Istanbul – how to get to the main attractions? If you are planning to visit Istanbul, you may want to know what the best way is to explore it. Is the taxi the best available option? Is it difficult to use public transport? Where to buy tickets, and how to validate them? Is it safe to use the metro and tram? How to get from the airport to the city centre? All those questions will be answered in the below post. Please read it to the end, so you will know what to do while visiting Istanbul.
Istanbul – cultural capital of Turkey
Istanbul is a city connecting Europe with Asia. Traditional values collide here with modernity, and secularism opposes the political Islamization of the country. It is said about Istanbul that this is the place where East meets West. Although the administrative capital of the country is in Ankara, Istanbul is considered the cultural, commercial and financial capital of Turkey.
Today, Istanbul is one of the biggest cities in the world and one of the most populous cities in Europe. According to official statistics, there about 16 million people living here. Unofficially it is said, that there are over 24 million of them.
A short history of the city
The city has a long and colourful history. It was founded by the Greeks in 660 BC as Byzantium, in 330 AD it became Constantinople. First – there were Roman invasions and then siege by the Arabs. Second, there was conquest and looting by the Crusaders (between 1204 – 1261). In the meantime, there were commercial visits of merchants from Venice and Genoa. Towards the end of the 14th century, the Ottomans arrived at the city gates. The city was captured by the Turks in 1453. From that time until the 20th century – it was the capital of the Ottoman Empire. In 1517, when the Ottomans had conquered Egypt, the Caliphate was transferred to Constantinople, which made the city the centre of the Islamic world.
After WWI, in 1919, the Allied troops entered the city. In 1922 it led to the liquidation of the Sultanate and the dissolution of the Caliphate. The year 1923 is when the Republic of Turkey was proclaimed, and its first president was Mustafa Kemal Atatürk – called “the father of the Turks”. In the same year, the capital was moved to Ankara. In 1930, the city was officially named Istanbul for the needs of international contacts.
Istanbul is located on the Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmara. The western part of the city is in Europe, and the eastern part is in Asia. The city consists of three parts. There is an Asian part, the peninsula on the European side south of the Golden Horn and Galata district with the so-called New Town. In the European part, there are trade institutions and the headquarters of international companies. The Asian part is more of a residential area.
The area of the peninsula is occupied by two districts: Eminönü and Fatih, surrounded by the Sea of Marmara and the Bosporus. Both districts are in the place of 15th-century Constantinople. All tourists start visiting Istanbul from this place. They can admire the biggest “pearls” of the city here: Topkapi Palace, Sultanahmet Mosque (the so-called Blue Mosque) and the Hagia Sofia Museum.
To the north of the Golden Horn, there are historical districts. There are districts of Beyoglu and Beşiktaş, with Sultan palaces and beautiful villas: Ortaköy or Bebek located on the banks of the strait.
How to get to main attractions
I have been to Istanbul over 20 times and so far, I was always using a taxi. Arriving here on business, alone – I never felt confident enough to try to use public transport. It turned out that a taxi ride is neither fast nor cheap or safe while compared to public transport.
Travelling by taxi is not fast because the word “traffic jam” in Istanbul has a completely new meaning. Here, you can get stuck in a traffic jam for long hours. You never know when it will start or how long it will take. I often look out the hotel’s windows late in the evening and I can see that traffic jams there are also after 10.00 p.m.
The taxi ride is not cheap as well, and there are two reasons for it. At the airport in Istanbul, it’s easy to be welcomed by local taxi drivers, who are not affiliated with the official corporation, they drive without the counters and pre-set prices. You can therefore hear a high bill to pay, which will be much higher than in official taxis. Also due to traffic jams, taxi drivers often go “bypass” – according to the principle “just go ahead”, which means that our route to the hotel is longer and the bill on the counter display is higher than it should be.
Taxi ride – my observations
Finally, it is also worth mentioning that riding by taxi is also not safe. What I mean is the technical car condition and the practical driving skills of the drivers. How to describe it briefly? Quite often you may find out that the majority of the legal taxis are heavily old and dilapidated. The seatbelts often do not work (sometimes they are even not existing), sometimes it is not easy to close the door or window.
Taxi drivers also drive in a quite original way. They always hold a phone to their ear and talk on the phone all the way (sometimes 1 hour). They perform all other manoeuvres with the other hand. With one hand they hold the steering wheel, change gears and regularly press the horn. In terms of temperament, I would compare it to the driving style of Italians :-). In general – it seems to me that there are no rules except one – “first come, first served”. What is happening on the city streets and how drivers drive their cars here – you have to experience by yourself to understand. Nevertheless, I would never dare to drive a car in this city. I know that I would not be able to enter the traffic, find a parking spot or manage to survive in the never-ending traffic jams.
It is also worth remembering that almost in the majority of the taxis you can’t pay with a credit card, as drivers do not have terminals. At Ataturk International Airport, there are ATMs and currency exchange offices. To avoid surprises afterwards, it is worth exchanging some money before we get into a taxi.
Public transport – despite my earlier doubts – public transport has many advantages. It’s fast, cheap, convenient, modern and safe. I mentioned only the pros, as the only downside can be that it is not possible to get everywhere by metro or tram. By now I did not have a chance to experience travelling by bus. The city bus system (IETT and Otobus A.Ş. Bus Fleet) still seems to be quite complicated. Fortunately for tourists visiting the city: the metro and tram will be enough to see all the major attractions.
In the beginning, I recommend you buying the Istanbul Kart – a kind of universal city card. The best moment to buy is right after your arrival. At the Atatürk airport, in front of the entrance to the metro station, there are ticket machines where you can buy this card. The card costs 10 TL (about 1,5 USD) and it is a non-refundable fee. After buying the card, you must charge it, because it is a prepaid card. To be able to use it – first, you need to top up your account on the card.
Card charging machines stand on almost every subway station. They are also available at every tram stop. That means this option is very convenient for regular use. Going through the gate in the subway or at the tram stop, the card reader will show us the available limit on our account, so we will know when it should be topped up. The charging machines accept only banknotes with banknotes of 5, 10 and 20 TL.
It is also worth noting that several (up to 5) people can ride simultaneously using only one Istanbul card. The cardholder must stand at the gate and just open it to other people travelling with him. While exiting the tram/ metro – card is not needed, as gates are opening automatically. It is, therefore, an ideal form for couples travelling together or families with children. The card is the size of a standard credit card, so it is convenient to carry it in your wallet.
For a long time, boats are crossing the waters of the Bosphorus. It may be hard to believe, but until 1973 (when the first bridge was built on the Bosphorus), it was the only possible means of transport between the European and Asian parts of the city. Today, despite three bridges and a subway passing under the water- ships are still a very popular means of urban transport. It is used not only by residents of the city but also by tourists who travel by boat on the Bosphorus as an attraction itself.
The largest ferry operator in Istanbul, Istanbul Sea Buses (İDO), has passengers and car ferries. In their offer, among others, there are trips to ports on both sides of the Bosporus. In 2011, the city decided to entrust the company’s management to a private company (IDO) for 30 years.
There are currently 50 passenger ferry ports in Istanbul, 37 of which are open all year round. During the summer months – daily, in the waters of the Bosphorus, there are about 600 passenger journeys. They are serviced by 28 vessels. There are currently 3 types of ferries in Istanbul: Sea Busses (İDO) – mainly catamarans, Vapur (suburban ferries) and private motorboats.
Sea transport belongs to the integrated urban transport of Istanbul and can be used by those who have valid Istanbul Kart.
Istanbul – Metro (M)
There are currently 6 metro lines in the city (end of the 2018 year). Line 1,2,3 and 6 are located on the European side of the city, line 4 and 5 are on the Anatolian side.
M1A (red line)
M1A goes from the already closed Ataturk Airport to Yenikapi. That line was Istanbul’s first rapid transit system. With that line, you can get to the Coach Terminal Station. The full journey of this metro takes 35 minutes. During peak hours, the metro goes in every 2,5 minutes. M1B (red line extension) goes from Yenikapi to Kirazli/Bagcilar. The M1B extension is made jointly with the M1A Line between Yenikapi and Coach Terminal stations. With that line, you can get to M3 Kirazli-Olimpiyat-Basaksehir Metro Line.
M2 (green line)
M2 goes from Yenikapi to Haciosman. With that line, you can get to Taksim and Levent (the business part of the city). The whole journey with that line will take 27 minutes.
M3 (blue line)
M3 line goes from Kirazli to Olimpiyat, and it is mostly used by the local inhabitants, as serves connection to the “sleeping” areas of the city. There are 11 stations on the way, and the whole journey will take only 20 minutes.
M4 (pink line)
M4 line connects districts located on the Anatolian side. Goes from the Kadikoy to Tavsantepe. The entire line was built under the ground including the depot and workshop areas. There are 19 stations on the way and the entire journey can take up to 65 minutes. Used only by the locals.
M5 (purple line)
That line was opened quite recently, at the end of 2017. The M5 Line is the second metro line of the Anatolian Side and is the first unattended metro line in Turkey. There are 16 stations, but only some of them are available now, so the total journey takes only 27 minutes. There are still some contractions works. M5 metro line is going to be extended to Sultanbeyli and Sabiha Gokcen Airport. It may happen thanks to works being carried out within the frame of its rail systems vision.
M6 (beige line)
This line ensures the access of passengers going to Bogazici University. It was built using the New Austria Tunneling Method (NATM) and as a single tube. Built on the monorail, the system intermixes at the station areas only. There is only one train which runs on One Way in other areas due to the construction techniques. There are 4 stations on the way only, and the journey takes 7 minutes.
M11 (a new line)
This line is still under constructions. It is planned to be opened at the end of 2019. That line will connect Istanbul New Airport with the Levent district (the most commercial one). The M11 line will have 9 stations only and there will be a limited-stop service, meaning that stations will be spaced further apart. The line length will be over 37 km. but the total journey will take 30 minutes.
What is worth knowing about Metro
- “Metro map” shows integrated Istanbul Rail Network. There is an underground metro, tram, cable car, heritage tram, Tunnel metro, funicular lines, Marmaray line and Metrobus.
- Now you can download a free “İstanbul metro” application for IST Metro for the iPhone (in Eng. version) or IST Metro for Android. In the App, you will find not only Metro lines schedules, but also Metrobus, Marmaray, Sea Lines and Tram.
- “İstanbul Metro” I-phone application operates in offline mode and does not require any network connection.
- Istanbul metro runs from 06:00 a.m. till 00:00 midnight. In peak hours goes in every 2,5 to 5 minutes.
Istanbul transport – how to get to the main attractions in the city?
The tram T1 line can take you to almost all major attractions in the city. You can easily get to the Grand Bazaar, Sultan Suleiman Mosque and museum Hagia Sofia. With that line, you can also get to the Topkapi Palace, Galata Bridge, Karaköy district and the Dolmebahce Palace. Kabatas is the last stop on the T1 tram line. Here you can get a ferry to Princes’ Islands, Bosphorus cruise or Maiden’s Tower.
With the tram line T1, you can also get to metro M2, going to the business part of the city. You can also connect with the Marmaray train (crossing the Bosphorus) or with the undergrad funicular – line F1.
More detailed information can be found on the official website of IST public transport.
Future of the Istanbul Railway Network
It is also worth noting that currently, the city of Istanbul is continuing a great construction project, under the slogan “Metro everywhere”. To emphasize the speed at which construction works take place here, there are few brief facts below:
- Before 2004, there were only 45 km of metro lines in the city
- Currently (2018) there are over 160 km
- In 2019 it is planned that the metro will cover over 350 km
- After 2019, it will be over 1,100 km
The tramway route is being expanded at an equally rapid time. If you are interested to see how the Railway map of Istanbul will look like in the nearest future, you can download it from metro Istanbul.
The actual map of public transport can be downloaded from the metro Istanbul website.
Istanbul transport – interesting facts
Historic trams / Nostalgic tramways
There are two historic tram lines in the city. One of them is on the European side (Taksim-Tünel) – T2 line. The second one is on the Anatolian side (Kadıköy-Moda) – T3 line. In the past, horse-drawn trams were running around the city. When the development and modernization of Istanbul started, horse-drawn trams were replaced with electric cars. The most developed tram network in the city was in the year 1956. Unfortunately, the rapid development of the city and the rather chaotic architecture caused, that in 1966 it was decided to withdraw the trams from the city. At the same time, all road investments were concentrated on the development of the highways.
Over time, it turned out that crowded streets need a modernized public transport network. After 24 years – trams again returned to the streets of Istanbul.
In 1990, it was decided to restore the historic streetcar to İstiklal Caddesi (“Avenue of Independence”) in the Taksim district. The purpose was to check the potential of such transport. The huge interest in the tram was mainly among the tourists. Its popularity was so great that in 1992 and 2007 modern trams went to the city streets – both on the European and on the Anatolian side (lines T1, T3 and T4).
A trip by tram along Istiklal Caddesi takes only a short time. It may be from 10 to 20 minutes depending on the traffic. There are only 5 stops on the route, but the tram moves very slowly. On its way passes through the middle of a popular shopping street, turned into a pedestrian walk promenade. The tram goes quite slowly, and it rings all the time to be able to pave its way. It’s worth taking advantage of this attraction or at least seeing the tram from outside.
F2 – the Tunnel
This underground cable car “the Tunnel”, is the oldest subway line in continental Europe. It is also the second one in the world after London. The queue was commissioned for the first time in 1875 and continues to be used to the present day. The tunnel is 573 m long and the height difference between Karaköy and Tünel Square stations is 60 meters. Journey by train takes about 1.5 minutes. There are approximately 15,000 people who use it daily, including tourists. Formerly, the wagons were powered by steam, but after modernization in 1971, they are now powered electrically. There are no doubts that both attractions are super interesting and worth visiting.
You can use your Istanbul Kart in both historical trams.
How to get to and from the IST Airport
Please check my travel pots below.
Internet – how not to bankrupt due to phone bill, in a country where roaming does not work
Unfortunately, roaming does not work in Turkey. Therefore, we should consider fact that we will only be able to use the internet in the hotel or internet cafes. And what if we want to use the internet after leaving the hotel? What if we want to turn on the GPS, check the address, check the museum’s working hours, find out how to get to the place we are looking for? What if you want to order Uber (yes, Uber works in Turkey) or check the number for a taxi corporation? I have my patent for such situations. I tested it in Japan, South Korea and Europe when we didn’t have integrated EU regulations yet.
Whenever I have such a need – I am looking for whether it is possible to rent pocket wifi. This is a small portable device that can be connected to up to 5 devices at the same time.
In Turkey, there are few companies that are offering such services. I did not try them personally, but please share your experience if you will use any of them:
What is usually included in the price?
- Internet 4G service
- connect up to 5 devices
- unlimited and safe internet
- the small size of the device allows you to always have it with you
- coverage – all over Turkey
The most important to know after placing your order – a Wi-Fi device will be delivered to the hotel you specify. The device will be delivered with a charging cable and connection security code. On the day of departure, just put the device in the same envelope in which you received it and leave it at the reception of your hotel. In some companies, you need to send it back in the original envelope to the renting company, which means you have to put the envelope in the mailbox.
Turkey – my other posts
I also encourage you to read my other posts about Istanbul, Cappadocia and Turkey: