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Layover Lowdown: Istanbul Atatürk Airport

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Our new “Layover Lowdown” series features airports and destinations around the world where you’re likely to be stuck between flights, offering tips on navigating and spending time in the airport, as well as some things to do if you find yourself with time to explore the nearby city. TPG International Contributor Lane Nieset takes us through Turkey’s largest airport—one of the fastest growing in Europe, with over 50 million passengers passing through each year.

The Istanbul Atatürk Airport.
The Istanbul Atatürk Airport. Photo courtesy of TAV Istanbul Ataturk Airport

Europe’s fourth busiest airport, and one of the top 40 international airports in the world, Istanbul Atatürk Airport (IST) has rapidly grown since it was renamed in 1980 after the founder of the Republic of Turkey—looking much different than it appeared in the 1963 James Bond film, From Russia With Love. In the past few years it’s been rated “Airport of the Year” by Air Transport News, and it’s not hard to see why, from the state-of-the-art luxury lounges to a Grand Bazaar-inspired Duty-Free shopping complex.

At the Airport

Special Features

Turkey is a predominately Muslim country, so those who practice this faith can find eight mosques spread throughout the International and Domestic terminals, open 24/7. If you’d like to take in a different side of the culture, swing by the TAV Gallery in the International Departures terminal and check out the artwork on display, like the recent underwater photography exhibit, “The Birth of a River: Sakarya,” which spotlights Turkey’s third-largest river.

Star Alliance Gold members, first- and business-class passengers on Star Alliance airlines, and Turkish Airlines international business-class travelers can soak up the luxuries in the super snazzy Turkish Airlines Departure Lounge, which has everything from a tea garden serving Turkish tea to chef’s corners where passengers can watch the masters whip up regional specialties like manti, a Turkish dumpling. The lounge also has a cinema, free WiFi, a billiards room, golf simulator, showers and a prayer room.

Those flying first or business class on Emirates can relax pre-flight in a comfy leather armchair in the Emirates Lounge,  drinking Champagne, eating gourmet Turkish fare, and/or taking advantage of the WiFi and showers. After long-hauls, passengers can de-stress in the wellness center at the SkyTeam Lounge, which features tons of natural light (no fluorescents here!), an oxygen bar and full-body massage chairs.

If you want a moment of privacy or some shut-eye, the TAV Airport Hotel in the International terminal has 46 rooms for stays from three to 24 hours that feature Internet access, a music system, minibar, and screens with flight details. But keep in mind this doesn’t come cheap; rooms start at 95 Euros ($108) for up to three hours.

Tip: If you plan on exploring Istanbul, Americans need a visa to enter the Republic of Turkey, so save time and purchase an e-visa ($20) before you arrive at the airport. The 90-day visa allows for multiple entries, and can also be purchased at one of the kiosks near passport control inside the airport.

Old Bazaar
Stock up on Turkish specialties at the Old Bazaar, designed to resemble the city’s Grand Bazaar. Photo courtesy of TAV Istanbul Ataturk Airport

Shopping

Didn’t have hours to spend getting lost in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar? You can still snag local specialties like halva and Turkish delight at the market-inspired Old Bazaar, designed to look similar to its counterpart in town. If you’re looking for designer fare, the International Departures terminal also boasts boutiques like Hermès, Bvlgari, Ermenegildo Zegna, Salvatore Ferragamo and Versace. Over in International Arrivals, the duty-free concept store sports the broadest variety of imported wine in Turkey.

Dining 

If you want quick Turkish cuisine, try Turcuisine in the International Departures food court or grab Turkish meze like stuffed grape leaves from Restro, a buffet restaurant with international cuisine on the mezzanine floor (before passport control). For sit-down spots, the low-key English Efes Beerport (just past passport control), is open 24/7 and serves snacks, pub fare, and, of course, beer. Those who want to spread out and enjoy a slightly more upscale meal should take a seat at the airport outpost of Turkish chain Kitchenette, which doubles as a restaurant and pâtisserie.

Luggage Storage

Store your suitcase for just 20 Turkish Lira ($8) per day at the 24-hour Baggage Custody Service, located in Arrivals in both the international and domestic terminals.

Transport to the City Center

If you want a quick option into town, take one of the orange airport taxis, which charge around 145 TL ($60) and take about 30 minutes to get to Taksim. Be sure to have local currency, since most cabs don’t accept credit cards, and keep an eye on the meter or negotiate a flat rate before you start driving.

You can also take the Havatas airport shuttle, located outside the terminals, which runs every half hour to Taksim and costs 11 TL ($4.50). The trip takes about 40 minutes in total, depending on traffic (which is notoriously bad in Istanbul).

The metro is a cheap option into town, located just underneath the Arrivals terminal, but will require a few connections depending on where you want to go. If you plan on going to Taksim, take the red line M1A to Yenikapi and switch for the green M2 line to Taksim. Rides require a token (jeton), which costs 4 TL ($1.60), but if you plan on staying in town for a few days, purchase a reloadable Istanbul Kart from the airport (6 TL or $2.40), for reduced fares on trams, ferries, buses and the metro.

Bosphorus Boat Tour
Take to the water with a boat tour on the Bosphorus. Photo by Lane Nieset

If You Have a Half Day

Head out on the Bosphorus and tour Istanbul by boat, where you can see both the European and Asian sides of the city from the water. End the tour with a fish sandwich under the Galata Bridge, just a few Turkish Lira and grilled straight from the sea.

Blue Mosque
Step into the Blue Mosque and check out the architecture, but be sure to have your legs covered (and hair, for the ladies). Photo courtesy of Lane Nieset

If You Have a Whole Day

Start in Sultanahmet and explore some of Istanbul’s famous sites, like the Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmed Mosque); the underground Basilica Cistern dating back to the third and fourth centuries; the Topkapi Palace museum, home of the Ottoman sultans for over 400 years; and the Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya) museum. If you still have time and want to experience a Turkish ritual, book a Turkish bath at a hammam like the classic Çemberlitas Hamami, built for a sultan in 1584.

If You Have the Night

The 326-room Radisson Blu Conference & Airport Hotel is just a quick (and free) shuttle ride from the airport and has a Turkish hammam and indoor pool, as well as amenities like Nespresso machines and in-suite Jacuzzis. Rooms start at 38,000 Gold Points or $108.

Pera Palace Hotel Jumeirah
Pera Palace Hotel Jumeirah is the oldest European hotel in Turkey. Photo courtesy of Jumeirah Hotels

Located near Galata Tower overlooking the Golden Horn, the elegant 115-room Pera Palace Hotel Jumeirah (rates from $262) is a historic hotel with Old World charm that has hosted Hemingway, as well as Turkish leader Atatürk (who stayed in the suite now named after him). Nearby off of the Istiklal shopping street, the new Philippe Starck-designed Mama Shelter hotel (rates from $79) is a great choice for the younger set with a lively bar scene featuring craft cocktails, Turkish wine and beer, guest DJs spinning, and Franco-Turkish cuisine.

The Istanbul EDITION, Ian Schrager’s collaboration with Marriott, is a cozy enclave tucked away in the skyscraper-heavy neighborhood of Levent. Schrager’s understated glamour reigns throughout, from the loft-style rooms with rich wood hues to the sultry Gold Bar with a 20-foot aquarium. If you plan on spending part of the day indoors, don’t miss the hotel’s three-floor ESPA spa. Rates for the Category 8 Marriott property start at 40,000 reward points or $159 per night.

For more ideas on things to do in Istanbul, check out the Destination of the Week: Istanbul post.

What are some of your favorite things to do in and out of the airport in Istanbul?