Istanbul is one of the world’s biggest cities but for most visitors, the things they want to see are very close together and it’s easy to forget that 13.4 million people call this city their home. It’s a big city that feels – from the tourist point of view – like a very manageable small town. Many people who take a holiday in Istanbul book a hotel in the Old City and spend their time within a mile or so of that hotel, rarely if ever heading away from the small peninsular that’s home to the giant attractions of the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia and the Topkapi Palace. There’s so much to see in the old city that it’s tempting to just stay put and not explore further afield and that’s pretty much what my husband and I did on our first visit about 8 years ago. This time round we were feeling a little more adventurous and excited by a new tram system which we didn’t recall being there last time we were in the city. We also had my mother with us and she’s not so good on her feet if faced with hills. Istanbul is a city of hills and being able to hop on the tram meant we could avoid putting her through too many climbs.
Istanbul has an amazing public transport system which integrates trams, buses, underground railways and even water buses but on this visit we were mostly interested in the trams. I have a soft spot for tram travel and if I can actually work out HOW to use a tram, I will usually try to. The super-sleek Istanbul trams do look a little out of place in such an historic city but I can overlook that discordance in return for the benefits of cheap, frequent, clean travel.
The line which we used is the one which runs from Bagcilar in the west of the city to Kabatas on the European coast of the Bosphorus. Our most distant stop in one direction was Kabatas where the line ends which is handy for the inexpensive boats going out to the Princes Islands and is just a couple of minutes walk from the Dolmabahce Palace. In the other direction we went no further than the Beyazit stop which was just past our hotel and handy for the Grand Bazaar and the Suleymaniye Mosque.
The challenge which often puts people off using trams is working out how to buy a ticket. I recall in my student Inter-railing days that I went to Budapest and spent 3 days bouncing around the city on the trams without ever buying a ticket. It wasn’t that I wanted to break the law, it was simply that I couldn’t figure out HOW to buy a ticket. And since the tickets were a few pence and the fine less than two pounds, I just took my chances. These days I’m perhaps more worried about fines so we set out to find out how to work the system properly.
First the good news – tickets are a bargain at just 2 TL for each trip. With 2.8 TL to the pound that’s about 70 pence. That’s the great thing about public transport – it’s always priced to the local pocket and in a city that tends to price everything else to the tourist wallet, it’s nice to feel like you’re getting a good deal. Payment is made using ‘jetons’ – or tokens – and these can be bought from machines at each stop. The machines have instructions in several languages including English and take both coins and notes. They may take cards as well but I’m not sure so you’ll need to check. If you are entering coins, the machine assumes that you want the number of coins equivalent to the money you’ve entered whereas if you use a note, the machine will check how many jetons you want before dispensing the tokens and any change.
To get to the trams you pass through a barrier where you put in the tokens and then step onto the platform. It would be very easy to abuse the system since you could just as easily walk up the road and step onto the platform without paying but we didn’t see anyone doing this. Some stations have security but others don’t – it’s nice to see that people just behave themselves and pay. Once you have paid, there’s no ticket or anything to prove that you did.
The trams run every few minutes and I don’t think we ever waited more than 5 minutes for one to appear. They can become very crowded especially early in the morning and in the early evening so you may find yourself ‘nose-to-armpit’ with other people. There are no announcements or signs warning against pick pockets but it’s just common sense to keep a close eye (or hand) on your valuable in any crowded transportation. We also observed that on all but the most crowded of trams, men of all ages leap to their feet to offer their seats to women, again, regardless of age.
We used the trams to travel from the fish market on the waterfront in Galata, over the bridge and back up the hill and into the centre of Sultanahmet after going for a Bosphorus Cruise. The next day my husband and I went all the way to the end of the line to see the Dolmabahche palace and then took the tram all the way back to the nearest stop for the Suleymaniye Mosque. On all but one occasion we had plenty of space and I managed to get a seat. If you’ve just arrived in the city, it’s not a bad idea to hop on a tram and just see where it takes you so you can get a ‘feel’ for the place and for 2 TL it won’t break the bank. I certainly feel we were encouraged to go further by not having to walk or take our chances with a potentially expensive taxi.
It’s not all perfect though. The trams run on tracks in the street and in the Sultanahmet area the roads are not so wide. Our journey to Kabatas was delayed several times by trucks making deliveries and blocking the tracks. But on the whole, this is probably the quickest way to get around. The extent of the line is not great and it will only take you around the European side. To get to Asia you’ll need the water buses which are another bargain at just 2 TL per ride again.