If you relish getting off the beaten tourist path and getting lost with the benefit of a safety line back to more familiar territory, a transit pass might be just the ticket to feed an adventurous spirit. In Istanbul, get an Instanbulkart. It’s a cheap and convenient way to explore the city.
What’s an Istanbulkart?
An Istanbulkart is a prepaid “smart card” that makes it easy to use public transportation. Costing 6TL (about $2.60 USD) and 1TL extra at newsstands, it can be loaded with varying amounts. It’s about the size of a credit card, and slides out easily from its clear protective case. To use it, simply “wave” the card within 8 centimetres of an electronic reader, even from a pocket or purse. With each use, the remaining credit on the card is displayed on the digital screen of the reader. Unlike other transportation systems with both “tap in” and “tap out” steps, in Istanbul a user presents the card only at the beginning of a journey. Therefore, all trips are the same price, irrespective of distance travelled.
Why get one?
The advantages are numerous. For starters, it works on a variety of services including the subway, trams, buses, nostalgic trams, funiculars, cable cars, trains and ferries. It will get you from the airport to your accommodation at a fraction of the cost of a taxi or car service. Each trip is discounted and up to five people can travel on one card. The other option for getting around Istanbul is to buy transit tokens. However, I prefer the Istanbulkart as it avoids the delays associated with purchasing tokens. An Istanbultkart encourages and supports spontaneous decision-making.
Where to get one
The Istanbulkart is available from over 1500 counters, vendors and machines throughout Istanbul, including on arrival at Atatürk or Sabiha Gökçen airports. Many hoteliers and apartment rental hosts offer the cards on a complimentary basis.
Cards can be reloaded at newsstands and small shops (look for the sign Akbil Dolum Noktası), or at self-service vending machines at major transit stations. The machines accept banknotes in denominations of 5, 10, 20, and 50 TL, with instructions in several languages. Here’s a short video from the Sirkeci Group on how to use the card.
Take your Istanbulkart for a spin
My advice is to set off on your own magical mystery tour and see where you end up, trusting your instincts and the system. If you’re in need of inspiration and a basic plan, here’s the itinerary that came together for me one morning without a lot of planning.
I was staying in the Sirkeci area in the bustling Eminönü neighborhood of Sultanahmet, just a couple of blocks from the waterfront. I pieced together a few sights and experiences I had in mind and armed with a map and my Istanbulkart, accomplished way more than I imagined possible.
A proven itinerary with an Istanbulkart
Here goes. Take the T1 Tramway to the terminus at Kabataş on the European side of the Bosphorus. Mingling with the fishermen on the Galata Bridge should not be missed, so catch the tram from the Karaköy side of the bridge.
From Kabataş it’s possible to walk the few blocks to Dolmabahçe Palace or catch a ferry from the Kabataş ferry docks to various destinations. However, I elected to purchase a simit from a street vendor, and enjoy a glass of tea at a waterfront café. It was an ideal spot to watch the shipping traffic slide by and marvel at my good fortune in being back in Istanbul.
From Kabataş I took the Taksim-Kabataş funicular and surfaced at Taksim Square. While wandering around the square, I kept my eye out for the nostalgic tram. The Beyoğlu Nostalgic Tram (T5) is a restored old trolley from the early twentieth century, and a popular symbol of İstiklal Avenue. With frequency about every 20 minutes, the tram travels between Taksim and Tünel, with a few stops along the way. Being Sunday, the usually busy shopping street was relatively quiet so I took the tram the full length of the line (1.5 km) and disembarked at the terminus at Tünel.
Tünel is an old underground funicular – the world’s second oldest subterranean urban rail line after the London Underground. It’s almost 600 metres long with its lower terminus in Karaköy close to the northern shore of the Golden Horn near the Galata Bridge.
As I’d already walked across the Galata Bridge, I decided to turn right on exiting Tünel and walk along Tersane Caddesi towards the Taksim-Yenikapı Metro line. The 500-metre walk took me to the Haliç station perched on top of the Haliç Metro Transit Bridge spanning the Golden Horn. While waiting for the tram, admire the beautiful views up and down the waterway.
I chose to take the Metro in the direction of Yenikapı, an interesting waterfront destination. I was keen to connect to the Marmaray, the world’s deepest underwater rail tunnel connecting two continents under the Bosphorus. The Marmaray took me to Üsküdar – a beautiful waterfront neighbourhood on the Asian side of the Sea of Marmara.
After enjoying the bustle of the waterfront, I took one of the regular ferries to Eminönü across the Sea of Marmara.
I then walked to the bus station just past the Galata Bridge to take the 99A bus to the Eyüp mosque. It was a ride of about 6 kilometres. Had it not been a dreary February day, the walk beside the Golden Horn would have been more interesting. From there I took the cable car to the Pierre Loti Café to soak up the magnificent views overlooking the Golden Horn. I’d worked up an appetite by this time but visions of more delectable offerings back in Sirkeci drew me in that direction.
By the time the bus arrived in Sirkeci, it was time for lunch. One of the things I love about Istanbul is the opportunity to graze around the city. My three-stop two-hour lunch started with lentil soup at one restaurant, followed by kebab and salad at Şehzade Erzurum Cağ Kebabı. Made from lamb, cağ kebabı is marinated with onion, salt, and pepper for a few hours, and then cooked on a horizontal spit over a wood fire.
Lunch ended with Turkish coffee and pistachio Turkish delight at Hafiz Mustafa 1864 where it doesn’t seem possible to escape being showered with a complimentary baklava or some other delicacy.
The price is right
What an enjoyable morning. The nine different modes of transportation were all covered by the Istanbulkart and cost 13.30 TL (about $5.80). I was amazed at how many transportation options were covered and how seamless it was to leap from one mode of transportation to another with convenient connecting points. In the process, I developed an appreciation of the city’s ability to develop an efficient public transportation network to accommodate its 14 million inhabitants and 10 million tourists who visit Istanbul each year.
What are some of your favourite activities in Istanbul? If you’ve published a post or pictures, please include a link in your comments.