Istanbul's public transit system can be difficult to figure out; the lines connect poorly, maps are rare and you often have to transfer, and pay another fare, to get where you are going. However, if you put some effort into it, you can avoid taxis and not walk too much.
Each time you use a tram, metro, bus, or boat on the public transport system, you will need to use a token. The small plastic tokens cost TRY3 (Jun 2013) and can be bought at various ticket kiosks & machines at bus, railway and metro stations. Ticket fares across buses, trams and metros are at a flat rate (i.e. not dependent on how far you go). Only cash in Turkish lira is accepted at ticket kiosks of public transport, no credit cards or foreign currency. Also be aware that the Istanbul subway system does not offer transfer tickets and as such each new line requires a new fare, unless you use an Istanbulkart or Akbil, see below.
Note: When travelling to Istanbul by air, it is much cheaper (and more fun) to use the metro system to get as close to your accommodation as possible before walking and/or taking a taxi to where you are staying. Although the public transport may by slightly confusing, taxis/charter buses from the airport are notoriously overpriced.
The İstanbulkart is Istanbul's public transport smart card, which can be used as a ticket on buses, trams, suburban trains, metro, local ferries, etc. If you are in Istanbul for more than a day or two and intend to use public transport, it will pay for itself in as little as a few trips.
You touch the Istanbulkart to a reader when you get on the bus or enter the tram/metro platform. The great part for a group of travellers is that you can buy only one and touch it as many times as there are passengers (unlike London's Oyster card, there is no need to touch out). You can buy or refill them at designated booths located at any major bus, tram, to metro station, as well as some other places such as newspaper stands close to bus stops. There are refill machines located at most metro/tram stops and ferry terminals. An Istanbulkart provides significantly discounted rates (at least TRY1 cheaper) compared to regular single tickets, as well as discounts in transfers and short round trips (when used multiple times within a limited period, roughly an hour and a half since the last time you used it). For instance, a trip from the airport to town will cost you a TRY3 token for the metro plus a TRY3 token for the tram for a total cost of TRY6. With the Istanbulkart the first journey on the metro will cost TRY1.95 and the transfer to the tram will be TRY1.40 for a total cost of TRY3.35 and a savings of TRY2.65. The round trip to the airport pays for more than half the cost of the card. You must purchase the card (TRY7), the card is not refundable, and neither is any credit left on the Istanbulkart. The card can be purchased at a number of small corner shops throughout the city.
The Istanbulkard is relatively new, and is replacing the older Akbil metal touch-token which is being phased out (but is still in wide use). It is now just about impossible to buy an Akbil. However, there are still some places that do not yet accept the Istanbulkart, so if you have an Akbil token left over from previous trips to Istanbul, keep hold of it: they still work. Some Kiosks still have Akbil signs rather than Istanbulkart signs - but you can usually buy or top up your Istanbulkart at any kiosk where the Akbil sign is displayed.
Istanbul's first underground system dates back to 19th century, when the funicular subway "Tünel" was constructed to operate from Karaköy to Istiklal Street in 1875, travelling 573m up a steep hill. It's still running to this day and is handy for going from Galata Bridge (Beyoglu side) to the famous Istiklal Caddesi (main street).
Istanbul's modern metro consists of four lines:
Heavy construction on extensions and new lines continues apace, the big plan being to stretch M2 across the Horn and meet up with M1 and Marmaray at train terminus Yenikapi, but this remains years off.
There is also a funicular system connecting Taksim to Kabataş where you can get on ferries and cross to the Anatolian side, and also transfer to trams bound for old city. The separate southern line is most useful for visitors, connecting Aksaray (with its connections to the tram line onwards to old city) to Atatürk Airport. A connecting line between southern and northern lines, crossing Golden Horn on a bridge, is under construction.
Nowadays, most metro stations do not have a staffed ticket booth, so you will have to obtain your token from automatic token dispensers. Insert coins or notes and then press the button marked onay/okay. A token costs TRY3 on any urban rail in Istanbul though an Istanbulkart (see above) may be more cost effective during your trip.
A tram (line # T1) connects Zeytinburnu (connection to the metro line to the airport) to Kabataş (connection to the underground funicular to Taksim). The line is 14 km long, has 24 stations and serves many popular tourist sites (e.g. in Sultanahmet) and ferries (e.g. Eminönü). An entire trip takes 42 minutes.
There are two tram lines running on the same tracks, the line numbered as 38 in front of tram cars runs along the entire T1 line between Kabataş and Zeytinburnu, while significantly shorter line #47 runs between Eminönü and Cevizlibağ stations (the latter of which is abbreviated as C.bağ-A.Ö.Y. on the signage of tram cars). However, both lines call at stations that are of most interest to travellers through the Old City. During morning and evening rush hours every alternate tram runs as #47, while during the rest of the day, most run as #38.
Although you may use the same tokens (TRY3) or AKBİL/Istabnulkart on the metro and tram, you must pay another fare each time you change lines.
The tram was put in service in 1992 on standard gauge track with modern cars, connecting Sirkeci with Topkapi. The line was extended on one end from Topkapi to Zeytinburnu in March 1994 and, on the other end from Sirkeci to Eminönü in April 1996. In 2005 it was extended from Sirkeci to Kabataş crossing Golden Horn after 44 years again. 55 vehicles built by ABB run on the line. The daily transport capacity is 155,000 passengers.
Tramway stations are: Zeytinburnu, Mithatpaşa, Akşemsettin, Seyitnizam, Merkezefendi, Cevizlibağ, Topkapı, Pazartekke, Çapa, Fındıkzade, Haseki, Yusufpaşa, Aksaray, Laleli (Üniversite), Beyazıt (Kapalıçarşı), Çemberlitaş, Sultanahmet, Gülhane, Sirkeci, Eminönü (ferryboats), Karaköy, Tophane, Fındıklı, Kabataş.
Between Taksim and Kabatas, there is a modern underground funicular to connect this tram line to the Taksim metro. The tram is also connected to the southern metro line (for the Otogar and Atatürk Airport) at Aksaray station, though the metro and tram lines are a short walk from each other.
During morning and evening rush hours (roughly between 07:00-09:00 and 17:00-19:30 respectively), tram cars run jam-packed so if you intend to take it for a couple of stations down the way, don't even bother—walking instead is not only less tiresome than standing in what is essentially more crowded than a sardine can, it's also quicker as you will most likely be able to get in the second or even third tram calling at the station due to the crowd.
There are also two other tram lines linking residential and industrial suburbs in the northwest with the city centre: T2, which heads for Bağcılar, and T4 (which is more like metro-tram systems of northwestern Europe, as it lies underground for part of its route), which heads for Sultançiftliği, connecting to the Zeytinburnu and Topkapı stations of the T1 line respectively. However, these lines are of very little, if any, use to the average traveller.
Istanbul's dilapidated suburban rail network got a big boost in October 2013 when Marmaray, a fabulously expensive transcontinental tunnel from Europe to Asia under the Bosphorus, finally opened after ten years of construction. The line zips from train terminus Yenikapı with a stop in central Sirkeci (T1) to Üsküdar and Ayrılıkçeşmesi (M4) in minutes, with lengthy extensions in the works at both ends. It's nowhere near as scenic as the ferries, but considerably faster, and a true engineering marvel.
The old suburban/commuter train lines (banliyö treni) travelling west from Sirkeci (Europe) and east from Haydarpaşa (Asia) have been shut down for upgrading and integration into Marmaray, with reopening planned in 2015 or so.
Unique Istanbul liners (large conventional ferry boats), sea-buses (high speed catamarans), or mid-sized private ferries travel between the European and Asian sides of the city. The crossing takes about 20 minutes and costs TRY3, and gives great views of the Bosphorus. Be aware that sometimes the ferry when arriving at a dock can bounce off the pier accidentally, even on calm days. This can cause people to fall over if they are standing up, so it is advisable to remain seated until the ferry has come to an absolute stop.
In Istanbul, liners from any given quay generally take only a certain route, and these quays are signposted ‘X Iskelesi’ (“X Landing stage/pier”). For instance, Eminönü alone has more than 5 landing stages (including the ones used by other ferries apart from liners), so if you should head for, say, Üsküdar, you should take the ferry which departs from ‘Üsküdar Iskelesi’. Replace ‘Üsküdar’ with the destination of your choice.
Istanbul liners travel on the following routes:
Furthermore, the sea-buses (deniz otobüsü) follow the same (or more) routes, usually much faster than liners.
Returning to Yenikapi from Kadikoy by sea-bus is a fast and convenient way to cross the Bosphorus; at Yenikapi
there is a railway station with frequent trains to Sirkeci/Eminönü and the Yenikapi fish restaurant area is close by (or one stop on the train).
Four main private ferry routes for travelling between Asia and Europe sides are:
Very useful are the fast ferryboats (travelling at 55km/h) running from several points, such as the Yenikapi–Yalova one, that allows you (with a connecting bus in Yalova) to be in Bursa centre in less than three hours. Prices are marginally higher and the gain in time is considerable, though the view is not as nice.
All of the ferries, including private ones, can be paid for using the AKBIL/Istanbulkart system.
There are two types of public buses in Istanbul; those run by the private sector and those run by the city-owned İETT. You can differentiate these two types by their colours. Privately run buses are blue-green with yellow non-electronic destination signs while İETT-run buses come in many flavours including old red-blue ones, newer green ones and red double-deckers. The Akbil Transit Pass is valid universally while tickets that can be obtained in kiosks near bus stops for TRY1.40 are valid only on İETT buses and cash payment only on private buses, although if you get on an İETT bus the driver will normally accept cash (normally TRY1.50 but this is dependent entirely upon what the driver wishes to charge) and hand you his Akbil for you to use.
Recently installed Metrobüs, long hybrid buses running on their special lanes separated from all other traffic and thus saving lots of time in Istanbul's usually congested roads, connect western suburb of Avcılar with Kadıköy in Asian Side via Bakırköy, Cevizlibağ which is just out of old city walls near Topkapı Gate, and Mecidiyeköy.
Most bus lines operate roughly 06:00-23:59, usually with a reduced volume of services after 22:00. Some lines between major centres operate 24/7 though, as is the Metrobüs, with about an hour intervals. After midnight, buses cost two tickets per person rather than the usual one.
24 hr Bus Lines:
As a tourist, you are most likely to use the tram and the metro in the Sultanahmet and Taksim area since there are no bus lines operating in the area anymore.
Buses and streetcars tend to be very crowded during rush hours, especially on Mondays and Fridays. That can also create opportunities for pickpockets.
Taxis are an easy and cheap way to get around. As of Dec 2011, flag fall costs were TRY2.70 (€1.20) and then TRY1.7 (€0.73) for each kilometre afterwards. A one-way travel from Taksim to Sultanahmet costs approximately TRY10–15. Tipping is generally unnecessary. Frequently, drivers will refuse to start the meter and try to negotiate a fixed price. You should avoid these cabs and simply take another one as you will almost certainly end up paying too much. To be sure, before getting in, just ask "how much to go to ...?" (most of the drivers understand basic English) since the price they tell then is quite accurate. Tell them then to put the taximeter on. Drivers do normally work with the taximeter, so they will not be surprised at all when you ask them to put it on. The price at the end will be quite close to the one they tell you at the beginning. As of Oct 2009, there is no extra fare at night.
Even when agreeing to take you on the meter, taxis in Istanbul have several dodges to catch the unwary traveller. The meter is often situated right in front of the gear stick and drivers somehow manage to advance the meter while changing gear. Not putting the meter back to the starting rate, i.e. adding your fare to the previous one, is also common. Taxis that wait near a bus station are usually a tourist trap. They start the meter but charge you TRY20 at least. Emphasize to the driver that you will pay for the meter price before getting in. Do not buy their quick-sell tricks. Always try to stop a taxi that is passing by on the road or find a legitimate taxi stop.
Insist on going to the destination that you want because some drivers are paid a commission each time they deliver someone to a certain hotel, restaurant, shop, etc.
Beware riding a taxi other than the "yellow-coloured" ones since the other-coloured taxis are registered under different cities and have a different rating system.
Be careful on what notes you hand them for payment; some drivers have tried to pretend that the TRY50 note that was handed was just a TRY5 note. Occasionally taxi drivers may actually also rip notes you give them, and tell you it is no good, in order to make you hand them a TRY50 note. So, make sure the notes are not ripped, and is actually the right one before you hand them over. Also, if you are not familiar with the city the taxi driver may drive a detour in order to charge you more.
Traffic can be very bad, it can take an hour for a few km through the old city. You might be better off taking the metro out of the old city and then a taxi from there.
Some important routes with distances and estimated taxi prices are :
Dolmuş (Turkish: "full") is a shared taxi, travelling on a fixed route, which costs more than a city autobus but less than a normal taxi. They can carry up to 8 passengers. They are easy to recognize, because they also have the yellow painting as taxis and carry a Dolmus sign on its top. They will only start driving when all eight places are filled, which is also where the name derives from.
The main and most important routes for Dolmuses are :
If you want the driver to make a stop, you can say İnecek var.(EE-neh-djek war!) (Someone's getting out.) or Müsait bir yerde.(mU-sa-EEt bir yer-deh.) (At a convenient spot.).
The process of replacing old buses with newer ones accessible for people using a wheelchair is ongoing. Many buses on central lines have a low floor and a built-in ramp (consult the driver to lean the bus down nearer to the ground, to open the ramp, and to assist into the bus, though any of these might unfortunately be impossible during peak hours in interval stops. Think of a sardine-packed bus unloading all of its passengers to lean down).
LCD screens show the stop names while approaching the stop and voice announcements are made.
Trams are accessible for people using a wheelchair from the station platforms if you can manage to get into the station in the first place. Some of the stations are located in the middle of very wide avenues and the only access to them is via underground passages (tens of stairs) or overpasses (more stairs!). Otherwise, platforms in tram stations are low and equipped with gentle ramps right from the street (or sidewalk) level.
All stations are announced both on a display and by voice in the trams.
All stations and trains in the northern metro line are accessible for people using a wheelchair. Look around the station entrances for handicapped lifts/elevators. Only some of the stations in the southern metro line are equipped with such elevators (among the stations which have elevators are Aksaray-the main station of the city centre, Otogar-the main bus station, and Havalimanı (Airport) station), but whether there is an elevator or not, if you manage to get into the station (there is a good chance that you can do with a little assistance because the stations in the southern line aren’t located as deep as the stations of the northern line are; only about one floor’s height under the ground), all trains are accessible from the station platforms, though a little assistance more will be helpful for passing over the narrow gap between the train and the platform. You can ask the guys in grey/black uniforms (security guards, they can be seen in the entrances of the station platforms if not elsewhere) for assistance, it’s their duty.
All stations are announced by voice in the metro trains. In the northern line it is also announced on a display, but not in the southern line. Instead, you should look at the signs in the stations, which are big and common enough.
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