Happily, the two areas where visitors are likely to spend most time – Beyoğlu and Sultanahmet – are easily explored on foot, while the rest of the city is relatively painless to get to via a plethora of public transport options.
Public transport is cheap and improving all the time, thanks to a municipal campaign to defeat the city's chronic traffic problem. The result is reinforcement to the entire transport infrastructure: extensions to metro and tram lines, new bypasses and underpasses, new sea bus routes and funiculars are all under way or completed, and a trans-Bosphorus tunnel (Marmaray) is now under construction. But for the time being, Istanbul endures gridlock along major arteries.
Buses are useful for heading up the Bosphorus coast to Ortaköy, Arnavutköy, Bebek and beyond, while trips to the districts of Üsküdar and Kadıköy on the Asian shore are best undertaken by ferry or sea bus. The easiest way to get to shopping and business districts in Nişantaşı, Teşvikye, Etiler and Levent is via the new metro line that runs north from Taksim.
The informative website of the IETT, the local transport authority, has an excellent English version that includes maps and timetables.
IETT (Istanbul Elektrik Tramway ve Tünel Işletmeleri Genel Müdürlüğü)
Erkan-ı Harp Sokak 4, Tünel (0212 245 0720/free helpline 0800 211 6068/www.iett.gov.tr).
Akbil, the 'smart card', is an electronic travel pass that can be used on all public transport except dolmuş and minibuses. You get a 10 per cent discount on fares. Akbils are available for a small refundable deposit (YTL6) from booths at all main bus, sea bus and metro stations. To use it, firmly press the circular metal stud into the socket on the orange machine located next to the driver on buses, or to the left of turnstiles at all metro, light rail, tram and ferry stations. Recharge at Akbil machines located at bus, metro and tram stations, ferry terminals or Akbil booths.
Particularly useful for visitors is the mavi (blue) travel pass valid for a day, a week, 15 days or a month.
Most city buses (belediye otobüsü) are operated by the municipality, but there are also private versions (halk otobüsü). Municipal buses are red and white or green; all have IETT written on the front. Private ones are pale blue and green.
Buy tickets (bilet) for municipal buses before boarding (they won't take money on the bus). On private buses, pay a conductor seated in the doorway (they won't take municipal tickets). Both IETT and private buses accept Akbil (see above) and charge the same fare (YTL1.30). Tickets for municipal buses are sold from booths at main stops and stations, or newsstands, nearby stalls and itinerant street vendors for a 30 per cent premium.
Bus routes & maps
Newer buses have electronic signboards with route information. Bus stops also have route maps. Still, the sheer number of routes and the interminable traffic and roadworks can make bus travel a nightmare. Bus services run from 6am to 11pm. Kabataş and Taksim are the two main bus terminals north of the Golden Horn. These are useful bus routes:
Taksim – Topkapı 83
Taksim – Bahçeşehir 76E, 76D
Taksim – Sultanahmet T4
Taksim – Ortaköy DT1, DT2
Taksim – Edirnekapı 87
Taksim – Kadıköy 110
Taksim – Aksaray (metro) 83MT
Taksim – Sarıyer 25T, 40
Taksim – Otogar 83O
Otogar – Eminönü 91O
Otogar – Beşiktaş 28O
Kabataş – Beşiktaş 22E
Kabataş – Reşitpaşa 22RE, 58A
Kabataş – Sarıyer 25E
Topkapı – Beşiktaş 28T
Topkapı – Sarıyer 341T
Topkapı – Kadıköy 127
Sarıyer – Kilyos 151
Sarıyer – Beşiktaş 40B
Aksaray – Airport light metro
Edirnekapı – Beşiktaş 28
Dolmuş & minibuses
A dolmuş (which means 'full') is basically a shared taxi that sets off once every seat is taken. Dolmuş run fixed routes (starting points and final destinations are displayed in the front window) but with no set stops. Passengers flag the driver down to get on (if there's room) and holler out to be let off (Inecek var!). For local journeys, there's one fixed fare. Ask a fellow passenger how much it is or just watch what everyone else is paying. Dolmuş run later than buses, often as late as 2am.
Minibuses are more crowded than dolmuş, and less frequent. Minibus fares are lower, but chances are you'll make your journey standing while being blasted by tinny Turkish pop. Pay and get on/off as you would a dolmuş. The main routes are from Beşiktaş to the upper Bosphorus districts.
Metro & trams
The new metro and tram systems provide a comfortable and efficient alternative to clogged roads and crowded buses. However, coverage currently remains scant. At present, the metro runs from Taksim north to 4th Levent, stopping at Osmanbey, Şişli, Gayrettepe and Levent. Extensions slated for completion in 2008 will take the line south of Taksim to the sea bus jetty at Yenikapı and north as far as Maslak.
Another option is the 'light metro', which connects Aksaray (west of the Grand Bazaar) to the Esenler bus terminal and on to the airport.
The city's only modern tram runs from Zeytinburnu via Aksaray to Sultanahmet and terminates at Eminönü by the Galata Bridge. This is a useful service for visitors, linking the Grand Bazaar, Haghia Sophia, Sultanahmet Mosque, Topkapı Palace, the Egyptian Bazaar and the Golden Horn. You can also use the tram to visit the city walls. Buy tokens in advance from kiosks at tram stops and feed them into the automatic barriers outside the platform. A single trip on the tram costs YTL1.30 irrespective of your destination. The service runs from around 6am-midnight.
An extension is being built between Eminönü and Beşiktaş, crossing the Galata Bridge. There'll be six stops in between, including Karaköy and Kabataş (which are already in service), the ferry and sea bus terminal.
A new funicular, which opened in 2006, connects Kabataş to Taksim Square, (connecting at the metro).
Tünel & tram
A 125-year-old funicular, known as the tünel, ascends from Karaköy to Tünel Square at the southern end of Istiklal Caddesi. It's a very short run, but saves a tiring climb up (or down) the sheer slope. The service runs 7am-10pm Mon-Sat and 7.30am-10pm Sun and costs around YTL0.90.
At Tünel, it connects with a century-old tram that shuttles up mile-and-a-half-long Istiklal Caddesi to Taksim Square and back. Akbil can be used for either, but not regular bus tickets. You need to buy a token for the funicular at the entrance, and a ticket for the tram from Tünel Square funicular station or a vendor in Taksim Square. Tickets for either the tram or funicular cost YTL0.90.
Ferries & sea buses
Boats and ships of all sizes shuttle between the European and Asian shores, operating to summer (mid June-mid Sept) and winter timetables. Timetables are available from all ferry terminals; departure times are also posted online.
The main services run between Eminönü, Karaköy and Beşiktaş on the European side, and Üsküdar and Kadıköy on the Asian shore. These once-white ferries (vapur), capable of carrying hundreds of passengers, are soon to be replaced with a newer fleet. Departures are every 15 minutes or so.
There are also regular services running up the Golden Horn to Eyüp from Üsküdar via Eminönü. Less frequent commuter services criss-cross the Bosphorus, starting from Eminönü and calling at Haydarpaşa, Ortaköy, Arnavutköy, Bebek, Kandilli and beyond.
Ferries also depart from Eminönü and Kabataş to the Princes' Islands. The popular Bosphorus tour departs from Eminönü three times daily.
The modern catamarans (called deniz otobüsleri or 'sea buses') are faster but more expensive and generally restricted to commuter hours. You can pick up timetables from the ferry terminals or check online.
Turkish Maritime Organisation (Türkiye Denizcilik Işletmeleri Şehir Hatları Işletmesi AŞ)
Rıhtım Caddesi 4, Karaköy (0212 251 5000/www.tdi.com.tr).
Istanbul Fast Ferry (Istanbul Deniz Otobüsleri AŞ)
Kennedy Caddesi, Sahil Yolu, Hızlı Feribot Iskelesi, Yenikapı (0212 455 6900/www.ido.com.tr).
Terrrible traffic, steep hills, slippery cobbles, and countless potholes make Istanbul very challenging for cyclists. However, the wide road alongside the Bosphorus north of Ortaköy is great for biking, with lovely views and a sea breeze. A hired bike is ideal for getting around the Princes' Islands where cars are banned.
If you're secure on two wheels, it may make sense to hire a motorbike from Moto Villa in Levent. All you need is a valid licence and a credit card. Your bike will be delivered to your hotel.
Sülün Sokak 7, Levent (0212 280 3050/0555 267 0700/www.villalevent.com). Rates from YTL45 per day; reduced weekly rates available. Credit AmEx, MC, V.
Ask for Vasfı or Hakan Bozkurt, who both speak English.
Driving is not recommended. Heavy congestion doesn't stop speeding, although the limit is 50kmh (30mph), rising to 120kmh (75mph) on motorways. Seat belts are the law, but observance of regulations is laughable. Street parking is difficult and not always legal, in which case you're liable to get towed.
Use the plentiful car parks; you may have to leave the keys so that cars can be shuffled.
If you take your own car to Turkey, prepare to be entangled in red tape. Drivers must provide registration documents and a valid international driving licence at point of entry. Cars, mini-buses, caravans, and motorbikes can be taken into Turkey for up to six months without a carnet de passage or triptyque. Your vehicle is registered in your passport and you're issued a certificate that should be carried at all times along with your driving licence and passport. If you stay in Turkey for more than six months, you must leave and re-enter the country, or apply to the Turkish Touring & Automobile Association for a triptyque. You won't be allowed to visit another country without taking your vehicle, unless you cancel the registration at the local customs office. Drivers from Europe also need a Green Card, which is available from your insurance company.
A rarely enforced law requires all cars to be equipped with a fire extinguisher, first-aid kit and two triangles.
Turkish Touring & Automobile Association (Türkiye Turing ve Otomobil Kurumu)
1 Sanayi Sitesi Yanı, Seyrantepe, 4 Levent (0212 282 8140)
Turkey's equivalent of the AA.
Atatürk Oto Sarayı Sitesi 2, Kısım. Gökşenler Plaza 213, Maslak (0212 276 3640). Open 8.30am-6.30pm Mon-Fri; 8.30am-3.30pm Sun. Credit MC, V.
24-hour emergency service.
Istanbul Traffic Foundation
0212 289 9800.
24-hour towing services.
Rental rates generally include VAT, insurance with third-party liability, and unlimited mileage, but are still relatively high. The rates below include VAT and insurance.
Abdülhakhamit Caddesi 72/A, off Cumhuriyet Caddesi, Taksim (0212 297 9610/www.avis.com.tr). Open 9am-7pm daily. Rates YTL105-YTL195 per day. Credit AmEx, DC, MC, V. Other locations: Atatürk Airport (0212 465 3455/56).
Cumhuriyet Caddesi 19, Taksim (0212 235 3232/www.budgettr.com). Open 8.30am-7pm daily. Rates YTL60-YTL105/day. Credit AmEx, MC, V.
Other locations: Atatürk Airport (0212 465 5807).
Topçu Caddesi 1, off Cumhuriyet Caddesi, Taksim (0212 254 7710/www.europcar.com.tr). Open 8.30am-7pm daily. Rates YTL75-YTL240/ day. Credit AmEx, DC, MC, V. Other locations: Atatürk Airport (0212 465 3695).
You won't have a problem finding a taxi, day or night. Licensed taxis are bright yellow, with a roof-mounted taksi sign. They're all metered, and relatively cheap by European standards. If the meter isn't running, get out.
During the day, the meter displays the word gündüz (day rate); the clock should start with YTL1.50. From midnight to 6am the gece (night) rate kicks in, adding 50 per cent to the fare. The day rate is YTL1.50 per mile. A trip between Sultanahmet and Taksim Square costs YTL5-YTL6. There's no room for haggling and no need to tip. Cabbies are not necessarily streetwise. It's not unusual for your driver to ask you, other drivers or passers-by the way. If you cross the Bosphorus bridges, the toll (YTL4) will be added to the fare.
The main tourist hubs of Sultanahmet, the Bazaar Quarter and Beyoğlu are all perfect for exploring on foot. There are very few main roads, while the narrow, sloping back-streets are better suited to pedestrians than cars. Pay attention when crossing roads, as drivers often jump lights.
While every effort and care has been made to ensure the accuracy of the information contained in this guide, the publisher cannot accept responsibility for any errors it may contain. Before you go out of your way, we strongly advise you to phone ahead and check the particulars.
Getting to Istanbul
Fast facts A-Z
When to go to Istanbul