Public transportation in Istanbul has improved for the better over the past few years. Most people still take taxis to commute between the various points of interest, but it’s often not the best choice.
In this article I’ll point out the benefits of using public transportation, what the common lines are for tourists, when they operate, and what sightseeing spots they service. You will be amazed.
Public Transportation as the Smart Alternative
It’s an understatement to say that Istanbul traffic is a problem. The latest renovation works of Taksim Square  make it even worse. Roads are always heavily used, and gridlocks are common from 07:00 till 10:00 in the morning, and again starting 16:00 until often late in the evening. This makes public transportation a nice alternative.
I will only focus on metro, tramway and funicular systems because buses will be stuck in traffic just like taxis. This is also by no means an overview of every public transportation line Istanbul has to offer, but merely the most interesting ones for tourists.
Please scroll to the bottom of this article for a large map with all the lines and the relevant sightseeing spots at the different stops.
When to Use Public Transportation or a Taxi?
- physical condition — By default, using public transportation requires you to walk a bit more. Some run underground, so be prepared to take stairs although most such stops have moving staircases. Decide according to your physical condition.
- fares — The fare to take public transportation is about 2 TL per person per ride. So, let’s take the following example. The cab fare to get from Sultanahmet to Taksim  is 11 TL, regardless of the amount of people in the cab. From Sultanahmet to Taksim by public transportation requires you to first take the tramway, followed by a funicular. The trip for one person costs just under 4 TL. So, the latter is a great idea when traveling alone, as a couple or even as a party of three. Yes, even three people during rush hour because you’ll win time and money since the taxi meter also adds small amounts when standing still in traffic.
- time of the day — Most lines operate between 06:00 and 23:00 (see details below), so outside of these hours you must rely on a taxi which is safer at that time of day anyway.
How to Pay for Public Transportation?
There are basically two ways to pay for the fare: either you get a token (jeton) from the sales booth or vending machines (jetonmatik), or you use the Istanbul Card (Istanbul Kart) — an electronic boarding pass. If you use a token you’ll pay 3 TL per ride, with an Istanbul Card you only pay 1,95 TL per ride, and get discounts for every transfer you make. So I strongly suggest you to get an Istanbul Kart .
T1 – Kabataş-Bağcılar Tramway Line
This is probably the most important line. This air-conditioned tramway basically connects Sultanahmet with Beyoğlu and Taksim (by funicular). This line has many stops of interest to tourist:
- Beyazit — Grand Bazaar, Süleymaniye Mosque
- Sultanahmet — Topkapi Palace, Haghia Sofia, Blue Mosque, Basilica Cistern, etc.
- Sirkeci — train station
- Eminönü — Spice Bazaar, ferry docks
- Karakoy — connection to Tünel (T), which brings you to the end of Istiklal Caddesi
- Tophane — Witt Istanbul Hotel (walk up the hill), Istanbul Modern, water pipe (nargile) establishments, cruise ship docks
- Kabataş — connection to Taksim via funicular (F1), fast ferry or sea bus docks to the Princes’ Islands  and Kadıköy, 5 min. walk to Dolmabahçe Palace
First train: 06:00
Last train: 00:00
Frequency: every two minutes during rush hour
T – Karaköy-Tünel Funicular
This is actually the third oldest passenger underground railway system in the world. The look of the trains still reflects this. This funicular takes you in 90 seconds 573 meters uphill to Tünel, at the end of Istiklal Caddesi. From there you can easily reach Galata by walking downhill or have a stroll on Istiklal Caddesi. Alternatively, you could take the nostalgic tramway (NT) until Taksim Square.
First train: 07:00
Last train: 21:00
Frequency: every two minutes
F1 – Taksim-Kabataş Funicular
In June 2006 this long anticipated connection between Kabataş and Taksim was taken in use. This modern air conditioned funicular ride takes only 2,5 minutes. From Kabataş you can walk to Dolmahbaçe Palace, take the fast ferry boats to Kadıköy or the Princes’ Islands, and connect to the T1 tramway line to Eminönü, Sultanahmet, Grand Bazaar, etc.
First train: 06:15
Last train: 00:00
Frequency: every three minutes during rush hour
M2 – Şişhane-Hacıosman Metro Line
This line, the first real metro Istanbul had, consists of 12 stops over a 17 kilometer stretch. The metro, daily taken by about 250.000 people, is very safe and clean. The most important stops for tourists are:
- Taksim — the place itself, Cihangir, Galata, Witt Istanbul Hotel (walk down the hill), connection to Kabataş via funicular (F1) and Eminönü/Sultanahmet via tramway (T1)
- Osmanbey — a small walk to Nişantaşı, a fashionable shopping area with lots of nice cafés  and restaurants
- Levent — shopping centers  such as Metrocity, Kanyon, and Akmerkez (additional walk or short taxi ride required)
- İTÜ Ayazağa — İstinye Park shopping center (additional walk or short taxi ride required)
First train: 06:15
Last train: 00:00
Frequency: every four minutes during rush hour