Istanbul is the biggest city in Turkey and the fifth largest city in the world in terms of population. With nearly 16 million population and another 15 million tourists visiting the city each year, Istanbul traffic can get pretty hectic, especially if you are driving a car or stuck in a taxi during rush hour.
The good news is that public transport in Istanbul is fast, easy to use and affordable. The even better news is that most tourist areas in the city like Sultanahmet, Galata and Taksim are easy to explore on foot since the major landmarks are within walking distance from each other. From ferries and sea buses to funiculars, trams and metros, getting around in Istanbul can't get any easier.
But before you hop on your preferred public transport, make sure to store your belongings, like shopping parcels and large bags, in an Istanbul luggage locker. This way you won't have to worry about losing, misplacing, or having your things stolen. You can just go about your day, exploring the city, knowing your luggage is safe.
Whether your visit to Istanbul is short or long, the best way to use public transportation is to purchase an Istanbul Card. You can access any public transportation with the Istanbulkart. There are many versions of the Istanbulkart designed for locals, as well as the "Limited Use Card", and the "Anonymous Card".
The latter is the best for tourists and can be obtained from over 2,000 points at places like the subway, tram, ferry, Metrobus and funicular stations from the yellow and blue vending machines. You can also purchase the card from kiosks near bus stops.
The Istanbulkart costs less than $1 and it comes without credits. You can top up as much as you need at the yellow and blue vending machines. Scan the card, and then deposit cash to load credits on the card. One ride on public transport is less than $.050.
There are two major airports in Istanbul: New Istanbul Airport (IST) and Sabiha Gokcen Airport (SAW). With so many transportation options, getting to the Istanbul airports from the city and vice versa is very easy. From buses and shuttles to shared rides and taxis, you don't have to worry about missing your flight.
Located in the Arnavutkoy district, in the northeast of Istanbul, New Istanbul Airport (IST) is about an hour and a half away or 28 miles from the city centre. The best way to get to IST directly from the city centre is to take the HAVAIST Airport Shuttle. Other convenient and more comfortable options are a Shared Shuttle or Private Shuttle.
There is no direct Metro line between IST and the central area of the city at time of writing. A new Metro line M11 is under construction and should start operation by mid 2022. Keep in mind that traffic jams in Istanbul happen often and so it's best to leave the city centre 4-5 hours before your flight.
Sabiha Gokcen Airport (SAW) is located on the Asian side, about 28 miles from the centre, the same distance as the New Istanbul Airport. The most comfortable option to get to SAW from the city centre is to take the HAVABUS Airport Shuttle, a Shared Shuttle, or a Private Shuttle. If you are looking to save some money you can take the IETT or public buses, but not only are they packed with passengers, they also take much longer and it will be a challenge if you have luggage with you. The buses run every 15 minutes and the bus ride to the airport will cost you about $1.
You can always opt for a taxi, it will cost you about $15. To avoid missing your flights, make sure to leave the city centre 3-4 hours before your flight.
How to get around Istanbul by metro
The Metro system in Istanbul is the fastest way to get around the city so that you can enjoy free things to do or a night out on the town. It is also cheap and easy to use. You may find it a bit tricky the first time you use it, but it is actually very simple. The Metro stations have a red, blue, and white M sign. Head down the stairs and scan your IstanbulKart to pass the gates. From there, arrows indicate the Metro you need. If you get lost, each metro station has a map on the wall you can check out, or ask any of the security staff for directions.
Istanbul metro has a few metro lines, but the two main ones will get you almost everywhere, including shopping areas like Etilier, Levent, and Taksim Square and the suburbs. It is also the fastest way to get you to the airport, within 35 minutes from the city centre. The metro runs from 6am until midnight and it gets really busy on the weekends and rush hours, especially at 8am and 5-6pm. But it is still a better and faster way to get to your destination when the traffic jams above ground get ridiculous.
How to get around Istanbul by train
Marmaray is the metro service that connects the European and Asian sides. It runs 47 miles under the sea but you will get from Sirkeci, near Sultanahmet to Kadikoy in no time. The last Marmaray service departs at midnight. The Gebze-Halkali Suburban Train System is another fast way to get from the Asian and European sides, and it also takes you to Sabiha Gokcen Airport from the city centre.
How to get around Istanbul by tram
Tram or the tramway is another excellent way to get around Istanbul, but mainly around the popular areas, to save your feet when you are shopping or sightseeing. There are four tram lines, out of which T1 is the most popular one connecting the main sights in the city centre. If you are not sure which line to take, you can print the Istanbul tram map and find all the stops.
Using the trams in Istanbul is the same as using the Metro, but they can get really busy during rush hour. Trams are a great transportation option for budget travelers and families, plus they look just as nice as the European ones. Istanbul trams run from 6am until 11pm.
How to get around Istanbul by bus
Istanbul buses are one of the easiest and cheapest ways of public transportation. However, there is one major problem, and that is space. Since they are easy to use and reach more destinations than trams and the metro, Istanbul buses are always packed, especially during rush hour.
Though there is no bus map, you can find out the destination of an individual bus line from the bus stop. Also, each bus will tell you where it's headed (writing on the front), and once you scan the IstanbulKart, there is a screen that tells you the final destinations, along with a list of the bus stops by order. In addition, the bus announces the approaching bus stop. Istanbul buses run from 6am to midnight.
You will also come across fast metro buses called Metrobus. These buses can be found in the outskirts or the suburbs like Yenibosna and Zeytinburnu and they provide fast transportation from the European side to the Asian side.
How to get around Istanbul by car
Driving a car in Istanbul is only a good idea if you know how to read Turkish, and know where to park. With traffic in Istanbul getting heavier and crazier by the day, getting around the city by car would be impossible and very frustrating. The busy and popular Sultanahmet Square is closed for traffic, so renting a car to get there is not an option either.
Besides, you will have to park the car far away and walk, which is the recommended means of transport in the tourist areas anyways. If your stay in Istanbul is short, it is best to use public transport. But if you really must rent a car they are available at the airports as well as in the city. Look for Avis, Hertz, Sixt, and Alamo as among the more popular car rental companies in Istanbul.
Istanbul by taxi
With such convenient and cheap public transport, it is absolutely unnecessary to use taxi taxis in Istanbul, not to mention it can be very expensive. Everyone in Istanbul will tell you to avoid taxis, unless you know the city and speak Turkish. Istanbul taxi drivers often scam tourists by taking them on the scenic route, just to charge them more.
If you do need to get a taxi, always go for the yellow and marked taxis. To avoid being scammed, be sure to check with the taxi driver for an approximate rate. Also, if you are staying in a hotel it is best to have the hotel call a taxi for you as some taxi companies may have an agreement with the hotel and may drive you for free. Avoid taxis that are waiting around popular tourist areas like Hagia Sophia and Topkapi Palace.
The approximate taxi fare is 5 Turkish lira, or $0.35. For every 0.6 miles, the price is $0.20. For standing and waiting time, taxis charge $1.22 per hour.
Istanbul by ferry
Taking the ferry or a sea bus is the best and fastest way to get you from the European to the Asian side across the Bosphorus. It is a fun ride, one you need to experience during your stay in Istanbul. It is normally not as packed as the buses on land.
To ride the public ferries (Sehir Hatlari), you can use the IstanbulKart the same way you'd use it for any other public transport. Fast ferries run from Besiktas, Karakoy, Eminonu, Uskudar, and Kadikoy and depart every 15 minutes-20 minutes, starting at 7am until 11pm.
Can I get around Istanbul by foot?
If you are in a good shape for long-distance walking, getting around Istanbul on foot is one of the best and cheapest ways. Besides, the three most popular areas for tourists like Sultanahmet, Galata and Taksim are easily walkable. Most top landmarks of Istanbul like Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque are within walking distance from each other.
Although you can use the tram in the Sultanahmet area, this won't be necessary, unless you have tired children with you. You can get off at Dolmabahçe Palace or Karakoy and then take the cable car to Istiklal street, the busiest street in Istanbul and walk to Taksim, the city centre. From there, you can use the metro lines to go anywhere else.
You can easily walk the Bosphorus Bridge and admire its beauty day or night, or walk the old roads of the Grand Bazaar, the largest and oldest bazaar of its kind in the world. All you need to make your Istanbul adventure on foot comfortable is a pair of good walking shoes, not high heels. Although safe to get around on foot, avoid dark side streets or walking late at night in general.
Navigating Istanbul, Turkey
With such dense and heavy traffic, public transport in Istanbul is the best and most efficient way to getting around city. Whether you decide to ride the busy streets with a tram, or cruise the Bosphorus with a sea bus, make sure to get your IstanbulKart and top up as you go. With so many transportation options to get around the biggest city in Turkey, getting lost is not going to be an issue.