Airports in Istanbul: What’s the main airport?

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Matthew Hillier

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Istanbul, the largest city in Turkey, has a rich history that dates back to early civilizations. The city has always been an important hub for trade and commerce, connecting Europe to Asia. With such a strategic location, it is no surprise that Istanbul has always had a bustling airport system.

There are three major airports in Istanbul: Istanbul Airport (IST), Sabiha Gökçen International Airport (SAW), and Atatürk Airport (ISL). Each airport serves a different purpose depending on location, facilities available and airlines that operate from there. 

Key takeaways

Istanbul’s three airports are:

  • Istanbul Airport (IST)
  • Sabiha Gokcen International Airport (SAW) 
  • Ataturk Airport (ISL) – Recently closed

Istanbul Airport (IST) is the main airport in Istanbul.

Sabiha Gökçen International Airport (SAW) mainly serves low-cost airlines. 

Atatürk Airport was once the main transport hub for Istanbul but closed for commercial flights in 2019 after most airlines moved over to Istanbul Airport.

Istanbul Airport (IST) is the newest and largest airport in Turkey. It opened in April 2019 to replace Atatürk Airport as the main hub for Turkish Airlines. Sabiha Gökçen International Airport was opened in 2001 to serve low-cost carriers and charter flights.

Airports in Istanbul

Istanbul airports on a map
Map of the three airports in Istanbul

Understanding the different airports in Istanbul is crucial because you don’t want to turn up to the wrong place. Choosing the right airport can save you time, money, and hassle.

Keep reading as we summarise the main airports in Istanbul.

Istanbul Airport (IST)

Tayakadın, Terminal Cad No:1, 34283 Arnavutköy/İstanbul, Türkiye

Istanbul Airport (IST) is the main airport in Istanbul that offers modern facilities with exceptional services that cater to both local and international travelers. It was classified as the busiest airport in Europe in 2021. The Turkish government has big plans for the future development of this airport. They aim to continue improving the quality of services offered at the airport while expanding it even further.

Istanbul Airport serves many airlines including Turkish Airlines, Pegasus Airlines, Onur Air, SunExpress and more. In total, there are over 100 airlines operating from this airport that offer flights to more than 350 destinations worldwide.

Location – How far is Istanbul Airport from city?

Istanbul Airport is located on the European-side of the city, about 40km (approx. 50 minute drive) from Taksim Square (the heart of downtown Istanbul). The airport covers an area of 76.5 million square meters and will eventually have the capacity to handle up to 200 million passengers per year.

Transportation options to/from the airport

Istanbul Airport offers several transportation options to get passengers to/from their destination. For those who want to avoid waiting or just enjoy a luxury ride can take advantage of VIP car services that are available 24/7.

Helpful tip

We’ve used VIP taxi services multiple times. When you pre-book your ride online, they are ready for you as soon as you arrive. Super convenient after a long flight. It has cost us around $50 USD to get into the city center.

Another option is taking a taxi from the official taxi stand outside of each terminal; it’s always recommended to check prices before boarding since street taxis may charge more than usual when serving tourists. Most drivers will stick to using the metre, which they should. It costs around 400-500 Lira ($25-30 USD) to take a taxi into the city center.

If passengers prefer public transportation they can use HavaIST buses that serve many areas in Istanbul. 

Facilities and amenities

The Istanbul Airport terminal is divided into four main sections: the Main Terminal, the Domestic Terminal, the International Terminal, and the exclusive Turkish Airlines Lounge.

The Main Terminal is where all international flights arrive and depart. It has three levels with plenty of seating areas, charging stations, restrooms, and prayer rooms. The Domestic Terminal serves all domestic flights within Turkey. It also has three levels with similar amenities but with a more local flavor featuring Turkish cuisine restaurants. 

Istanbul Airport has over 450 shops spread out over 60,000 square meters offering many luxury brands. For dining options, there are over 100 cafes and restaurants. There are also a number of places to rest and recharge during a layover including a hotel inside the terminal.

Walking in Istanbul Airport
Source: Unsplash

Connecting flights

The airport has a smooth layout that guides travelers through customs, security checks, baggage claim areas, and other essential travel-related checkpoints without any confusion or delays. The terminal design allows passengers to quickly move from one gate to another with minimal hassle. 

Helpful tip

Upon arrival – get your walking shoes on. Since the airport is so big you may find yourself walking long-distances to get to the exit. For us, this isn’t necessarily a negative as we usually don’t mind walking a bit after a long flight.

Sabiha Gokcen International Airport (SAW) 

Sanayi, 34906 Pendik/İstanbul, Türkiye

Sabiha Gökçen International Airport was opened in 2001 to serve low-cost carriers and charter flights. SAW was named after Turkey’s first female fighter pilot, Sabiha Gökçen. 

Some of the airlines that operate from this airport include Turkish Airlines, Pegasus Airlines, Wizz Air, Ryanair and Qatar Airways among others. With over 30 million passengers passing through SAW each year, it is an important hub for both leisure travelers going to Turkey’s coastal cities as well as business travelers heading to Istanbul’s Asian side. 

Location – How far is Sabiha Gokcen Airport from city?

Sabiha Gökçen International Airport is located on the Asian side of the city, in Pendik, about 44 km from Taksim Square. It can take around 1 hour 30 minutes, or more depending on traffic, to get to the city center.

The airport has two terminals: Terminal 1 for international flights and Terminal 2 for domestic flights. 

Transportation options to/from the airport

Sabiha Gökçen International Airport has similar transport options to Istanbul Airport with the additional option of train. The train service runs directly from the airport and goes into the city. Depending on your destination you may have to change lines along the way but we’ve found directions are always clearly labeled both on the train and in the train stations.

You can get a VIP taxi service or a standard taxi. You’ll be paying a higher taxi fee to get to the city center due to the distance and time it will take to get there. Keep an eye out for taxis that are labeled with SAW airport transfer – we’ve found them to be consistently good.

The airport also has a bus service that connects it with Kadiköy (a major transport hub on the Asian side).

Facilities and amenities

Despite being smaller than Istanbul Airport, SAW offers a range of facilities and amenities for passengers. The airport features duty-free shops, restaurants and cafes, ATMs, currency exchange services, as well as prayer rooms for Muslim travelers. There are also lounges available for business class passengers or those with lounge access. 

Sabiha Gökçen International Airport, Domestic Terminal

Ataturk Airport (Now closed)

Yeşilköy, 34149 Bakırköy/İstanbul, Türkiye

Located on the European side of Istanbul, Atatürk Airport used to be the main international gateway to Turkey. The airport closed down in April 2019. Demolishing has begun with plans to turn the area into a large public park with some forestation, grass and playgrounds.

Ataturk Airport was originally opened in 1912 operating under different names and forms over the years and has served as the primary airport for Istanbul until it was replaced by Istanbul Airport. The airport is named after Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder and first President of Turkey. 

Atatürk Airport was located on the European side in the Yesilkoy neighbourhood and was only about 20 km from Taksim Square.

Choosing the right airport

When choosing which airport to fly into or out of Istanbul, you have the two options. Sabiha Gökçen International Airport or Istanbul Airport. 

Which airport is closer to the city in Istanbul?

The main airport, Istanbul Airport, will be where most carriers fly into which is more convenient for those visiting the city (40 km away) and want a transfer quicker to places like Taksim Square or the Sultanahmet area.

If you choose to fly with a low-cost airline you may find yourself going to Sabiha Gökçen International Airport. Unfortunately, it’s location is further away (44 km) from the main tourist areas on the European-side but if your staying on the Asian-side in an area such as Kadikoy, this airport is more convenient. 

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