Transportation in Istanbul
There are three main options for transportation in the city: by car, by taxi or by public transport.
No matter which transportation option you choose, your experience is going to be shaped by the fact that the city is placed across two continents: an European side and an Asian side, with the Bosphorus strait in-between.
An important issue when traveling by car is related to finding an accessible parking spot. If you're staying at a hotel, consider asking for a parking space as part of the reservation procedures.
Traditionally there have been two bridges across the strait, with a third one being built. There is no charge when traveling from Asia to Europe over the bridges, just for the reverse direction (from Europe to Asia).
The charge is about 3.00 Turkish Lira. Drivers need to procure a payment token from one of the stations leading up to the bridge, as no cash payment is allowed on the bridge tolls.
Taxis are fairly expensive. While they might be ok for a short distance up to 2-3 km, for anything medium and above you can expect to pay between 15.00 TL and 100.00 TL per ride. Unless in an extreme hurry, public transportation offers a better value.
By public transportation
The public system in Istanbul uses an integrated payment system based on Istanbul Card. It is a credit-card-sized device which is essential for paying around in the public transportation system.
The card can be procured either from ticket vending machines (for 10.00 TL, which offers a card preloaded with 4.00 TL on it -- but more than half of the vending machine tickets are usually out-of-stock regarding new cards), or from boutiques run by private sellers, which have them always available but usually charge 1.00 TL extra for it.
Once you have a card, it's best to put on it a minimum balance of 20.00 TL or so. If you remain out of credit, when you try to pay it will make a strange sound which can put you in a difficult and strange situation, especially if you don't know the language. Charging machines are available at most popular stations - you need to put the card on the station, insert the bancnotes and then pick it back up.
You can now use this card whenever you take a tram, bus, train or boat. To pay for it just put the card near the wireless payment reader system. In 1-2 seconds you'll hear a specific sound and then you're done! Please note that if you take a bus, you need to get in it only via the first bus door (next to the driver).
If you don't have a card, you'll need to purchase a special 'token' each time you board the public transport system. This token can be purchased at automatic vending machines and it's usually more expensive by at least 1.00 TL compared to the Istanbul card option.
In addition, the card system gives you automatically discounts if you're taking 2 or more transportation systems within a period of 2 hours (e.g. a tram follwed by a boat).
If you're travelling in a group of 2 or more persons, you can use a single Istanbul card to pay repeatedly for all members of the group. In this case please note that the 2-hour multiple-trip discount is only offered for the first person using the card. If you want to obtain it for every group member, each person needs to have its own card.
Often you'll need to switch between the European side and the Asian side, and the most enjoyable and cost-effective way to do this is to take a boat trip. Don't use any of the commercial options as most of them try to scam the tourists in paying hefty sums of money for the privilege. You can get a trip for 2.00 to 3.00 TL using the Sehir Hatlari ships.
If necessary, download and print in advance an Istanbul transportation map. On the European side, the most important boat docks are Kabatas, Kadikoy and Eminonu, and on the Asian side the most important ones are Uskudar and Kadikoy. The later also has a close-by Starbucks restaurant you can visit for a refreshing taste of the coffee you're accostomed to (if that's the case). Take a look on the map to become familiar with each one of them and see which one is closest to the location where you're staying.
To and from the airports
Istanbul has two main airports: Ataturk, on the European side, and Sabiha Gokcen on the Asian side. First check on what side is your hotel located. If you're landing in one continent but staying in the other, you'll need to pass the strait as you travel from the airport to your hotel.
This airport is located about 40 kilometers (60 minutes) from the city center. The most practical way to arrive in the city is to use the municipatility-owned Havatas buses. There are two routes available: one travelling to Taksim, for those staying on the European side of the city, and one travelling to Kadikoy for those staying on the Asian side. Tickets are purchased inside the bus upon its departure. Prices for one-way trip are around 15.00 TL or less.
You cannot use an Istanbul card to pay for this ticket. If you don't have any local currency, it's best to use one of the ATMs found in the airport in order to get at least 50 TL in cash. Please notice that you won't be able to return inside the airport via the same gate once you leave, as it's Exit-only.
This airport is closer to the city, on the European side. It is connected to the public transportation network so you'll be able to take a metro to the city center using the Istanbul-card system. You can review the transportation options you have at your disposal.
Inaugurated in 2013, Marmaray is, in addition to bridges and boats, a new way to cross the Bosphorus strait - by going underground!
If you want to try it out you can take those trains from either Sirkeci (on the European side) or Usdukar (on the Asian side). The tickets can be payed using the Istanbul Card system.
The trains are reaching 60 meters depth (55 meters of sea and 4.6 meters of ground below the sea). The tunnel is Earthquake-resistent and will have, when fully completed, 76.3 km in overall length.
If you're in Istanbul we recommend at least one visit to the Prince Islands. Available by boat in 60-90 minutes time, they give the opportunity to observe the Marmara sea, panoramic views and clean air (as motor vehicles are banned on all islands).
If you pay using the Istanbul card system you should be able to get one-way trips to the islands for around 4.00 TL or less. To board, use the Kabatas port on the European side of the city, or Kadikoy on the Asian side.
The biggest island, Buyukada, is the last (4th) stop. It features quite a large surface, but bikes are available for rental and a bike-tour of the island is feasible for most tourists that are willing to try it out.
Kinaliada is smaller in size (1st stop). If you want to try a tour by foot, this would be the most suitable first attempt to do so.
Don't forget to check upon arrival when the latest return boat departs, as you don't want to remain stranded on the islands (hostels are nice but can be expensive and mess with your schedule especially if you didn't come prepared for that).
City area: 5343 km2 km2
Comprehensive Istanbul transportation guide on how to get around in the city.