Getting Around Istanbul
Transportation options in Istanbul
My experiences with local transportation
My experience with a possibly cursed airline
A “no motor bike” sign on a sidewalk in Kadıköy
Getting around the city was one of the most efficient commuting experiences abroad that I had ever had (though getting to and from Istanbul internationally was quite a different story). I can’t say there were plenty of ups and downs . . . it was more like a handful of neutrals scattered amongst a series of downs, but they were such good learning experiences that they all kind of feel like ups.
So, today’s post is a brief rundown of all that I experienced: The transportation options in Istanbul, my experience trying new ways of getting around, my experience with semi-familiar transportation, and my first bad airline experience.
Let’s start with a familiar one:
Cars parked on the street that leads to a metro station
I only used one Uber while in Istanbul and it was an 8-person van with a red plush interior. It was the only Uber nearby, which was odd and led me to believe that though Uber was in Istanbul, it perhaps wasn’t very popular. In reality, though, Uber was popular, which is why taxi companies in Turkey took Uber to court. From what I understand, Uber is now banned in Turkey.
A photograph of a taxi in front of the Walls of Constantinople, taken from inside a city bus
Taxis were a very common sight in Istanbul and genuinely efficient ways to get around. I only took a taxi three times: Once to get home in the early evening, once to rush back to our AirBnB on the last day, and once to get from the AirBnB to the airport.
The latter was very expensive because it was a long ride, but at the time we didn’t have any other options. That said, cabs were very useful in that regard; since there was always one around, I never had to worry too much about truly getting stuck somewhere. In fact, now that I think about it, those other two cab rides I took were also based on a “last resort” kind of mindset. This wasn’t because there was anything wrong with Istanbul cabs, it’s just that I had been relying on buses and the metro because it was naturally cheaper than taxis.
Objectively, though, taxis weren’t expensive, but know that you do have to pay for any tolls the taxi takes. Also be on the lookout for taxi scams. I didn’t encounter any or notice any “taxi scam vibes”, but keep your wits about you and always watch the meter. Also, I read that there is such a thing as illegal taxis—people and cars who present themselves as a taxi service but aren’t actually registered—so perhaps be on the lookout for that as well.
I will say, though, that I ran into one or two instances where the cab driver couldn’t figure out where I wanted to go . . . the joys of language barriers and no WiFi. Also, don’t be surprised if cabbies honk at you—often—asking if you need a ride when they see you walking down the street, especially if you don’t look like a local.
You remember when I said I only took one Uber? I took that Uber after waiting for a bus that didn’t show up. And you remember those taxis I took? I wound up in one of them after—guess what—a bus didn’t show up. That said, my bus experiences in Istanbul were solid 50/50 hit or miss.
The hits: The Istanbulkart transportation card made it easy to pay for, there were clear route maps, and none of the bus drivers drove like bats out of hell. Sometimes the buses were crowded, but it really all depended on the neighborhood; there was only one bus line—the bus stop outside of Aqua Florya Alışveriş Merkezi—that seemed constantly crowded no matter what bus you took.
The misses: On the downside, the bus system was terribly unreliable at times, often not adhering to the posted schedules (whether they were online or physically glued to the bus stop). There was even a local lady waiting for a bus that ultimately never came, leading me to believe that perhaps I wasn’t making a new-to-Istanbul tourist mistake when it came to understanding a bus schedule. There was also that time when the bus arrived and wouldn’t let me or my partner on. The driver didn’t tell us why, and though I’m willing to believe there was an innocent, practical reason for it, it felt kind of personal considering all the other people who were allowed on the not yet crowded bus.
Istanbul also offered some specialty buses, like a “mini bus” service that went short distances and overlapped with major bus stops. At Istanbul Sabiha Gökçen International Airport, there was a specific line of buses to take you from the airport to the bus hub, from where you can go anywhere in the city. These buses have built-in space for luggage, however, my partner and I mistakenly caught just a regular bus leaving the airport for the bus hub. This meant we had to finesse some space for our luggage. It worked out in the end, but it was still very awkward, both physically and socially.
After walking uphill in Fatih, near Chora Church
An oldie but a goodie, right? Istanbul was very pedestrian friendly, and since the weather was great when I was there, walking also felt like a pleasant outdoor activity. There were also plenty of parks, trendy neighborhoods, and some boardwalks to walk through, one of which had bikes for rent. My one complaint: The hills. Most places in Istanbul weren’t uphill in a way that my body could feel, but the few places that were were steep. The inclines weren’t as severe as the ones I experienced in Athens, but they weren’t easy climbs either.
Leaving the metro in Fatih
Metros: I find them crowded, dizzying, confusing, literally nauseating, and consistently anxiety inducing. However, as much as I dislike the metro, I could get down with the one in Istanbul. Sure, it still had all those elements to it, but it was . . . different. For example, even though there was always a crowd, it never felt crowded because of the way the stations, trains, and lines were organized.
Although I still found the stations confusing to navigate and the transit maps hard to comprehend, but I have to keep in mind that I was on sensory overload in the midst of a both a very new and familiarly uncomfortable experience. However, at the end of the day, I can confidently say that the metro system was incredibly efficient when it came to both cost and accessibility. Of the four metros I have ridden in different countries, Istanbul currently takes the #2 spot.
Ah, and one more thing: The Istanbul metro has a line, or perhaps multiple lines, that go underwater in order to travel between continents. It was both really cool and really terrifying in the same way the Hampton Roads tunnel is.
One of the tiled walls in the metro station
No, cable cars are not standard means of travel in Istanbul, but they still count! The cable car I took to Eyüp Cemetery was my first time riding one . . . not including the one at Busch Gardens. Surprisingly, I was much less nervous about riding in a tiny metal box suspended high above the ground than riding in a metro. Note, though, that the line for the cable car easily takes 45 minutes minimum.
I had never ridden a tram before, so riding one couldn’t help but be a memorable experience. There’s nothing too special to note about them, though; they’re just an easy and affordable way to get around the European side of Istanbul. They often felt less crowded than buses and. definitely come in handy when wanting to check out different nearby tourist sites.
A view of the Bosporus and Galata Tower
Let me sing their praises first: They’re affordable, they’re efficient, they’re reliable, there are snacks and tea for sale, sometimes street performers perform on the boat, and you’re guaranteed some beautiful views.
That said, I hate them.
Listen, I’ve always had issues with motion; most cars give me indigestion and 4D movies make me want to puke, but I did not expect to feel that bad on a boat.
Prior to the boat taxi experience, I had only been on a boat once for a school trip, a medium-sized boat that lingered only a few feet from shore in a very calm part of either the James River or the Chesapeake Bay. There was also that one time I stepped onto a docked cruise ship in Norfolk, felt it moving, and got off 15 minutes later.
My point is that the few boat experiences I had had were nothing compared to the experience of riding on a 1,000-seat ferryboat carving its way through the Bosporus. I was wholly unprepared for the intense nausea and anxiety that came with that experience. It was so bad, I half-joked with my friend asking if seasickness could be attributed to generational trauma. I couldn’t breathe or move and I was hyperaware that my body was out of balance, yet couldn’t seem to physically find myself.
That building in the background is Haydarpaşa railway station, next to the dock in Kadıköy
However, I did learn one thing: Sitting on the top of the boat is slightly less nauseating than sitting on the interior. Granted, I sometimes had cold air, wind, and seagulls to contend with, but my body also had a clearer sense of place—of being grounded—which helped combat the feelings of wanting to hurl. It also helped me feel less trapped and gave me the comfort of knowing that if I did indeed puke, I’d be hurling into the Bosporus and not on the ferry carpet.
That one airline
We took off from Doha in the early AM’s and arrived in Istanbul in the morning
Alright, look. We were trying to ball on a budget and, overall, that was a success. However, a part of that plan was to use a budget airline: Pegasus Airlines. I figured it wouldn’t be that bad: A 4-hour flight on an airplane that was about the same size as a domestic U.S. airline and had the same very basic amenities. However, I’ve got to say, that airline experience definitely a notch or two lower than a domestic flight.
On the flight to Istanbul, I had an easier time than my partner, who was very uncomfortable in the seats because they were so tight. Granted, I was a little uncomfortable myself because I thought the seats were abnormally stiff, but since I’m the size of a twig, I didn’t notice the distance. My partner, being the size of a regular adult man, just could not get comfortable.
We did eventually land in Istanbul with no problems and were ready to leave about two weeks later on another Pegasus flight. However, a series of events—involving a very problematic AirBnB check-out and an incomprehensibly slow Pegasus check-in line with only one counter open—ultimately led to us missing our flight and spending the night in the airport. We were offered a free flight change on the next Pegasus flight, but that it wouldn’t be arriving until a full 24 hours later. Keeping in mind my partner was sick, that plan was just not going to fly, so we booked the next flight on Qatar Airways and had a very refreshing flight home to Qatar 8 hours later.
Now, I know the way I summarized all this kind of makes the experience seem a little meh as opposed to nightmarish, but I promise you that the airline was part of the unholy triumvirate that created the major difficulties of the trip. Other members of the triumvirate include full body stress (physical, mental, and emotional) and most notably the AirBnB situation—the proverbial Caesar in this analogy.
Also, since we’re talking about it, Pegasus does have a good handful of incidents. The airline comes across as either cursed or undermaintained . . . or both. We didn’t know about Pegasus’ incidents before we booked the tickets, but had we known, we definitely would not have chosen it. See, we found out about their history only a week or two before our flight, and since it was so late, we decided to just keep the flight. Back then, Pegasus’ incidents felt unnerving, but as of 2020—when they had two incidents a month apart, the latter of which included fatalities—the airline now feels straight up unsafe.
I mean, there isn’t much more to say, but I hate to end on the bitter note of a cursed airline. So, how about we end with this picture instead?