Most planes arrive at Istanbul Atatürk Airport, 20 km west of the city centre. From there you can choose between taxi, bus or subway to get into the city.
Istanbul also has a second airport, Sabiha Gökçen International Airport, in the Anatolian side of the city. Charter flights as well as European low cost carriers operate from here most of the time. A Havatas bus connects this airport with Taksim in the city centre for TRY14 (Jun 2011) and takes about an hour (closer to two in heavy traffic). There is also a Havaş service to Kozyatağı, a transportation hub of Asian Side, which costs TRY10. If you arrive in the middle of the night, you can move to the departure hall after passing customs and rest on very comfortable seats — you will even find coin-operated Japanese massage chairs. Then, at 05:00 the first Havatas bus will take you to town. The Havatas bus schedule is sometimes linked to the arrival/departure times of planes.
A cheaper option is to take public bus line #E9 to Kaynarca (get off at Tersane Lojmanlari) in (30min, TRY2); see timetables). From Kaynarca, you can take a suburban train (Banliyö Treni) to Haydarpasa (50min, TRY2), from where you can take a ferry to Karaköy (TRY2). Total travel time is approximately 1h 40min and costs TRY6.
Various private operators offer internet bookable shared minibuses to central locations — a good choice when arriving late. A typical price being €90 for 4 people to a hotel in Laleli. A taxi to Sabiha Gökçen airport from Taksim, which lies around 50 km from the airport, takes ~35 minutes at 03:30 with no traffic. The meter will show c. TRY65, plus there is c. TRY6 in tolls. Note the security screening is before the check-in counters, so add some extra time to make the cutoff times (45 minutes for international, 30 for domestic).
When arriving at Sabiha Gökçen airport, there are people offering shuttle services to the European side of the city, most costing €10, which is much cheaper than booking a taxi with your hotel/hostel (about €50-60). It is the best option after the Havatas airport buses. For the return journey, officers are quite zealous with luggage checks and they systematically remove the cap from bottled water once at the gate. It is recommended not to buy water before the flight although you can take the open bottle on board. Another surprising feature of Sabiha Gökçen airport is the luggage check at the main entrance, but fortunately you are allowed to take drinks in the airport at this point.
International trains from across Europe arrive at the station in Sirkeci, close to Sultanahmet. Asian trains arrive at Haydarpasa station. To get between the two, catch a ferry across the Bosphorus (see Get around). Marmaray, the Rail Tube Tunnel and Commuter Rail Mass Transit System is being built, and is projected to be one of the most challenging infrastructure projects in Turkey.
International trains to Sirkeci
International trains to Haydarpasa
Schedule and price list of railway trips can be gathered from TCDD (Turkish Republic State Railways).
When arriving at the Turkish border from Europe, you may need to buy a visa before getting your passport stamp. This counter accepts only Euros or USD, not Turkish lira. You need to go to the visa counter first to purchase your visa, then to passport control to get it stamped.
Buses and coaches terminate at the colossal Esenler Otogar, about 10 km west of the city centre, located on the European side. Courtesy minibuses or taxis will easily get you into the centre. The metro also stops at the Otogar.
With 168 ticket offices and gates, shops, restaurants, hotel, police station, clinic and mosque, the Büyük Otogar is a town in itself.
From/To Thessaloniki (Greece): ticket prices are around €45 (one way), €80 return. From/To Sofia and Varna (Bulgaria): c. €25 (one way). From/To Skopje (Macedonia): c. €40 (one way)
"Harem" is the major hub for the buses on the Anatolian (Asian) side, which can be reached easily from the European side with a Ferryboat. Check tickets of seventy bus firms in Turkey otobusbileti.
International ferries, carrying tourist groups from outside Turkey stop at Karakoy Port. The port is ideally located close to Sultanahmet and Taksim.
Cruise ships often dock close to downtown. Passengers not on tours will find taxis readily available at the port entrance, and modern streetcars a short walk away.
Traffic in Istanbul can be manic; expect a stressful drive because you will be cut off and honked at constantly. The city currently hosts more than 1,500,000 cars and there is a strong demand for building of new or alternate highways.
If you've arrived in Istanbul by car, and you're not familiar with the streets, it's better to park your car in a safe place and take public transportation to get around.
The city, lying on two different continents and separated by the Bosphorus, is connected by two bridges. The bridge on the south, closer to the Marmara Sea, is called the "Bosphorus Bridge". The bridge closer to the Black Sea is named "Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge" and is longer than the first one. Both are toll bridges, and you must pay a fee to cross.
Since 2006, the Bosphorus Bridge toll stations do not accept cash, and payment must be made using electronic cards, either manually (KGS) or automatically via a transponder mounted on the front of the car (OGS). The Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge does not accept cash either, only KGS or OGS.
On weekdays, drivers should be aware of potentially hour-long traffic jams on the highways leading to both bridges, particularly heading west in the mornings and east in the evenings, since most people live on the Anatolian side but work on the European side.
There is a great shortage of parking in Istanbul, and existing lots are quite expensive. You will see many cars parked on the sides of the road, in front of garage doors even.
Drivers unfamiliar with the city should also be aware that street signs are rare. It is a common thing to pull over and ask for directions, something the natives and taxi drivers do quite often.
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