Going into the specifics of public transportation in Istanbul, it is worth mentioning the ferry services. With the Bosphorus Canal separating the city into two (as the Asian and the European part), ferry services are sometimes the most practical and the fastest way to cross the city. Furthermore, with Venice first in line, transportation with the ferry boats is quite unique in a city.
There are different entities running the ferry business. First there is the İDO, which is the official Istanbul Sea Ships Operator (Istanbul Deniz Otobüsleri), and is thus responsible for overseeing the management of most of the transportation services on the Sea. İDO oversees both main lines such as the Kadıköy-Beşiktaş line, the Bosphorus lines (small tours and large tours), Island lines such as Bostancı-Islands and the car-ferry rides which is large ferries taking both cars and passengers.
Main lines are the inter-city lines that help you connect to the most central parts of the city. Kadıköy-Beşiktaş is the most well known of these lines. The ferries running the main courses depart every half an hour from the main ports. Both Kadıköy and Beşiktaş are pretty commercial districts of the city and are thus important in the daily business life. Whilst Kadıköy is the commercial hub on the Asian side, Beşiktaş is on the European side. Many travellers prefer to cross from one side to the other using the ferry service. Other main lines include: Eminönü-Kadıköy, Kadıköy-Kabataş, Üsküdar-Beşiktaş.
The Bophorus tour lines are not boats that tour around the canal for leisure. They operate between smaller ports of the city on both sides and tend to do a circular tour and thus one can hop onto one, tour the canal and return to where he/she had started. However, many locals take the ferry boats for the actual purpose of transportation. İstinye – Emirgan – Kanlıca – Anadolu Hisarı – Kandilli – Bebek – Arnavutköy – Çengelköy is an example of one type of line. Beşiktaş – Küçüksu is another.
There are also actual Bosphorus tours organized by İDO as well, but they go into the realm of private transportation and cost 25 TRY per person. These tours are called the “Nostalgic Bosphorus Tours”. There are seven stops during the tour: Eminönü, Beşiktaş, Kanlıca, Yeniköy, Sarıyer, Rumelikavağı and Anadolukavağı. The shorter version lets you discover the Bosphorus in 2 hours at 15 TRY per person. The shorter tour allows you to see four stops only: Eminönü – Üsküdar – İstinye – Çubuklu and ends back in Eminönü. Whilst these are like private tours, anyone can be get on the boat and you do not need to reserve in advance.
Payment on İDO ferries, aside from the nostalgic and the short Canal tours, is managed by using tokens. A token costs around 1.5 TRY, though when it comes to different lines the cost may vary. For instance going to the islands may cost slightly more. If you are staying for more than 3 months, it may be wise to buy yourself an Akbil.
The akbil works like a debit card. You simply debit money onto your akbil and use it on almost all modes of transportation systems. Akbil is also very useful when you do transfers. For transfers that you make in the first 120 minutes of your trip, you pay at at a discount and your akbil is able to recognize the elapse of time in such cases. You may transfer up to 5 times with your akbil within the first 2 hours. With regular tokens, you may not be able to do so. The only downside of akbil is that you have to pay some money in advance to buy the colorful akbil equipment. The amount of deposit you need to pay is around 6 TRY. There are also monthly akbils for which you pay 110 TRY and use endlessly.
Aside from İDO services there are also boats that do transfers for later hours during a day between the most central ports such as Üsküdar and Beşiktaş. Until recently, one used to pay cash on these boats; but nowadays it is also possible to pay with akbil too (at least on some of the boats). Most well-known service providers Turyol and Dentur; but recently İDO too has also started providing motor services. Motor services are different from the regular ferries in two ways. First of all they work on a “fill up and leave” basis. In other words, one needs not arrive to the port at a certain hour. The motors leave the port soon as they are filled up with passengers. Second is that there are maybe a little more expensive -say by 0.5 TRY.
Ferries and motors are both very practical ways to cross from one side of the city to the other especially during rush hours. Since most motors and ferries arrive and depart from commercial hubs, it is also very easy to make transfers once you are off the port. Most ferry rides last around 15 to 20 minutes.
[Image my own, taken in Bebek]