Istanbul by Public Transport

Technology and Travel

by Tom Worthington



Not so modern as Dubai, but still quite functional, Istanbul's Atatürk International Airport has a few surprises. Visitors from Australia require a visa, but this consists of more of a entry charge than any sort of security check: just pay your 15 Euro and you get a sticker in your passport.

Istanbul LRT

There is a very fast and efficient rapid transit system (Istanbul LRT) in the basement of the airport. But to find it you have to go out the building and down a not well marked escalator. Most of the tourists did not seem to notice and got straight in a taxi or shuttle bus. I only found the LRT using the Istanbul Lonely Planet City Guide.


Istanbul Bombardier Flexity Swift Trams Istanbul tramline trackwork

Istanbul has a fleet of very modern and efficient low-floor Bombardier Flexity Swift model trams.

Much of the route of the trams is separated from other traffic, using dedicated lanes and boom gates around Sultanahmet to keep out private cars. The boom gate is opened automatically for trams and manually for buses and official vehicles. Often you will see a tourist coach or a police car following a tram down the street. While limited to mostly trams, the cobblestone surface between the tracks is having to be replaced around Sultanahmet.

Grand Bazaar

Istanbul Grand Bazaar


The area of Istanbul which tourists will be most familiar with is Sultanahmet. This is the location of world famous historic buildings and museums. While I was there a new museum was opened. The area is serviced by the modern trams on one side and an old suburban train line on the other. The train line is planned to form part of the new Marmaray rail tunnel under the Bosphorus from Europe to Asia. The tunnel will pass though an earthquake prone part of the world.

Basilica Cistern walkway Istanbul

Basilica Cistern columns Basilica Cistern walkway Basilica Cistern Cafe

The Basilica Cistern is under a square at Sultanahmet, just down from the tram stop. There is a Cafe in the cistern.

Blue Mosque

Istanbul Blue Mosque Blue Mosque Doorway to Courtyard

The Blue Mosque is a functioning place of worship as well as a tourist attraction. This causes some inconvenience for both groups, but the system seems to work well overall.

Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia Interior of Dome Hagia Sophia Weeds on Roof Masonon Hagia Sophia in Istanbul Wooden house in Sogukcesme Street, behind Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

Hagia Sophia was a Christian church, then a Mosque and is now a museum. The large numbers of visitors must be having a detrimental effect on the building. One curious aspect is that weeds and small trees have been allowed to grow on parts of the roof. Normally this would be a hazard to the structure.

The building seems to have been under repair since it was built. There was a stonemason working in a shed propped up at the base of the back of the building, working on stone much as his predecessors did a thousand years ago (apart from the use of an electric saw).

In contrast to the stone public buildings, there is a row of wooden houses in the quiet street (Sogukcesme) behind Hagia Sophia.

Sultan Hostel

Istanbul Sultan Hostel Sultanahmet Rooftop View Istanbul Sultanahmet Window View Istanbul

The Sultan Hostel is one of the typical budget accommodation buildings below the Blue Mosque. It can be reached from the Sultanahmet tram stop, or the railway below. The Mosque can be glimpsed from the rooftop restaurant. At street level there is the bustle of the tourist street out front, but from some of the back rooms of the building the quiet spaces (during the day) with spiral staircases covered in rose creepers can be seen.

Taksim to Tunel Tram

Istanbul Tunel to Taksim Tram

Starting at sea level at the Kabataş tramway station on the modern tram, you can then take the Kabataş-Taksim Funicular up to Taksim Square, then the Taksim to Tunel tourist tram to the Tunel funicular station and then back down to sea level to rejoin the modern tram, or simply walk across the Galata Bridge.

Kandilli Observatory and Earthquake Research Institute

Kandilli Observatory Istanbul Bosphorus Bridge from Kandilli Observatory Kandilli Observatory Tower View

Unlike Australia, and more like some English institutions, Istanbul's universities are not open to the public. However, if you have an invitation from a colleague you can visit easily. On this occasion I visited the Kandilli Observatory and Earthquake Research Institute to present a seminar. The institute is located on top of a wooded hill on the Asian shore of Istanbul. The location was previously a quarry, which has now grown into a scenic wooded area. The University originally used the site for astronomy, but now has geoscience, including earthquake monitoring and engineering research connected with earthquakes.

The 360 degree view from the center's telecommunications tower is breathtaking, with the bridges of the Bosphorus visible below and the city skyscrapers in the distance.

Kadikoy to Moda Tram

Kadikoy to Moda Tram Haydarpasa Station Kadikoy

A tourist tram runs from Kadikoy to Moda. On the ferry on the way to Kadikoy you will see the Haydarpasa Station. This looks like a German castle. It has been blown up twice in accidents: once by a munitions train and once by a fuel tanker. The day I was there, a fire tug was pulled up at the wharf alongside the station. Perhaps the authorities were not taking any chances. ;-)

Marmary Rail Tunnel

Marmary Sirkeci rail tunnel works

Istanbul is constructing the Marmary railway tunnel under the Bosphorus between Sirkeci and Uskudar. The project has been delayed by archaeological finds in the excavations.

Akbil Electronic Ticketing System

Unlike KL and Sydney, the LRT is part of the regular city transport system, so there is just the same flat fee (less than $2) for a trip to the city center. You can use the same electronic ticketing system (Akbil) as for the rest of the city's trams, trains, buses, ferries and even two Funicular railways. But to get an Akbil device you have to go to one of the main transport hubs, which the airport is not.

iButton on a plastic fob

The Akbil system is what Sydney should have installed instead of their failed smart card ticket system. The key to the success of the Istanbul system is the standard flat fee for different modes of transport. You press the Akbil device, a 1-Wire (iButton) smart chip in a small metal can, on a key fob or credit card, into the reader at the turn-style to board the train, tram, bus or ferry. There is no need to scan it again at the other end of the trip, the same fee applies to the end of the line. In practice you pay several fees for a typical journey: one when getting on the LRT, train then another transferring to the tram, then the ferry and perhaps a bus at the other end.

Like KL, the Istanbul public transport system is overloaded at peak hours. You have to swim though the bodies to get out of the very modern trams at peak hour. There are some very old trains with rust holes in the doors (but very tidy and comfortable otherwise). The ferries are comfortable and the LRT very up to date.

Longer Trams?

Perhaps the low-floor Bombardier Flexity Swift model could be improved by doubling their length. Currently two, two car, vehicles are used coupled (the tram stops are designed for this). As a result there are two unused driving cabs in the center of the four car unit. If the driving cabs were eliminated, about an extra twenty passengers could be accommodated. This would also be cheaper, as the driving cabs with their complex electronics cost much more than passenger seating. One pantograph could also be eliminated.

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