Information on how to reach Istanbul. By plane, by boat, by train, by bus and by car.
Duty Free area, inside Ataturk Airport
Planes arrive at Istanbul Atatürk Airport (IST), 20 km west of the city centre. From the airport, there are various options for getting into Istanbul: you can take a taxi (about 30 YTL), the express bus service run by the local airport service called “Havas” which departs half-hourly and costs about 10 YTL to Taksim, the IETT bus (96T) costing 2.5 YTL or by Metro to Aksaray and a tram on to Kabataş, which also passes through Sultanahmet, Eminönu and Tophane, for 1.4-2.8 YTL. The trip from the airport to Sultanahmet takes about 45 min.
Note that people are working on commission at the airport trying to make you use special shuttle buses for very high fees (30+ YTL per person), so for people who wish to travel more economically the Metro/tram-combination is easy and fairly quick, and offers very good value.
Depending on nationality, foreigners arriving in Istanbul may need to purchase tourist visas (USA and some EU citizens, depending on exact nationality, do). This must be done upon arrival before queuing for passport control. The windows for purchasing the visa are located immediately to the left of the main passport control booths. You may pay using foreign currency or Turkish Lira (only cash is accepted, though, no credit cards). The fee varies depending on the visitor’s nationality. As of March 2008, the fee was $20 (or €15 or 10 GBP) for visitors travelling with U.S. passports. As of September 2008, Canadians pay US$60 (or €45). As of April 2009, EU pays €10 (note that GB citizens may pay in Pounds), or the fee is 35 Turkish Lira.
Note that food and drinks at the airport may cost up to five times more than in the city proper, as usual in other international airports. If you are travelling on budget and plan to spend some time at the airport, it may be wise to bring your own meals from town instead of buying them there. If you come from the Metro, there is a supermarket in the tunnel leading to the elevators / stairs to the airport proper where you can do some last-minute shopping.
Istanbul also has a smaller airport Sabiha Gökçan International Airport (SAW), located in the Anatolian side of the city. Charter flights as well as European low cost carriers operate from here most of the time. A Havas bus connects this airport with Taksim in the city center for 10 YTL and takes about an hour. A cheaper option is to take bus E10 which brings you to Kadiköy in 70 minutes (3 YTL). From there take a ferry to Eminönu or Karaköy.
Inside Sirkeci Train Station
International trains from across Europe arrive at the station in Sirkeci, close to Sultanahmet. Asian trains arrive at Haydarpasa station. To get between the two, catch a ferry across the Bosphorus (see Get around). Marmaray, the Rail Tube Tunnel and Commuter Rail Mass Transit System is being built, and is projected to be one of the most challenging infrastructure projects in Turkey.
International trains to and from Sirkeci:
- Daily overnight trains from Sofia, Bulgaria – coming from Belgrade, Serbia and Budapest, Hungary
- Daily overnight “Bosphorus train” from Bucharest, Romania
- There may be trains from Chisinau, Moldova.
- Twice a day there are trains to Thessaloniki, Greece – the slow morning train that takes almost a whole day and the fast night train that is quicker but more expensive.
International trains to and from Haydarpasa:
- Weekly trains to Aleppo, Syria
- Weekly train to Teheran, Iran (from Haydarpasa station) every Wednesday 10.55PM, costing 105 Turkish lira. It is also a good way to drive in the Eastern part of Turkey. You change trains on Friday at Lake Van which requires a four hour ferry ride to get across. Both the Turkish and Iranian trains are comfortable and clean. Waggon restaurants are rather cheap. Arrival in Tehran on Saturday at 6.45PM (but expect up to 10 hours delay…).
Schedule and price list of railway trips can be gathered from TCDD (Turkish Republic State Railways).
Buses and coaches terminate at the colossal Esenler Otogar, about 10 km west of the city center, located on the European side. Courtesy minibuses or taxis will easily get you into the center. The metro also stops at the Otogar. There are several daily buses to/from cities in Romania and Bulgaria.
With 168 ticket offices and gates, shops, restaurants, hotel, police station, clinic and mosque, the Büyük Otogar is a town in itself. From/To Thessaloniki(Greece): ticket prices around 35€ (one way) Sofia (Bulgaria): 10-15€
“Harem” is the major hub for the buses on the Anatolian (Asian) side, which can be reached easily from the European side with a Ferryboat.
International ferries, carrying tourist groups from outside Turkey stop at Karakoy Port. The port is ideally located close to Sultanahmet and Taksim.
Cruise ships often dock close to downtown. Passengers not on tours will find taxis readily available at the port entrance, and modern streetcars a short walk away.
Traffic in Istanbul can be manic; expect a stressful drive because you will be cut off and honked at constantly. The city currently holds more than 1,500,000 automobiles and there is a strong demand for building of new or alternate highways.
If you’ve arrived in Istanbul by car, and you’re not familiar with the streets, it’s better to park your car in a safe place and take public transportation to get around.
The city, lying on two different continents and separated by the Bosphorus, is connected by two bridges. The bridge on the south, closer to the Marmara Sea, is called the “Bosphorus Bridge”. The bridge closer to the Black Sea is named “Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge” and is longer than the first one. Both are toll bridges, and you must pay a fee to cross.
Since 2006, the Bosphorus Bridge toll stations do not accept cash, and payment must be made using electronic cards, either manually (KGS) or automatically via a transponder mounted on the front of the car (OGS). Drivers without either of these two methods must take the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge.
On weekdays, drivers should be aware of potentially hour-long traffic jams on the highways leading to both bridges, particularly heading west in the mornings and east in the evenings, since most people live on the Anatolian side but work on the European side.
There is a great shortage of parking in Istanbul, and existing lots are quite expensive. You will see many cars parked on the sides of the road, in front of garage doors even.
Drivers unfamiliar with the city should also be aware that street signs are rare. It is a common thing to pull over and ask for directions, something the natives and taxi drivers do quite often.