The easy way around Istanbul


The traffic in Istanbul sucks.  There is no two ways about it.  The city is on the water, with the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus major impediments to travel there, funneling all traffic through a couple of bridges that are woefully undersized to handle the loads.  They are apparently planning on adding an additional bridge on the Bosphorus, but that is still a ways out, as it has only just been approved by the government and the final site hasn’t yet been selected yet.  A taksi from the airport to downtown is easily a 45 minute endeavor, at a rate of something around YTL30, which isn’t horrible, but also certainly isn’t cheap by any stretch.  The roads are just ridiculously crowded.  Not quite as bad as Delhi or Saigon, but close.

Fortunately, they have a pretty solid mass transit system in place.  And we rode a lot of it.  We didn’t take a bus in Istanbul, but there are plenty of them and it seems there is pretty reliable route coverage and frequencies.  Similarly, the ferries cover the water crossings way better than a car possibly could; as busy as the waterways are they are still way better than the bridges.  There is even an aerial cable car that operates just below the Hilton Hotel near Taksim Square, crossing over a park for those who don’t want to walk or drive around to the other side.  Those are the pieces we didn’t get to try, but there are plenty that we did.

There is a Metro system – actually a few light rail systems that connect at transfer points – that cover the city, from the airport in the West to the Sultanhamet to the Beygolu area across the Golden Horn.  There’s another tram system that runs on the Asian side as well, with easy ferry connections.  With trains running about every 10 minutes and air conditioned, modern cars the light rail was truly phenomenal.  From the airport to the Sultanhamet area was about a 45 minute trip, the same as a taksi, and the cost was two tokens – YTL 2.80 – per person.  The one thing that is a bit annoying is that  transfer between the various lines requires a new token and fare to be paid, but that’s a minor inconvenience considering how convenient the trams are to the vast majority of the areas that most folks want to visit.

The engine that drives the funicular.

There are also a couple funiculars (inclined trains) that run in the Beygolu area.  One of them is almost brand new (~10 years old) and the other is actually the third oldest mass transit system in the world (behind London and a now defunct Brooklyn route), over 130 years old.  We tried to ride on both one day and managed to find the new one pretty easily, but the older one was elusive.  As we departed Istanbul for Cappadocia we actually still hadn’t found it.  As we had a 7 hour connection on our return through Istanbul, however, we had a second chance to find the old one and ride a piece of history.

The tunnel for the older funicular route.

The older funicular was more fun, with the tunnel looking its age and the tram car somewhat newer, but not a ton.  And we managed to take the Metro in from the airport, ride the funicular up to the Tunel Square area, have a very long and relaxing brunch and repeat the trip in reverse in about 5 hours.  Plus the old funicular has a different fare, YTL 0.90, so we had to buy a different token and that meant another fun souvenir for me.  I’ve now ridden on at least the three oldest, so I need to find out what the rest of the old ones are and start planning some new trips.

They also seem to have a “tap-and-go” system where you can put money on a card/pass of some sort rather than buying individual tokens.  I certainly don’t speak enough Turkish to try to figure out how that works, but it seems like an easier option if you don’t want to mess with tokens during a visit, though I have no idea if there is a charge for the card and/or a discount for using it.

I’m a big fan of mass transit in general, and even more so when it goes to/from the airport.  This wasn’t as easy as the Metro in Washington, DC or BART in San Francisco, but it was pretty darn close, and it was way cheaper and mostly easier than a taksi in from the airport.  It will definitely be my transit choice next time I’m in Istanbul.

The view inside the car of the newer funicular. The platform for the newer run.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and .

2 Comments

  1. Hello,
    The “tap-and-go” system’s name is “akbil” which stands for “smart ticket”(akilli bilet). there are two types of it normal and student discount akbil.
    normal one has 10% discount. student discount akbil has about 25% discount.
    also transfers between routes are half priced within 120 minutes.
    akbil’s price is 7 ytl.
    but you can get your money back when/if you return it.

    Also there’s a rfid card system which has no discount at all. it’s 5 tokens in a card which is 7 ytl. and it’s disposable.
    i think it’s useless…

    By the way the new funicular system is not 10 years old. it started operating in 2006.

    Also please visit the new parts of the city. kanyon shopping mall and akmerkez shopping mall are the best of best in istanbul.

  2. Wow…thanks for that info on the akbil! Sounds like a great deal. I’ll have to add that to my plans for when I return. I especially like the part where you can get the 7ytl back for returning it.

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