Public transportation in Turkey is pretty grand! And, really, has to be. It serves a city of upwards of 16 million individuals. A densely populated city with a few far flung “suburbs”, virtually every corner can be reached on public transportation. As a life long transit enthusiast, it is my absolute pleasure to explore the city on these varied modes of transport. For me, it is a welcome contrast from the crumbling public transportation systems plaguing many American cities. Stations here are well lit, well marked, clean and often covered in beautiful ceramic tiles. Price per ride? Just 2.15 TL (which is under $1 US) and less for transfers. Istanbul boasts an impressive number of transit lines, all of which take the Istanbulkart. If you have an Istanbulkart you can go anywhere!
How can you get around?? Let me count the ways….
1. Metro (Treni) – The metro is getting bigger everyday. There are major plans for extensions and extensions in the works are completed all the time. Maps and signs are promptly updated.
2. Funicular (Fünikülar)- There are two, Taksim and Galata. The Galata Funicular (called Tünel) was, “inaugurated on January 17, 1875. The Tünel is the second-oldest subterranean urban rail line in the world, after the London Underground (1863), and the first subterranean urban rail line in continental Europe.” The funicular was first used to carry goods from the port of Karaköy to the busy (uphill) shopping center of Istanbul Street. Later, it started to carry passengers, too. The Taksim funicular will take you to Kabataş and back again. It boasts, hands down, the cleanest and most appropriately air-conditioned public transit carriages I have even been on, with one arriving every 5 minutes.
3. Ferryboat (Vapur) – Ferryboats leave from every port and take you across the Bosphorus or to ports further up or down the strait. The ride includes great views and very fresh refreshments at a most reasonable price. Don’t miss this fun experience by sitting inside! Private ferries also run and are basically indistinguishable, as they offer the same services via an Istanbulkart.
4. City buses (IETT) – There are SO many buses in Istanbul. Adding to the mass, there are private bus companies running the same exact lines as city buses (called ‘halk otobüsleri’ or public buses) and yes, they take the Istanbulkart and cost the same. Due to this double-up of buses, you will likely not wait very long for the next one to come along. Also, there is plenty of ridership to keep the buses full!
5. Trolley or Nostalgic Tramway on Istiklal – This might be the least useful line in the city, only running the length of Istiklal Street, but they use it to good effect. Often time the trolley will have a live band or run decorated for a holiday or celebration. It is festive and will keep you on your toes as it runs right down the middle of the crowded pedestrian street of Istiklal. Also, the cost to your Istanbulkart is a bit less at 1.75 TL.
6. Gondola (Yup! Aerial Lifts) – There are two, one from Eyüp which helps locals and tourists avoid a steep walk through a cemetery to Pierre Loti Hill, a beautiful lookout over the Golden Horn boasting some beautiful hotels and delicious dining. Right in the middle of the city you will find another aerial lift, the Maçka line connecting Maçka to Taksim Square. It will take you across the valley and save you the up and down walk. Besides that, you are in a gondola! Enjoy!!
7. Metrobus – This bus has its own private lane through the middle of traffic and will take you across the Bosphorus from the European to the Asian side and back again. Why then, you may ask, is this not a train line? I don’t have an answer for that, but good question! The Metrobus charges you depending on how far you take it (still very reasonable). Unlike San Francisco’s BART, which functions the same way and where one scans their card to pass through a turn-style getting on and off, the Metrobus puts the onus on the rider to get their refund. So, no waiting at the turn style on your way out, but don’t forget to scan! One note of caution – the line on the Metrobus can get a bit insane during rush hour. For more on that, check in with fellow Yanbagee, Santiago Brusadin, who wrote the very accurate, helpful and hilarious, “A Guide to Correctly Queuing in Istanbul“.
8. Ring bus (IETT)- These free buses function anywhere a metro line is under construction or unfinished. With no set schedule, they drive in an endless circle (thus the name) taking passengers from the finished metro line to their destinations at future Metro stops. Isn’t that nice?!
9. Tramway (Tramvay) – The tram takes you along the water on the European side, easily connecting you to the many ferry terminals and directly to the funicular lines, as well as many bus routes. It runs from Kabataş to Bağcılar, passing through the Old City, home to many of Istanbul’s wonders.
10. Dolmuş – Because they are awesome, the Dolmuş gets an honorary mention here – this is a shared cab. Usually small vans, they have designated stops and routes posted on each vehicle. They DO NOT take the Istanbulkart YET, though there are plans in place to integrate them. Dolmuş means “full” in Turkish and accordingly, they leave when they are full, not on a set schedule. For a few TL (depends on your route) they can be just the thing to get you from here to there.
The sad thing is there is no website which will tell you how to get there on public transit. Istanbul’s official “award winning” transportation website seems to be some sort of frustrating practical joke. I will not dignify it here with a link, but trust me, it will make you sad and it will not help you get there. Google maps will not help you either, besides the fact that Google does not have many lines and stops listed. The ones they do list, they have occasionally marked in the wrong spot altogether. Have no fear, Turks are very nice and willing to help with directions. Bus drivers and station attendants are happy to help in my experience, and I have a lot of experience! Otherwise, ask your destination (your hotel, for instance) how to get there and they can give you the correct line and stop. When you are there, pick up a map and go old school. Look for your destination on the map and then look for the closest stop. It’s easier than you remember!
The Istanbul public transit system is clean, efficient and well integrated. Of course, is does suffer from some of the same problems that any transit system suffers from – including but not limited to the occasional smell of urine and, of course, the queuing issues as outlined so helpfully by Santiago.
This site is especially helpful and can give you some details on the lines most used by tourists.
Missy Weimer is a contributor for Yabangee. All photos were taken by Missy or are licensed for reuse via CC and public domain.