Public transport in Istanbul can be a little confusing. Sprawled across continents with the mighty Bosphorus dividing Asia and Europe, it’s a logistically complicated city. Its impressive history means that every new development requires investigations into the relics that may be buried at the site, so it’s tricky for developers as well.
However, it’s also a hugely populous city, and millions of Istanbulites use the public transport system everyday. As a budget savvy traveller and who wants to avoid getting caught in its insane traffic, you need to learn how it works. Here’s how you get started:
The key to accessing the system is the Istanbulkart, which can be purchased from automatic machines at stations. You can top it up with funds at the same automatic machines as required.
The alternative to using the card is the buying a jeton token, which you can use for one journey at a time. It’s good if you’re only doing one or two journeys, but if you’ll be hopping about the city a lot (which I recommend) then it’s worth investing in the card.
From Sabiha Gökçen airport
Sabiha Gökçen airport is a little less convenient than Ataturk airport, but it often has cheaper flights and a greater range of budget airlines flying in.
To get into the city from Sabiha Gökçen airport, take the Havataş bus to Taksim (14 lira). You don’t need an Istanbulkart for this journey. Once you’ve boarded the bus, the attendant will come around you can pay then. Journey times vary drastically depending on traffic, but I’d say about 1.5 to 2 hours. It will drop you off outside Point Hotel near Taksim square. From Taksim, you can take the funicular and tram if you’re staying in Sultanahmet.
There’s also a Havataş bus to Kadıköy if you’re staying on the Asian side.
From Atatürk airport
Take the M1 (red line) towards Yenikapı. Change to the M2 (green line) heading towards Hacıosman and get off at Taksim. Or if you’re staying in Sultanahmet get off the metro at Zeytinburnu or Aksaray and from there take the tram towards Kabataş.
Metro in Istanbul
I used the metro everyday to get to my university. It’s fast, efficient and the trains come frequently. Trains begin early morning and continue until about midnight. You already know the route to Atatürk airport. Other useful metro destinations include:
The Otogar (bus station) – easily reached via the M1 (red line). Coming from Taksim, take the M2 to Yenikapı, then transfer to the M1a or M1b. Coming from Sultanahmet, take the tram to Aksaray and then transfer to the M1a or M1b.
Shopping centres – Istanbul is all about the fancy new shopping centres and rising consumerism. Not sure if it’s a good thing for the city (pretty sure its not, actually) but comes in handy nonetheless. Kanyon shopping centre (Levent station), Zorlu Centre (Gayreteppe station) and the fancy area of Teşvikiye (Osmanbey) can all be reached via the M2.
Universities – Boğaziçi University can be reached via the M2, with a change Levent for the M6. Istanbul Technical University (Ayazaga campus) can also be reached on the M2.
Eminyet-Fatih station via the M1 will bring you to some boring offices (immigration department) that you might need to visit if you have to go through the dreaded residence permit process.
The Marmaray goes under the Bosphorus if you’re travelling between the Asian and European sides, but ferries are so much more fun if you’re not in a hurry. That brings me to:
Taking a ferry on the Bosphorus is an experience you cannot miss in Istanbul. Whether it’s a a tour boat or good old public transport, there’s something so special about floating on these strategically important, much sought after waters. It’s also a peaceful escape from the city’s brutal traffic.
Major ports on the European side include: Eminönü (closest to Sultanahmet), Kabataş (Closest to Taksim), Beşiktaş and Karaköy.
Kadıköy and Üsküdar are fun places to visit on the Asian side easily reached by boat.
You can also visit the Princes Islands from Kabataş or Kadıköy ports.
Buses in Istanbul are super useful as some really great places cannot be reached by metro or tram like Ortaköy, Bebek and Beşiktaş. These are pretty spots along the Bosphorus with some lovely views, and definitely worth checking out. You can take buses from hubs like Taksim, Kabataş or Karaköy to reach these areas. It’s easiest to just check the direction and the destinations written on the bus, rather than working out which numbers to take. There are so many buses going in this direction, so you don’t need to worry too much about timetables.
Another destination of interest reachable by bus is Fener-Balat area and Pierre Lotti. You can take bus 99A from Eminönü to reach these areas.
The Kabataş-Bağcılar tram (T1) will be the most relevant form of public transport for seeing the main tourist sights of Istanbul. Sultanahmet and the Grand Bazaar can be reached via the tram. Other places you may be interested in are Karaköy (for ferries and great cafes. Also home to the best Baklava in the city.) Kabataş for the ferries and funicular to Taksim.
This contraption will take you from the Kababtaş tram stop to Taksim. It’s a short distance but it saves you from walking up the hill (particularly not fun in summer). It’s the connection you’ll need if you’re travelling between Sultanahmet to Taksim.
Similarly to the Funicular, Tünel will take you up the hill from the Karakoy tram stop to the end of Istiklal street.
I never actually took either of these because I always walked but they’re good to know about anyway. There’s the Kadıköy-Moda (T3) tram on the Asian side. and the Beyoğlu Nostalgic Tram (T5) on Istiklal street, the busy and crowded heart of Istanbul. This tram is a symbol of Istanbul and a quick way to get between Taksim and Tünel.
I love watching the tram and the people hanging off it like monkeys. Not to mention the keen photographers (like me) riskily standing in front of it, or the absent-minded pedestrians (also like me) nearly getting run over.
Literally meaning ‘stuffed’, these little minibuses are essentially just shared taxis. They usually cost around 6 lira (pay in cash once you board, not Istanbulkart). I mostly used them to get from Kadıköy back to Taksim after a night out when the ferries had finished. They’re also useful for getting out into the suburbs to areas where the metro doesn’t reach yet (e.g. Florya).
Other things you can do with the Istanbulkart :
Public Toilets: Most public toilets will charge you 1 lira for use and some allow you to use the Istanbulart to pay for this.
See, public transport in Istanbul is not so complicated when you break it down. Or have I just made it sound even more confusing?
Resources on Transport in Istanbul
Public Transpot in Istanbul – Turkey Travel Planner
Bus numbers and timetables on the Turkish Gov website
Fares – Turkey Travel Planner
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