City Guide to Istanbul, Part 3: Public Transportation
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This is part three of a multiple part series in our City Guide to Istanbul. Don’t miss part one and two!
- City Guide to Istanbul, Part 1: Things to Know Before You Visit
- City Guide to Istanbul, Part 2: From the Airport to the Hotel
Public transportation in Turkey is a great way to get around the city while you’re visiting. We started using public transportation on our first day sightseeing, but if you’re not arriving on a red-eye flight, we’d recommend taking public transportation from the airport into Istanbul. There’s a metro station at the airport, just follow the signs after passport control and baggage claim. We find, in most cities, that it’s easiest to navigate the metro and tram systems, since they stop at all available stops. However, buses are available from the airport as well.
Istanbul has most known methods of public transportation: trams, metro, funiculars, ferries, buses, etc. Most methods accept the Istanbulkart. If you plan on taking any public transportation, we highly recommend purchasing this card right away. For ₺10 you get the Istanbulkart with ₺4 in credit. It’s a re-loadable, contactless payment card, very similar to London’s Oyster Card. While you can purchase single trip tickets (Electronic Ticket/Electronik Bilet), fares on the Istanbulkart are nearly half the cost. For example, a single fare with an Electronic Ticket costs ₺4, while the same trip with the Istanbulkart is only ₺2,30.
Purchasing an Istanbulkart
Unlike other cities that have contactless payment cards for public transportation, in Istanbul, you only need to purchase one card per traveling pair or group. In other words, there’s no need to purchase one card per person. After the first person scans and proceeds through the turnstile, hand the Istanbulkart off to the next person to do the same. We confirmed this with a metro employee and used only one card for both of us. It worked without any issues.
The Istanbulkart can be purchased from machines located at Metro and tram stops, and some convenience stores around the city. The machines are blue and yellow and say “istabulkart Dolum Makinesi/Top-Up Machine” on the top. You can select your language on the home screen. Be patient making your selections, they aren’t the fastest machines out there. The machines don’t accept credit cards, so be sure to have some Turkish Lira on you. We arrived ready with cash in hand to purchase our Istanbulkart and couldn’t figure out why it would not accept our ₺1 coins and ₺5 bills. We asked an attendant for help, and although he didn’t speak much English, he was able to get us to understand that we had to put in a larger bill to cover the ₺10 for the card. We put in a ₺20 and it worked. We got our card (₺6 cost) with ₺14 credit on it. We don’t know if this was an ‘issue’ with that machine specifically, or, if it’s the normal and expected behavior when buying an Istanbulkart. We suspect it’s the later.
Using the Istanbulkart
When you enter a metro or tram station, you’ll need to pass through turnstile type barriers. There will likely be a row of half-a-dozen or more silver turnstiles for you to pass through. Some are for entry and some are for exit. Look for the ones that have a green arrow just below waist level on the right-hand side and avoid the ones with the red dashed line. To the right of the turnstile will be an orange pad that you place the card on. It takes a quick swipe of the card and you’ll hear a beep letting you know you can pass through the turnstile. On the other hand, if you're traveling on the bus, there’ll be a small machine with a pad for you to scan you card.
Refill the Istanbulkart
You can refill your Istanbulkart at the same machine you purchased it from or on the more modern, black and yellow Biletmatik machines. Place your card on the clear plastic inset on the right side, where it says “Istanbulkart”. The machine will read the card and display the current balance. Use the interface on the screen and follow the prompts to reload the card. Just like the Istanbulkart machine, the Biletmatik only accepts cash.
Check the Balance of Your Istanbulkart
There are two ways to check the balance of your Istanbulkart. First, you can check the balance on both the Istanbulkart machine and the Biletmatik machine by placing your card on the clear plastic inset on the right hand side. Give it a second to scan the card and it'll display the balance on the screen. The second method is when you scan your card to pass through the turnstile. It'll display the cost of the fare you just paid, as well as the current balance of the card.
Fares are inexpensive, especially when using the Istanbulkart. For current fares, check the fares table on the metro website. One important thing to remember about fares is that you pay for each ride you take, meaning that transfers are not included in the single ticket price. If you choose to buy a ticket, instead of using the Istanbulkart, that ticket will be valid for one ride. If you want to make a transfer, you’ll need to purchase another ticket. However, you can buy two, three, five, and ten pass tickets at discounted rates.
If you’re traveling with the Istanbulkart, you’ll pay for your first fare and then a discounted fare for each additional ride (transfer) on that same journey. For example, during our visit the first fare was ₺2,30. The first transfer was ₺1,65, the second was ₺1,25 and the third, fourth and fifth were ₺0,85.
Metro and Tram Lines
- It can take a couple of rides to start to understand which metro or tram to take, and in which direction.
- Metros are color coded and labeled with the lines last stop.
- Many of the stations have markings (footprints and arrows) on the ground leading you to the corresponding platform for different lines.
- Trams are clearly marked with their Tram number (T1, T2, etc).
- Like the metro, trams are color coded as well, as you can see on the network tram map.
- To know which train to take, you’ll just need to pay attention to what direction to go towards. With both trams and metros, use the maps at the station to find your stop and then trace the line to the last stop. The last stop will be the name of the tram or metro line you need to take.
- We always double check that we're on the correct train after we board the vehicle. We use the maps located above the entrance and exit doors to make sure we see our exit as upcoming. If we made a mistake and got on the wrong tram/metro, we just get off at the next stop and find the correct one.
- We’ve learned it pays to take an extra minute to make sure you know what you’re doing, rather than rush and get on the first tram/metro you see.
In addition to city buses there are also mini-buses. These are small, older buses that are a mix of a city bus and a taxi. They only accept cash, no Istanbulkart. They follow a specific route and stops, however, like taxis they can be hailed anywhere along the line. The cost is dependent on how far you’re traveling on their route.
We took a mini-bus twice and stumbled through it a bit, since Google directions told us to take the bus and we thought we’d be able to pay with the Istanbulkart. It was quickly clear that our Istanbulkart wouldn’t work, so we asked the driver how much the ride was. He didn’t speak any English and we only had a few Turkish Lira on us. Since you need to tell the driver your stop to know how much to pay, we showed our phone to the driver. However, the bus barely stops long enough for you to get on, let alone wait for you to ask questions and pay for the ride. Eventually we handed him all we had and the driver accepted it as full payment. We then used our GPS and Google Maps to figure out when we were close to our destination. On our second ride, the way back from the first, we were a bit more prepared. We knew what to expect and had taken out cash at the ATM ahead of time. Thankfully, this driver spoke a bit of English and was kind enough to tell us when we’d arrived at our stop.
It was a very interesting experience and a great way to travel through the city. We recommend taking one of these buses at least once, if you’re up for the adventure!
General Public Transportation Information and Tips
- In our experience, buses, metros, and trams were all in good order and well maintained. Stations were clean and always felt safe to us.
- We found that many, although not all, buses, metros, and trams have digital screens to indicate the upcoming stops.
- While you can view the Network Maps and Timetables (click on Timetables at the bottom middle of the page and enter the requested information), we prefer using Google Transit Directions on our phone. Using Google Maps, we enter our destination and search for directions, making sure to switch to the public transit option. We’ve used this method in all places we visited so far, and Istanbul was no different. The app directed us to the best route, whether it be bus, metro, or tram.
- Don’t worry, you probably won’t have to wait long for the next tram or metro. During rush hour some lines run up to every three minutes. The longest we waited was 10 minutes.
- Digital signage on the platform usually tells you when the next train is due to arrive. 'Minute' in Turkish is 'dakika', and is abbreviated as 'dk'.
Stay Tuned for More Sightseeing Adventures and Itineraries
This is only part three of our City Guide to Istanbul. Stay tuned for out next post where we’ll share our sightseeing adventures and itinerary. Catch up on part one and two: