A Few Hours in Istanbul
You arrive at one of Istanbul's two airports, you must travel to the other airport to continue your journey, and you have most of a day to make the transfer, so you want to take advantage of this opportunity to see some of the city.
Istanbul Airport (IGA) is on the European side of the Bosphorus, 40 km (25 miles) west of the historic Istanbul city center (Sultanahmet). Sabiha Gökçen Airport (SAW) is on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, 45 km (28 miles) east of the city center, 76 km (46 miles) from Atatürk Airport.
It's not difficult to travel between the two airports. You can do it by private airport transfer; by city bus, Marmaray and Metro; or by taxi, taking between 2 and 3+ hours, depending on traffic and how and when you travel. Here's how.
Keeping in mind that you are advised to be at the airport 2 hours before any international flight departure time, you should allow a minimum 5 hours between your scheduled arrival time at one airport, and your departure time at the other.
Why Not See Istanbul's Sights?
But if you have any more time than this, you can see Istanbul. You'll be traveling across the Bosphorus and through the heart of the city in any case, so if you have a few more hours, why not see some sights?
In a word, luggage. What will you do with your suitcases, backpacks, etc. while you see the sights?
Unfortunately, I know of no place in the city center where you could deposit your suitcases safely for several hours as you toured, but there is a solution.
The Solution: Transfer + Tour
If you contact a travel agency and set up a private tour, you can see all the sights for which you have time, leave your luggage in the tour vehicle to be watched by your driver, and have a comfortable inter-airport transfer at the same time. (Yours will probably have to be a private tour because you may not be able to join a scheduled half-day or full-day tour.)
Because you are using the vehicle and driver for two purposes at the same time—transfer and tour—the overall price for the transfer + tour should be lower than for each of these services separately. In effect, you receive a discount on both services.
The larger your traveling party (2, 3, 4 travelers or more), the more advantageous this can be.
How to Do It
So here's how to plan it:
1. Compare your arrival time at the one airport, and your departure time at the other airport. If you have 6 or more hours between those two times, you should plan a combined transfer + tour. With only an hour or so, you can have a mostly-driving tour. With 3+ hours you'll have time to stop, walk, and visit some sights in detail.
2. Review my Istanbul Top Sights pages and decide what you want to see. (Keep in mind the times of day and days of the week when certain sites are closed.)
My friends at Efendi Travel, a TurkeyTravelPlanner.com partner, are very experienced in Istanbul airport transfers, and have their own successful airport transfer service with their own fleet of vehicles. They can tell you what to expect for traffic and travel times between airports; and because they also operate many guided tours, they have private guides on staff who can show you just the Istanbul sites you want. More...
5. Because you are combining airport transfers, luggage safekeeping and a private tour, this would be an efficient and cost-effective way to make the most of your brief time in Istanbul.
—by Tom Brosnahan