We'll Tell You Where to Go -- Not sure how to get where you're going? The transport arm of the Istanbul municipality operates a great website, www.iett.gov.tr, where you can find all the routes for the whole range of transport options. You can also plug in your starting point to find out which public transport options stop there. Just click on the "How can I GO There?" icon on the bottom right of the main page (English).
With traffic getting denser and more aggravating on an hourly basis, having a car in Istanbul is the surest method for going nowhere. In the rare event that traffic moves smoothly, do you really think you know where you're going? Can you read signs in Turkish? Do you know what a "Cevreyolu" is? And once you get there, where are you going to park? If you do decide to disregard better judgment and good counsel (and the fact that traffic-related enforcement in general in Turkey has become rather unforgiving, given the potential revenues), or if you're only planning to pick up the car and drive out, here's some basic information:
The major car-rental companies in Istanbul are Avis (www.avis.com), Sixt (www.e-sixt.com), Hertz (www.hertz.com), National (www.nationalcar.com), Budget (www.budget.com), and Alamo (www.alamo.com). All have desks at Atatürk International Airport, as well as at locations in town. Meanwhile, Hertz and Decar (www.decar.com.tr) have desks in the international terminal at Sabiha Gökçen Airport, while Avis has one in the domestic terminal. Check your national website for deals; at press time, the price for a manual-transmission compact car was 60TL per day.
Taxis are plentiful in Istanbul and are more likely to hail you than vice versa. Avoid taxis that congregate around the main tourist spots such as Topkapi Palace, Ayasofya, and at the cruise-ship landing in Karaköy -- these are the ones adept at performing a bait-and-switch with large bank notes or taking meandering routes. Better to have your hotel call a cab for you, the agreement being that the hotel will continue giving the taxi company business only as long as the drivers remain aboveboard (granted, not a fool-proof system). Similarly, when out and about, pop into the nearest hotel and have the receptionist call a taxi for you.
Istanbul taxis no longer have separate rates for daytime and nighttime, a system which saw a 50% increase in fares between midnight and 6am. Instead, the starting rate for a taxi ride has increased from 2TL to 2.50TL. A taxi from Sultanahmet to Taksim will cost between 12TL and 16TL, depending on traffic and distance.
Don't Let Taxi Drivers Take You for a Ride -- There is a certain amount of control you give up when entering a taxi in a strange city. Your safest bet is to have your hotel concierge phone for the taxi instead of you flagging it down. (In Istanbul, under no circumstances should you hire a taxi off the street in front of the Ayasofya.) Some hotels and taxi companies have agreements that award the company repeat business in exchange for honesty and accountability at no extra charge to the passenger. Still, the risk that absolute ignorance of a location will be rewarded with a circuitous route is fairly high. A preemptive approach is always good: Get the approximate taxi fare from your hotel before you get in the car. But even once you're seated, there are still a few things to look out for to avoid being scammed.
Check to see that the meter is running. Beware of the "bait-and-switch" routine, whereby the driver takes your 10TL bank note (worth about $8.70 or £3.80) and accuses you of having given him a 1TL note. You can avoid this by holding onto the bank note until you've received your change. Also, note that 1TL notes are blue-toned and 10TL notes are orange.
For longer distances or drives outside of the city limits, taxis usually have a list of set rates. Be sure you've discussed these in advance, as you may be able to negotiate a discount (though it's doubtful). A final word: Don't get into a cab expecting bad things to happen. Just be a smart customer.
By Public Transportation
Transportation in Istanbul has come a long way since its earlier disjointed days, and improvements are being advanced at a hearty pace. While certainly not a seamless system, the network of buses, minibuses, funiculars, ferries, catamarans, subways, trains, trams, and trolley cars will certainly get you where you're going, but you may have to take all of them to get there.
The full fare for a one-way ride, without a transfer, on the bus, tramway, historic trolley, funicular to Taksim, metro, and most of the commuter ferry crossings costs 2TL (the Tünel costs 1TL). Unless you purchase a transit pass, you will have to pay the individual fare again each time you transfer lines or modes of transport. For the purpose of consistency, all prices for transportation are listed here at the pay-per-ride fare.
The metro is still a work in progress. The metro line north of Taksim has been extended. The completed Sishane metro stop will eventually be connected to the massively ambitious Marmaray project, optimistically expected to be completed around 2011. Once complete, the section of the commuter rail between Yenikapi and Sirkeci will close.
Transport Made Easy with a Transit Pass -- The entire metropolitan transport system accepts jetons (tokens) or one of a number of transit passes currently available. If you rely entirely on the jetons, you'll be forced to insert one at every transfer point, whereas use of a transit card gets you discounts for transfers. Currently there are three types of transit cards: the Akbil, the Besibiryerde, and the Istanbulkart, all with a built-in discount of 10% off the full token (or jeton) fare. Until recently, the Akbil (meaning "smart ticket") was the only transit pass offering the convenience and savings of a transit pass to commuters. The Akbil is a prepaid plastic key-chain contraption with a refillable metal "button" that connects with a receptacle in the turnstile to deduct the fare. All transfers are free for travel within a 45-minute period. For an initial deposit of 6TL (keep your receipt so that you can get your deposit back before you leave), you can add money and top it off at will. And better still, one Akbil can be used by multiple travelers in a group. Meanwhile, true to its name, the Besibiryerde ("five-in-one") is good for five rides. The newer credit card-size Istanbulkart, which operates via radio frequency, was introduced in March 2009 and is designed to eventually replace the Akbil. Both are rechargeable at vending/refilling machines located in all metro stations, at major bus and tramway hubs, and at the ferry docks. Machines accept both Turkish lira and major credit cards.
The Bus -- Metropolitan buses in Istanbul are frequent, comprehensive, economical, and easy -- if you know your way around. While there is no bus map, the destination of an individual bus line is now clearly marked at the bus stop (usually your typical glass shelter with a metal bench). Plaques at the bus stop provide a list of the stops along the route. The bus's final destination is also indicated above the front windshield, with a selection of major stops listed on the side of the bus next to the entrance (admittedly, not much help if you aren't familiar with the basic layout of the city). You can also do some advance planning via the IETT website (www.iett.gov.tr), which has an interactive map and line-stop assistance. Still, always check with the driver before getting on to make sure the bus is going in the direction you need; and once boarded, frequently ask your neighbor when to get off. Some of the most useful major hubs are at Eminönü, Taksim, and Besiktas. Tickets are sold at the major hubs or on the bus -- if your bus doesn't have a "cashier" on board, there's an informal system whereby you can pay the driver, who will in turn hand you his own personal Akbil to use (this earns the driver about .05TL per cash-paying customer). Buses run, roughly, from 6 or 6:30am until around 11pm or midnight.
The Dolmus -- Dolmus are yellow minivans that operate like group taxis with set routes. A relatively informal system, dolmus run daily from early morning to early evening. A dolmus will leave its terminus (marked with a blue "D") only when it fills up (the word dolmus means "stuffed") and then pick up and drop off passengers along the route. The main dolmus stands are located in Taksim (at Taksim Caddesi and Tarlabasi Caddesi, near the flower sellers), Sirkeci, and Aksaray, and connect to points all over the city. Dolmus are often more direct than metropolitan buses and cheaper than taxis, cutting down on time and leaving more money in your pocket. Look for a dolumus with the name of your destination displayed in the window. When boarding, tell the driver your destination and ask how much it will be (ne kadar?). For shorter distances, 3TL to 5TL should cover it. The driver will drop you off at your destination, but if you want to get off sooner, say "inecek var" (this is my stop) or "inmek istiyorum, lütfen," the short version of "I want to get off" with a "please" stuck on the end.
The Tramway -- When the tram from Eminönü to Zeytinburnu was built and inaugurated in 1991, the planners had overlooked one very important detail: money collection. Passengers rode for free for 1 year while the system installed booths and printed tickets. The system has grown up quite a bit since then; the city recently extended the tramway from Eminönü all the way to Kabatas (just below Dolmabahçe Palace); there's also an underground funicular that hoists passengers up the hill from Kabatas to Taksim in just 110 seconds for 2TL. A ticket booth at the turnstile entrance dispenses jetons or Akbil refills. This collective service cuts trips between Taksim and Sultanahmet to around 15 minutes (with transfers), while destinations in-between (Eminönü, for the Egyptian Spice Bazaar; Çemberlitas or Beyazit for the Grand Bazaar; Tophane for the Istanbul Modern) are just a token away. By the time you read this, the tramway will most likely be extended from Kabatas north along the Bosphorus; the plan is to add stations at Dolmabahçe, Besiktas, Sisli, and points north and northwest all the way to Mahmutbey. Token (jeton) booths are located at the entrance to the turnstiles; Akbils can be purchased/refilled at selected stops, including Sultanahmet, Eminönü, and Taksim, as well as in any metro station. Hours of operation are from 6am until about midnight.
The Historic Trolley -- Just when you feel your feet are ready to fall off, you hear the jingle of the lifesaving streetcar. The "Nostalgic Tramway" now plies fresh tracks on newly laid cobblestones along Istiklal Caddesi. As with most public-transportation options, you can pay with cash or with the Akbil. The trolley runs daily from 7am to 11pm and makes three intermediary stops at Hüseyn Aga Camii, at Galatasaray High School/Flower-Fish Market, and in Beyoglu at Nutru Sokak (in front of the Turkiye Is Merkezi).
The Funicular -- The subway known as Tünel connects the sea-level neighborhood of Karaköy near the Galata Bridge with the lofty neighborhood of Beyoglu at the southern end of Istiklal Caddesi. Tünel trains run Monday through Saturday from 7am to 9pm and Sunday from 7:30am to 9pm. The cost is 1TL.
A second funicular was completed in 2006, providing a much-needed lift to those down at the docks of Kabatas (near Dolmabahçe Palace) up the very steep hill to Taksim.
The Metro/Underground -- Istanbul's modern underground is growing at a fast clip, currently connecting the new Sishane stop (located beneath Mesrutiyet Caddesi), just steps from Tünel, with (as of this writing) the Atatürk Oto Sanayi, passing through Taksim, Osmanbey (walking distance from Nisantasi), Sisli/Mecediyeköy (commercial center), Gayrettepe (even more commerce), Levent (guess what, business plus the Kanyon and Metrocity shopping malls), Sanayi, and Maslak (Turkey's equivalent of Wall St.). The metro is open from around 6:30am until midnight. You can buy jetons at the ticket window outside the turnstile; or, if you're using the Akbil, just plug it into the turnstile receptacle.
The metro extension connecting the airport to town is now complete, providing access at Yesilköy (just outside the airport; you'll need two jetons) to Aksaray via a roundabout route by way of the otogar (bus station). If your destination is Sultanahmet, exit the metro at Zeytinburnu, transfer to the tramway (by paying the fare again), and hop on any train marked EMINÖNÜ.
The Ferry & Sea Bus -- All inner- and intercity sea transport is operated by the Istanbul Deniz Otobüsleri (IDO; tel. 0212/444-4436; www.ido.com.tr). The IDO fleet includes, in order of increasing speed: conventional ferries (read: slow, both passenger-only and car); the dubiously named "fast" ferries with a speed of 35kmph (22 mph); sea buses (passenger-only catamarans with speeds ranging from 40-53kmph/25-33 mph), and fast catamarans (up to 59kmph/37 mph). Generally speaking, fast ferries serve the southern Marmara Sea ports. Some of the more useful inner-city connections are on the commuter ferries, shuttling passengers between Kadiköy and Haydarpasa; Kadiköy and Eminönü; Kadiköy and Kabatas; Kadiköy and Besiktas, and on the passenger-only commuter sea buses, which ply the Bosphorus and the Marmara Sea (Yenikapi on the European side, Kadiköy and Bostanci on the Asian side, and the Princes' Islands). Smaller, more scenic boats take a more tourist-friendly leisurely pace up the Bosphorus, and a commuter boat plies the route from Üsküdar, through Karaköy and Eminönü, to Eyüp. Sample fares for public ferries are 1.50TL for the shorter points within Greater Istanbul and 3TL for the slow ferry to the Princes' Islands and are payable via the Akbil or token. Online booking is available for fast ferries and intercity sea bus lines only.
The scenic ferry that takes the time-honored cruise up the Bosphorus leaves from Eminönü, making stops at Besiktas (near Dolmabahçe Palace and the Çiragan Palace) on its crisscross pattern up the channel to Kanlica, Yeniköy, Sariyer, Rumeli Kavagi, and Anadolu Kavag[ag]i (13TL one-way or 20TL round-trip; 90 min. each way). The ferry from Eminönü departs daily, year-round, at 10:35am, returning from its final stop at Anadolu Kavagi at 3pm. An additional noon and 1:35pm departure operates from mid-April through November or December with a return departure at 4:15pm (additional return departures on weekdays; confirm times, as they may change). On Saturday nights from July 1 to mid-August, IDO also operates a moonlit Bosphorus cruise (20TL round-trip) departing Bostanci and making stops in Moda, Eski Kadiköy, Eminönü, Üsküdar, Besiktas, Ortaköy, Çengelköy, Rumeli Kavagi, and Anadolu Kavagi. The cruise departs at 6:10pm arriving at Anadolu Kavagi at 8:50pm; the return departure is at 10pm, arriving Bostanci at 12:35am.
If you're interested in traveling by car to cities along the Marmara region (for example, Bursa or Çanakkale), the easiest and quickest way is to take an IDO car ferry or sea bus from Yenikapi to Güzelyali or Mudanya (for Bursa) or Bandirma (for Çanakkale and the Northern Aegean). The trip takes 75 minutes and 1 hour, 45 minutes respectively.
For points farther south (Izmir, Bergama, Kusadasi, Ephesus/Selçuk, or Bodrum), you may want to cruise with Denizline (tel. 0212/444-3369; www.denizline.com.tr) on the company's overnight ferry from Istanbul to Izmir.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.