Istanbul Airport review: Turkey's streamlined new airport focuses on passenger experience


Turkish Airlines flight 1907, Istanbul to Zurich, economy class.




Istanbul airport is Turkey's newest airport, one of three major airports close to Istanbul. Phase one opened in October 2018, and is set to carry 90 million passengers a year. Only 35 kilometres from the European side of the city, getting to the airport is convenient, even in peak-hour traffic, with a new highway winding through farmland and pine forest, high-speed rail, direct bus transfers and taxis.

There is only one terminal at Istanbul and the huge rectangular building has multiple entry doors relevant to specific destinations and airlines. There is also a priority door for business and first-class passengers. While you'll do less walking if you choose the correct door, they're all open to the same space so you can easily find your check-in counter even if you've been dropped off in the wrong spot.

The terminal is spacious, open, welcoming and well-organised. The space is flooded with natural light thanks to full-height glass walls and a pattern of circular skylights that let in light and a glimpse of the sky. A palette of grey, white and timber may give the airport a contemporary Scandinavian feel but after a few days exploring Istanbul's mosques and palaces it's easy to spot the influence of the city's iconic domes and minarets in the building's patterns and curves.

For passengers in a hurry, a fast-track service is part of the iGA pass, an annual membership (starting from €299) that includes speedy check-in, access to a luxurious lounge, buggy transport to your gate and a Meet and Greet VIP service. There is also an airport app for checking your gate and departure, shopping and eating options, things to do in Istanbul and transport to and from the airport. Wi-Fi is free and fast throughout the terminal and there are charging ports for devices at every seat.


I'm due at my gate for boarding at 6.20am, so instead of getting up at 4am to head from the city to the airport I decide to stay at the airport, booking into YotelAir, one of two hotels there. YotelAir is located past check-in and and customs so I can only take hand luggage with me. I arrive at 6pm, which is too early for check-in and have to wait an hour before I can leave my suitcase and pass through customs. Throughout the process Turkish Airlines staff are friendly, unstressed and accommodating.


Security is quick, with bags and passengers efficiently and professionally processed. There is a short queue, but I'm through in five minutes.


The hardest part about leaving Istanbul is saying goodbye to Turkish food, but the food court has lavish displays of sweets and pastries, slowly swirling lamb and chicken with bread kneaded and baked to order and a coffee stand that evokes the history of the Ottoman Empire. It is an impressive and sophisticated offering that pays tribute to the country's rich food culture. If you're not tempted by the Turkish offerings there are also small coffee stands throughout the international terminal and the fast food offerings you'd expect at any airport.



A serious lineup of luxury retailers is already installed at the international terminal with more to open in the next few weeks. Local retailers such as women's fashion brand Yargici and bookshop D&R are also part of the mix. While the duty free section is huge, it's located at the rear of the terminal so you don't have to run a gauntlet of perfume, cosmetic and alcohol offerings just to get to your gate. The shopping highlight is the Istanbul Bazaar, a collection of excellent local products from baklava and Turkish delight to beautiful copper pots, handmade jewellery, cotton towels, coffee, dried fruit and spices and exquisite glassware. You won't find the prices you may have seen at the Grand Bazaar (and there's no bargaining) but if you need a last-minute gift or souvenir, this is the place to go.


As well as shopping and eating, there is a unisex hairdresser, and a range of member lounges. The views of the tarmac and runways are a joy for planespotters. For longer transits book a YotelAir cabin and enjoy the space-age feel of the all-white cabins with mood lighting, luxury bedlinen and towels, and rain showers. Rooms start from €70 for four hours.


Istanbul airport has been designed to be a quiet space. Apart from at some of the stand-alone stores and cafes, there is no ambient music and the acoustics are hushed. Along with the generous room to move throughout the terminal, intimate public lounging areas offer quiet spaces to relax. The overall design aims to be both beautiful and pleasant to be in, and it succeeds.


While some airports try to wow you with over-the-top facilities – think swimming pools, waterfalls or indoor rainforests – Istanbul's focus on the passenger experience through beautiful, sleek design, a focus on wellbeing, and clever technology trumps the showy shopping centre model favoured by so many airports.


4.5 stars

Justine Costigan travelled at her own expense.