For at least the past five years, if someone had asked me at any point, “What three destinations do you want to visit the most?”, Istanbul would have been in my response every single time. Istanbul (population 14+ million) is the largest city I have visited (São Paulo was my previous largest city visited) and is the sixth-largest city in the world. Years ago, when I had mentioned my desire to visit Istanbul, a friend said that someone who has not visited the Middle East could have a misguided impression of it being dirty and chaotic like Cairo or Marrakech. He likened Istanbul to London. Spending a week in Istanbul, I think that comparison is apt, but it is more charming than London.
From Roma, I flew on the low-cost and Istanbul-based Pegasus Airlines. There are two Istanbul airports you can fly into, Sabiha Gökçen International Airport (SAW) and the busier Istanbul Atatürk Airport (IST). Istanbul is mapped over both Europe and Asia, dissected by the Bosphorus Strait. SAW is on the Asian side and is probably cheaper for airlines to use. IST is on the European side, and it is much closer to where almost all tourists will stay.
I use Google Maps and Wikitravel more than most travelers because I enjoy using public and economical transportation. A taxi is a lazy and more expensive method and if I had more money to throw around, then I would use it more frequently. I made an error in selecting my flight to Istanbul because if I had known the logistics involved, then I might have selected to arrive at IST airport. Landing at IST would have required only a straightforward metro ride.
Here are the steps to get to the European (tourist) side from SAW airport. First, take the E10 bus to Kadıköy, which is the location of an important ferry boat. I tried to buy my bus ticket from the driver, but he directed me to a booth 20 meters away. I told the attendant that I wanted to get to the other side.
People in Istanbul speak surprisingly little English, but “other side” is a common enough request that he understood. I say the level of English fluency is lower than I expected not because Turkish is similar enough to English because it sounds as mutually unintelligible as Mandarin does. It is just that Istanbul is cosmopolitan and awash in foreigners from all over the world. The Turkish signs are not readable in a way that a dumb American could figure out at least some words on a random French or Spanish placard. The alphabet seems familiar because it is Latin-based, but it has 29 letters, including a dotless “I”.
The bus ticket attendant gave me an Istanbulkart, which is a contactless smart card, with the appropriate balance. The card itself costs 6 non-refundable TL (Turkish lira), or $2.61, but it is convenient and it saves money vs. buying individual ride tickets. If you are going to ride the public transportation system (ferry, bus, tram, train, funicular) even twice, then you will want an Istanbulkart.
The E10 bus from SAW airport might have had two dozen potential stops, but only a few were requested. The ride was circuitous, and it took an hour. My flight had been delayed 110 minutes, and I arrived at night, so there were less people on the bus than normal. Unlike other buses I had taken from airports, this was not specifically a city transfer bus that had mostly travelers. Only a few other passengers on this bus appeared to have landed at the airport. Maybe the other people were airport employees.
After arriving at Kadıköy, I located the point I wanted to cross to on the European side, but the ferry for that destination was done for the day. I thought there has to be another option. Everyone cannot simply be stranded on Asia if they miss the ferry. As it turned out, there was another ferry close enough for a point called Karaköy. Again, I used “other side” to get help from someone. I took the Kadıköy-Karaköy to get from Asia to Europe, which takes 20 minutes.
Once I was in Europe, I felt relieved because I knew I was at least on the same continent as my hotel and that I could always walk even if I could not figure out the transportation system. From Karaköy, I took a tram to Sultanahmet, the historic center of Istanbul. That tram ride took 10 minutes. Since this initial arrival, I have walked from this point to my hotel, and it is a beautiful walk made easy by gorgeous views of the water and mosque minarets.
From Sultanahmet station, I walked 10 minutes steeply downhill to my hotel. In total from airport arrival, I was in a bus for 60 minutes, in a ferry for 20 minutes, in a tram for 10 minutes, and on foot for 10 minutes. Add in another 20 minutes figuring out how to transfer between the stations and what routes to take, and it took two hours from SAW. Landing at IST would have taken 30 minutes. I am fine with going through minor rigmarole upon arrival because I quickly oriented myself and learned how to use all the transportation I would need. I have yet to use a taxicab in Istanbul.
The Bosphorus Strait is 31 kilometers long and is more than two miles long at its widest point. Thus, there are only two bridges, both of which are about 1100 meters long. Since the number of car crossings is in short supply, demand is high, and taking a taxicab from SAW to my hotel is no faster and possibly longer, with a much higher cost. My total expense using the ferry, bus, and tram for this airport transfer was $3.67.