You can travel from Istanbul's Atatürk Airport to Sultanahmet, the center of historic Istanbul (and the best hotel area) completely by Metro & tram in about one hour for TL10 or less.
Here's a map of Istanbul's public transport system.
I assume that if you need a Turkish visa, you have already purchased it online before leaving home. More...
You deplane into Atatürk Airport's International Arrivals terminal, pass through Immigration (passport control) and into the baggage claim and Customs area.
You will need Turkish liras (coins, TL5 and/or TL10 notes) to buy tokens or a fare card to pay your fare on the Metroand trams. Currency exchange offices and cash machines (ATMs) are located in the baggage claim area, and in the Arrivals hall outside the secure Customs area. Currency exchange rates at the airport exchange bureaus are usually not advantageous, so I'd recommend that you do not change large amounts of cash here. More...
There are also ATMs issuing notes/bills at the entrance to the Airport (Havalimanı) Metro station.
(If you buy something at the duty-free shops in the baggage claim area, or in the cafés and shops outside the secure Customs area, you can ask for TL1 coins and/or small TL notes as your change).
After exiting the secure Customs area, turn right and walk to the end of the terminal watching for signs to the Metro.
A guy may come up to you as you walk and try to get you to take a shuttle van into the city. (It happens to me every time.) I tell him İstemez! (eess-teh-MEHZ, "It's not wanted"). The problem with a shuttle van is that it circulates through the city going to lots of hotels. If yours is the last one, you ride around a lot. There are other dangers as well. More...
Go down the escalator or elevator/lift, and through the sliding glass doors—meaning that you have left the secure terminal and would have to pass through a full security check to re-enter it.
You are now in a broad underground concourse beneath the parking garage which connects the Domestic and International terminals as well as the Metro station.
Turn right and follow the Metro signs along the concourse to the Havalimanı (Airport) Metro station on the left at the end.
Metro to the Old City
Three types of fare machines greet you at the entrance to the Havalimanı Metro station:
There is one machine to purchase an Istanbulkart. Hope that it's in working order! Insert a TL10 note to purchase one Istanbulkart RFID fare card. You will then need to go to the nearby Biletmatik machine to load some credit onto the card using TL notes of 5, 10 or 20 liras (no coins). More...
These fare-card machines vend paper electronic fare cards good for 1, 2, 3, 5 or 10 trips. Paper fare cards are more expensive, per trip, than using an Istanbulkart.
Biletmatik machines may also be used to load value onto Istanbulkart fare cards. More...
These machines vend plastic fare tokens (jeton). You'll needtwo Metro tokens (jeton) per person to travel from Atatürk Airport to Sultanahmet, Eminönü or Kabataş, three to reach Taksim Square. (Here's more on travel from Atatürk Airport to Taksim Square.) The fare (price for each jeton) is subject to change, but should be posted on the wall or marked on the Jetonmatik machine. You will probably need sufficient coins to purchase tokens.
Click here for more on fares & how to pay them...
Entering the Metro
Place your Istanbulkart near the sensor on the turnstile, or insert your bilet (ticket), or insert a jeton, pass through the turnstile, descend the escalator (or elevator/lift) and board any Metro train for Aksaray (map) from either platform. The Havalimanı (Airport) station is the terminus of the M1 Metro line, so you can board any train—they all go to Aksaray. You can't get on the wrong train.
Beware of pickpockets!
I've only had my pocket picked once in 40 years on any Istanbul public transport, and I actually got my wallet back with contents intact; but I felt nothing when he stole it. Read and believe: if it is in your pocket and if your hand is not on it, it can be stolen and you will feel nothing. Take any valuables out of your pockets and put them under your clothes (a neck pouch or waist belt is best). En garde!
Because you are boarding the train at its point of origination, you have a good chance of finding a seat, which increases your comfort and reduces pickpockets' opportunities.
Change at Zeytinburnu
Get out of the Metro at Zeytinburnu, the 6th Metro stop.
Use another jeton, or your new Istanbulkart or multi-ride ticket, to enter the tram turnstiles. Look for trams markedEminönü or Kabataş (not Bağcılar). (Eminönü and Kabataş are stations on the same line: Eminönü is part way along to the tram terminus at Kabataş.)
Board the tram to Eminönü and/or Kabataş. If the tram is already crowded and your luggage is bulky, you may want to wait for the next tram so that you have a better chance of getting a seat. Having a seat is also a good way to reduce the danger from pickpockets who are most active on the crowded trams between Aksaray and Eminönü.
Ride the tram eastbound to Sultanahmet, the 16th stop (the recorded station-stop announcement says sool-TAHN-ah-meht, and also BLOO mosk in English!) and get out. You'll be on Divan Yolu at the northeastern end of the Hippodrome with the huge Blue Mosque clearly in view about 300 meters/yards to the south.
See TTP's Sultanahmet Street Guide for street-by-street guidance.
Sirkeci & Golden Horn
If you're bound for Sirkeci hotels, the Golden Horn, the Marmaray suburban train line, or the Eminönü ferry docks, stay on the tram to the Gülhane, Sirkeci or Eminönü stop, as appropriate. (Connection with the Marmaray is at Sirkeci.)
If the particular tram you're on is marked Kabataş, it will continue beyond Eminönü, cross the Galata Bridge over the Golden Horn to Karaköy (Galata), and go as far as Kabataş, where there is another ferry dock and a funicular to Taksim Square. (You'll need a third token for the funicular. If you're using an Istanbulkart you'll pay only a reduced-price transfer fare.)
From the Old City to Atatürk Airport:
Buy two tokens (jeton) or a multi-fare ticket at a machine, shop or kiosk near a tram stop, or use your Istanbulkart. Get in a Bağcılar tram and ride it to Zeytinburnu. (Note: trams marked Cevizlibağ do not go all the way to Zeytinburnu. Wait for a Bağcılar tram.)
Leave the tram at Zeytinburnu, follow the Metro signs into the adjoining Metro station, climb the stairs and descend on the other side of the tracks so as to be on the outbound/westbound track. Board a train going to Havalimanı (airport). Ride it to the last stop, and you'll be directly beneath the airport parking garage, on the concourse between the Domestic and International terminals.
You will have to go through a security check to enter either terminal.
By Private Transfer
More expensive, but safer, faster and more comfortable alternatives to the Metro-and-tram trip are to go by private transfer (good value!), taxi (can have problems), or shuttle van (may take time making several hotel stops before heading for the airport). More...
—by Tom Brosnahan