See the sidebar on my post, “A Five-Day Itinerary in Istanbul.” Note that on mobile devices, the sidebar ends up at the bottom.
Not a tourist card, but an all-purpose transportation card handily sized like a credit card, Istanbulkart is a must. If you don’t buy a card at Istanbul airport, once in town you might not find it right away. But there are machines for buying and topping up cards at the major transit hubs like Eminönü and Sirkeci. There are machines in metro station entrances and Marmaray stations. Additionally, if you don’t find a machine around your tram stop (and I think you won’t find one at many bus stops, only transfer points and perhaps the terminus of a route), you can look for a newsstand vendor. In this case, you’ll be looking for a newsstand that has the word “Akbil” posted on one of its banners, because that is the name of the old transit card.
Where can you use Istanbulkart?
Istanbulkart is accepted on city buses, Havaist buses to/from IST airport, trams, the metro, funiculars, ferries, and the Marmaray train. Bus, tram and metro fares are 9.90 lira now; the Marmaray train is about 21. You need to pay again every time you change transport: there are no free transfers. Ferry route fares vary, but you can see that public transportation in Istanbul is very economical.
Cost of Istanbulkart and top-ups
The card itself currently costs 60 lira. You need to add money to it after buying the card. You can do that from the newsstand or machine when you first get the card. Almost all machines take cash only, up to 100 lira notes. The few machines I’ve come across that say they take credit cards have worked for me exactly once.
You can buy one card and use it for several people, waiting a moment between turnstile entries, but probably two or three people is as many as you should try to have share a card.
When you top up your card at a machine, whatever lira bill you feed it will have its whole value applied to the card. You don’t choose the amount other than by deciding what bill to use. No change is ever given. But I suggest always adding 100 lira – unless it’s your very last day – because you’re likely to use the card many times as you explore the city. You don’t want to have to wait to refill your card and perhaps find a stubborn or broken machine when your ferry is about to leave! A refilled card is a wonderful convenience.
New Istanbulkart app
There’s now an Istanbulkart app for Android and iOS. It has started as an adjunct to rather than a direct substitute for a physical card. You can pay top-ups via the app, and then refill your card if your phone has Near Field Communication. With NFC you can also check your card’s balance.
However, there’s progress. You can pay through the app and generate a QR code to show to pay a fare. This is NOT accepted for Marmaray trains, but is supposed to work in the metro and on trams. Let me know about your experience if you try it, please! Tell your tale in the “Leave a reply” section below the body of this post. Pretty please!
Further use of Istanbulkart
By the way, the card can be used for other purchases; you can investigate that if you’re about to leave the city and have value left. There are various temporary discount schemes promoting the card as well – if you have time to check those out. I have never used my cards for anything besides transportation because I want to have the value ready for any route.
I am happy to say that FERIBOT is a Turkish word. Ferry boat … try it … even though the fully Turkish term “deniz otobüsü,” or sea bus, is what you’ll see most often.
I’ve elsewhere mentioned ferry terminals as though each is one station, but it is more complicated at the busiest ports. There are three ferry companies operating in central Istanbul and they run out of their own terminal buildings and piers. So, the ferry station, as it were, at Eminönü has a series of buildings, and you need to find the terminal for the company that offers your route or schedule. The information booths are a great help! Run by the government, these little white cabins around the terminals are staffed by people who speak enough English to help you and get you to the right building. Also, once you find the right building, be sure to enter through the turnstile for your route! They do not all feed into the same pier access if the terminal serves more than one route – as is usually the case.
The ferry boats are large and stable, and fairly comfortable. And they’re not poky. Routes are covered quickly. Some boats are open, with long wooden benches, some are closed, with upholstered seats. A man will come around selling OJ and tea. There will be a restroom. But note that unless you are on an open deck (not always available), you won’t have good photo ops or much view through the cloudy, steamy or just dirty windows, which are just a given on boats in constant use.
Here are the three current operators with links to their pages so you can explore routes and schedules. Or you can do as I frequently have: head to the nearest ferry and see where you can go! Be aware, few routes run through the evening, so if you start out late, or keep wandering till dinnertime, you may need another form of transportation back. Never fear, the bus and metro networks should suffice.
For an example of a fun trip, see the Bosphorus line I wrote about in my post, “A Five-Day Itinerary in Istanbul.”
IDO has a list of their piers here so you can see the possible starting or ending points, which is helpful before using their dropdown lists on the schedule page.
The Marmaray line serves 43 stations from Halkalı, on the European side, to Gebze, on the Asian side. For most tourists, three stations are most useful: Yenikapı on the sea of Marmara, European side, where there is an important ferry terminal (longer routes) and a connection to the metro; Üsküdar, on the Asian side, with a ferry terminal for some Bosphorus destinations; and Sirkeci, close to the Sultanahmet attractions, Eminönü and Galata Bridge. Sirkeci, by the way, is an historic station, and used to be an endpoint of the Orient Express.
Metro / Subway
The M2 line will be of greatest interest to most tourists, as it starts from Yenikapı, with its Marmaray train connection and its ferry port proximity, and then runs north as the closest metro route to the coast along the European side of the Bosphorus. You can get a full route map as a pdf from this link.
The best-known tram line is the T1 which runs all the way from Bağcılar in the west, to Kabataş along the Bosphorus on the European side. When running in that direction, the last eleven stops are all of some interest for tourists: Istanbul University, with an historic hamami nearby; Beyazit, the stop for the Grand Bazaar; Çemberlitaş, with the Column of Constantine, but mostly just a central spot for exploring Fatih; Sultanahmet, for the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia; Gülhane, for the park and Topkapı Palace; Sirkeci for the Marmaray station; Eminönü for the spice market, the extensive ferry station, and Galata Bridge; Karaköy for Galata Tower; Tophane for Mahmud Han Fountain, the adjacent 16th-century Kilic Ali Pasha Hamami, the Tophane-I Amire Culture and Art Center museum; Fındıklı, the northernmost part of Beyoğlu district, known mostly for the Double Palaces (Çifte Saraylar), home to the Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University; and the end of the line, Kabataş, where you can take the F1 funicular up to Taksim Square, or catch a bus to Sisli, Beyoglu, Besiktas, or communities to the north along the Bosporus.
You’ll enjoy walking as much of the T1 route as you’re up for, certainly, say, from Beyazit to the Karaköy stop. But if you’re ready for a ride, you can get a map of tram routes as a pdf from this link.
I use Google maps on my phone to see how to get around when a ferry won’t serve and I’m not near the tram. A word of advice: when Google shows you a bus route, take a screen shot with the bus numbers and the starting and ending stations, and go by the screen shot as you travel. I cannot tell you how many times Google has changed routes, stops, instructions as I waited for a bus. Even when on a bus, it will change and tell me to get off at a different stop. It’s pretty good for Istanbul IF you lock into a screen shot when first you find your route.
Another word about Google maps directions, when you’re using them for walking. I have made a lot of wrong turns because the GPS reading of my location was off – maybe around the corner or a block away. Now, instead of starting from “your current location,” I look for a business and enter it as the starting point. Much surer!