If there is one thing that visitors should know about Istanbul, it’s that the city is large, busy, and can be confusing when trying to get from point A to point B. There are very few transit maps to be found in the city, but Istanbul at least makes fares standard. You can ride buses, trams, and metros for about TL 1.40 (less than $1 US) no matter how far you go. A convenient AKBIL (AKilli Billet – Turkish acronym for Smart Ticket) card that allows you to travel on buses, trams, suburban trains, local ferries, metro trains, and more. These are ideal if you are going to be in Turkey for any amount of time, as you can use one for multiple travelers. Buy and refill them at booths near public transit stations.
You can eliminate much of the confusion of getting around a large, foreign city – and avoid wandering around like a dazed tourist – by knowing a bit about the public transportation system and your transport options:
Traveling by bus in Istanbul is not the most luxurious way to get around, but it is inexpensive. During peak hours, such as weekday commuting times, the buses are crowded and are typically very slow. Buy your ticket (“billet”) at the kiosks before boarding. You can ride five times on one besiBiryerde ticket or use the convenient AKBIL (Note: the AKBIL is being phased out. If you find you cannot get an AKBIL, consider an Istanbulkart prepaid card. This allows you to pay for public transit, as well as taxis and museum admissions). City buses, called IETT, run from about 6:30am to 11:30pm, and you will see the destinations on a route sign on the right side of the bus and/or on the electronic display in front. Private buses are also available and may reduce crowding. These are called Özel Halk Otobüsü ("Private Peoples' Bus") and typically run along the same routes as the IETT buses. The fares are the same, and you can pay with cash (usually) or transit pass.
Remember, Istanbul buses can be very crowded. It may happen that you come to your stop, and no one is moving. Rather than be stuck on the bus, say “Inecek var!” (een-eh-JEHK vahr.” This means, “Someone wants to get out!” The driver will wait while you exit. Don’t be shy! Shout it out, and get where you need to go. Turks aren’t shy or reserved when it comes to buses, haggling, or food, and neither should you be.
Istanbul has focused time and energy on its metro system, which is typically much faster than the bus. The system is relatively easy to understand, and there are only two lines. The M1 runs from Aksaray to Havalimani, via the main bus terminal (otogar) at Atatürk Airport. Expansion plans will run the line to Yenikapi, the dock for “seabuses.” The M2 line goes from Sishane to Atatürk Oto Sanayi, from Sishane Square through Taksim Square and onto Atatürk Oto Sanayi, a business and residential district. Both lines run from about 6:00am to 12:00am. The M1 is the line most used by visitors. You can see a map of the transit lines, as well as schedules, at Istanbul Ulasim, Istanbul Transportation Co.
You can pay your metro fare with a token (jeton) bought at a kiosk for only TL 1.40 or less; by besiBiryerde card, which allows five rides; AKBIL, a prepaid travel card for the transit system; or the convenient Istanbulkart. You can purchase any of these at fare machines in metro stations, bus stops, ferry docks, etc. with Turkish lira or credit card.
Istanbul offers two trams, the Zeytinburnu-Kabatas (-Besiktas) Tram and the Istiklal Caddesi Tram. The Istiklal Caddesi Tram offers visitors a nostalgic ride through Istiklal Caddesi, Taksim Square, and Tünel Square. It is fun, and it is a great way to take a break when you are shopping or want a scenic adventure. The Zeytinburnu-Kabatas (-Besiktas) Tram is the one, though, that you will use to get where you need to go without the nostalgia. This goes from Zeytinburnu through Sultanahmet and along the Bosphorus shore. You will find many of Istanbul’s tourist attractions along this route, as well as the Atatürk Airport.
You can download the map at Istanbul Ulasim to get a sense of where each tram goes.
Another nod to the past can be found in the Tünel underground train. Finished in 1875, this was one of the first underground train systems in the world, and it was used primarily so European businessmen and diplomats could travel from Karakoy offices to residences in Beyoglu. With only two stations, the Tünel is easy to ride and convenient for some of Istanbul’s attractions. It carries about 15,000 passengers per day from Karakoy to Tünel. You can pay the TL 1 fare with jetons or the Istanbulkart pass.
Seabus(Catamaran Commuter Ferries)
Travel in style with Istanbul’s seabuses, or deniz otobusu, and enjoy the view from the Bosphorus and Sea of Marmara. Seabuses, or catamarans, run longer routes than the ferries: you can leave from the main dock, Yenikapi Feribot Terminali, in Aksaray Square or the smaller Kabatas, south of Dolmabahce Palace. The following routes are available:
Eminönü to Kabatas, Kadiköy, and the Prince Islands
Kabatas to Bostanci and the Prince Islands
Karaköy to Bostanci, Pendik, and Kartal
Kadiköy to Bakirköy, Eminönü and the Prince Islands
Bostanci to Bakirköy, Yenikapi, Karaköy, Kabatas, Kadiköy and the Prince Islands
You can also reach resorts in Yalova, Çinarcik, Avsa Island, Armutlu, Marmara Island, Mudanya, Kadiköy, and Kartal.
Ferry is another very pleasant mode of travel in Istanbul. Visitors enjoy traveling up and down the Bosphorus and seeing the many marvels on the city’s shores. An especially popular day-trip is the Eminönü-Kavaklar Bogaziçi Özel Gezi Seferleri, or Eminönü-Kavaklar Bosphorus Special Touristic Excursions. This takes one the entire length of the Bosphorus with multiple stops on the way. A ticket is TL 12.50 for round-trip and TL 6.50 for one-way. Be aware that sometimes you cannot get on and off at the stops using the same ticket, so if you want to keep riding, stay put. Ask the tour operator about this so you know what to expect. Buy your ticket at least an hour before departure because ferries get busy in the summer, the peak travel time.
There are various routes that you can take, depending on where you want to get and what you want to see on the way. The ferries are run by IDO, Istanbul Deniz Otobüsleri, and you can find timetables, maps, and other very useful information at their website.
After the relaxing tour of the Bosphorus by ferry, your experience with Istanbul taxis is going to seem a bit more frenetic. It is possible that foreign visitors will see exorbitant prices because the driver won’t run the meter, takes a circuitous route, or expects a huge tip. Remember that Turks typically don’t tip the drivers unless they help with bags or perform an extra service for you. To avoid this unfair fares, do not act unsure about your destination and do not accept the ride if the meter is not on. Another thing: make sure you look at your route and make sure the taxi driver is going the shortest way. This is hard for foreign visitors, but if you take a moment to look at a map, it will reduce your chances of being taken for a ride – a long, time- and money-wasting ride.
The taxis are powered by clean LNG, or liquefied natural gas, and have digital meters that are legally required to run when drivers pick up fares. If they do not turn it on, point at it, and say “Taksimetre!” (TAHK-see-MEHT-treh). Be adamant and confident, and you will likely get your way. If not, get out and take a bus or train. Your trip, no matter how long, is too short to spend getting cheated. The fares are TL 3 for a pickup and TL 1.30 for every kilometer during the day. At night the pickup is TL 3 and TL 1.95 for every kilometer. To give you some idea of the fares, trips between Sultanahmet and Taksim Square cost between TL 10 and TL 15. From Atatürk Airport to Sultanahmet is TL 25, and from the Airport to Taksim square is about TL 30.
In addition to these options, you can always walk. This is a great way to see the fascinating sights of Istanbul up close and feel the unique atmosphere. Walking tours are available, and these are popular with tourists because you have a knowledgeable guide who will take you to many attractions you want to see. National Geographic has useful information on Istanbul walking tours, as well as maps to help you create your own.
Istanbul is a beautiful city, and it can also be baffling to visitors. Before your travels, it is a good idea to learn more about the lay of the land.. Have an idea of what you want to see and do and eat! But it is also good to be flexible so you can take advantage of the many surprises and mysteries of the city. Myriad travel guides are available to help you. One of the better guide books is the Eyewitness Travel Guide to Istanbul. Its many street maps, full color photos, and 3D aerial views will help orient you, and the information will whet your appetite for this intriguing city. Learn about landmarks, food, and more, and even take the guide with you. Stanford Guides for Istanbul are also quite helpful.
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