring us to breakfast, which would also be the location for our lunch. So basically for the tour, we walked in a loop back to the restaurant.
The restaurant is based inside a small building.
On the ground floor was a section selling local desserts and silverware, second floor is where you can find more silverware and rugs, and the restaurant is on the third floor.
The food was placed on the tables when we arrived and guests were free to choose any seats.
We were a bit concerned about the hygiene though, as the food was exposed and you could see some flies swarming around.
The food was basic, consisting of a small selection of cheese, a sausage and ham.
Bread was served in a communal basket, and various spreads were offered.
The servers came around offering us tea, which was quite nice as we really wanted something warm.
After a 40 minute breakfast, we headed off to our first location, the Blue Mosque.
Under the orders of Sultan Ahmet I, the mosque was designed and built and completed in 1617. It sits on a large compound, and the 5 domes and 6 minarets towers over the area, filled with grandeur.
Visitors are allowed to enter the mosque to learn more about its history and view its interiors.
Ladies will have to cover up their heads and shoulders though, and hence it would be wise be bring along a light scarf for this purpose.
The tour organisers might have anticipated this, and each of us were given a bandana during our ride to the city.
Makes a nice souvenir too! If for some reason you do not wish to use the bandana, there is a small booth outside the mosque that allows you to rent one.
After a short briefing and history of the Blue Mosque, we were given about 25 minutes to explore it.
It is also worth pointing out here, that the sights mentioned earlier under the program highlights, are all located within walking distance of each other.
If you decide you wish to skip the guided tour, you can walk on on your own and reassemble at the lunch spot.
However, this could mean you might have to pay for entrance tickets since you are not within the group.
So weigh your options here, whether you wish to see more or prefer a guided style.
Next up is the Hagia Sophia, or Ayasofya as the locals call it. From the Blue Mosque, it was a very short walk through the park to get to Ayasofya.
We had looked forward to visiting this landmark, which had a tumultuous history.
It was originally a cathedral, which then was converted into a mosque, and in present day, a museum.
Thanks to being part of the tour, we were able to enter through the fast lane, whisking pass the long lines of tourists queueing for a ticket under the hot sun.
Inside the museum is where you finally see its massive structure and get a glimpse of its mixed history.
We had an hour here, and that is sufficient time to walk the ground level, view the exhibits, and watch a video presentation of the history of Hagia Sophia.
To get a better view of the museum, make your way up the ramp to the upper level. Take note though, the ramp up is slightly steep, so please ditch the heels!
From the upper floors, you get to see the layout and have a sense of how it would be like in the past.
The Hagia Sophia is truly unique that it was the house of 2 religions.
The grounds outside of Hagia Sophia offers plenty of wide open space to rest and relax.
There are a number of street food vendors here that sells roasted chestnuts (much like in Portugal), snacks and beverages.
Our advice: buy your refreshments out here, rather than at the cafe inside Hagia Sophia.
You will thank us for saving you some change later.
When the hour was up, so was our tour. It was back to the restaurant for lunch before going back to the airport.
Lunch was fairly decent, and consisted of some rice, chicken and adana kebab.
If you are vegetarian, make sure to inform the tour guide as soon as possible as the cooking time might take a while.
Conclusion of Touristanbul
It’s important for us to point out that tours are really not our cup of tea.
We signed up for this on a whim and thought that it would be a nice introduction to Istanbul, which it was.
You get to have some first hand knowledge about the sights and area from the tour guides, who were pretty knowledgeable and willing to share.
You get to save some money on transport and entrance fees, especially the fast lane to Hagia Sophia as it is extremely popular. When we exited, the line was over 50 metres long!
And not forgetting the 2 meals which were included in the tour.
That being said, we really couldn’t get used to being part of a tour group. Walking around in huge groups are just not our style, and the waiting times were just too long.
As we pointed out earlier, the tour was slightly disorganized and due to that, guests were not able to enjoy the full experience of the tour.
It wasn’t good to know we spent 7 hours with the tour and only saw 2 sights.
At the end, the tour did overrun and there were lots of panicky travellers by now.
Many had connecting flights that were going to start boarding and we were an hour away.
Buses came late and the tour guide ordered a smaller one to send those whose departure times were due back to the airport first. We were in this group.
By the time we reached the airport, the transit passengers made up of groups of families and couples sprinted in.
We hope they managed to catch their flights.
So overall, we felt that with some improvements in the organization, the tour would be a really great perk for travellers connecting in Istanbul.
Till then, we would not be heading back to the hotel desk any time soon…
The next time we are back, we will take our own time to explore, find new ones such as Dolmabahçe Palace, and write more reviews for you.
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Logistics before visiting Istanbul Turkey
Find cheap flights.
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Find the best accommodation.
Book a place ahead of time to get good rates. Booking.com has transparent fees and excellent rates.
Handy travel guide.
For the old school kid in you, get a travel guide book and get lost exploring the city.
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Planned for you activities in Istanbul.
Need a guide to show you and your group around? Lots of operators here to choose from here. You know who they are and how they are reviewed.
More resources to help you.
All other useful travel resources we use when we book our trips.