Wheels down: Navigating Istanbul with a baby
Like Rome, Istanbul is a city originally built on seven hills. Once you spend any time exploring the city (with a baby or without), you’ll estimate that at closer to seven million hills. With twice the population of New York City and several centuries older, it’s also crowded, lacking any sort of city planning, and often crumbling. The upside to navigating a baby-crazy city like Istanbul is that there are always people around to help when you get a stroller wheel stuck in a pothole, want to go into a restaurant up a flight of stairs, or try to cross a street with no sidewalk ramps. The best way to explore Istanbul is on foot, though having a baby here nearly guarantees that if you take public transportation, several people will immediately offer you a seat. Below are some guidelines to navigating Istanbul with a baby.
To stroller or carry? Istanbul is full of narrow streets, cobblestone, broken pavement, stairs, and tiny elevators: a veritable obstacle course with a baby stroller. I’ve navigated much of the city with a stroller so I know it’s possible, but would be a rude shock for many visitors accustomed to smooth sidewalks and accessible entrances. After a lot of research, we bought a Bugaboo Cameleon, which is reasonably light for a full-featured stroller at 9kg/20 pounds, tough enough to navigate all terrains, adaptable to be used with a car seat in the first year, but is often left at home when we are walking around Istanbul in favor of a carrier like the Boba wrap. You may opt to bring a lighter stroller to use on days you’ll be out for long stretches, especially in certain areas. The easiest Istanbul neighborhoods with a stroller include Nişantaşı, Taksim/Istiklal Caddesi (though some side streets can be challenging), the Asian side (especially by the water), and Bosphorus neighborhoods like Ortaköy and Bebek (though be aware that some stretches of the sea road can have difficult sidewalks).
Note for public transportation: Other than taxis and the dolmus, you can ride all kinds of transit with tokens (jetons) or an IstanbulKart. We used to use the Akbil, a handy little gadget to keep on your keychain and you could fill with lira for reduced fare and transfers, but it’s no longer sold (we still use ours and consider it a sign of being a real local). The IstanbulKart functions in a similar way, you should be able to get one at major transit centers like Taksim with a small refundable deposit.
Getting to and from the airport: Unless you have a lot of time and are really pinching pennies, public transit isn’t worth it to the airport. It’s a long ride with many transfers and doesn’t amount to a huge savings vs the shuttle. The Havas shuttle bus is the way to go: it’s 10 TL from Ataturk to Taksim, takes an average of 45 minutes (plan for extra time during rush hour and in the few hours before dark during Ramazan), and they can stash your stroller and luggage underneath. A taxi is another option, especially if you are staying away from Beyoğlu. The fare from the airport shouldn’t be much more than 40-50 TL unless there’s heavy traffic or you are staying in a less central area. If you aren’t staying in Sultanahmet (which I would avoid in general, more info to come), you can ask the driver to take the E-5 (say “eh-besh”) highway; though the sea road is prettier, it’s longer. If you are flying into SAW airport, the Havas bus is still your best bet, as a taxi can cost easily 90 TL.
The good news is that the Istanbul metro is efficient, clean, and has elevators at every station. The bad news is that unless you are staying in or visiting Nişantaşı (Osmanbey stop) or Levent, you may never ride it; while there are plans to connect the various lines crossing the Bosphorus and Golden Horn, it won’t happen for awhile, as every time they start working on it, they dig up more ancient artifacts that halt construction. One handy one-stop line is from Şişhane to Taksim, running underneath Istiklal Caddesi, especially if you are connecting at Taksim to the Metro going north or the funicular down to the water. In bad weather especially, it’s a good way to bypass the crowds on Istiklal, though you might not save much time as the elevators are slow. Look for elevator entrances next to the Tünel funicular station and next to the PTT post office at Taksim.
Used by many tourists and locals, the Istanbul tram runs from Kabataş (down a BIG hill from Taksim, use the funicular) along the sea road, crossing the Golden Horn, and connecting neighborhoods like Sultanahmet and Grand Bazaar. While it often gets stuck in traffic, it’s a pretty efficient line and at street level, easy to board with a stroller. However, it’s almost always packed, especially past Eminönü, and trying to get on or off with a stroller can be a challenge. Of course, it’s Istanbul, so people will make room for you, but I feel a bit rude crushing on with a stroller and usually opt for a carrier instead.
The Istanbul bus system is a good way to access Bosphorus neighborhoods beyond the tram and sites like Chora Church outside the major tourist zones. Buses range from modern and air-conditioned (now usually purple or blue) to broke-down hoopties (red-and-white), and there’s no rhyme or reason as to what routes will have what kind of bus. Avoid taking a stroller unless you can fold it easily. I cannot fathom a time where a visitor would take a metrobus, which connects far-flung areas of the city and travels on dedicated lanes on the highway. Millions of Istanbullus ride the metrobus every day, and they are packed as tightly as a Tokyo subway, so I doubt it’d be a pleasant experience with a stroller.
One of the great pleasures of a city like Istanbul is crossing the many waterways on a ferry. There are tourist cruises up the Bosphorus and Golden Horn, as well as many commuter ferries connecting the European and Asian sides. Ride at least one on your visit, and expect that you’ll get help if you need it while boarding the boat with a stroller and may need to stay on the lower level if you don’t want to carry stuff upstairs. Note that if you are coming back at night from Kadıköy, some routes stop running as early as 8:30, but go late to Karaköy and Eminönü.
Nearly everyone, from the most seasoned Turk to a tourist right off the Havas bus, has a story about being ripped off by an Istanbul taxi driver. Taxi drivers can be rude, rarely speak English, and might take the long way if you don’t know where you’re going. They’re also very cheap (estimate fares with Taksiyle) and plentiful, and especially with a baby, you can occasionally find drivers to be helpful and ingenious about finding routes to avoid traffic. Remember that street signs and addresses often mean nothing, it’s better to give a landmark and say “burada, lutfen!” (here, please) when you want to get out. If you’re a stickler for a car seat, bring your own (there are technically laws requiring car seats in cars but they are often ignored); otherwise, do as the rest of us do and hold on tight. Tips aren’t expected but you can round up a few lira for good service (rare).
The yellow mini-buses you see all over town are called a dolmuş, a shared taxi that follows a fixed route for a fixed price. They are handy and cost-efficient if you are traveling long distances, such as from Nişantaşı to Eminönü or back from the Asian side after the ferries stop running. They can be a little intimidating to tourists (it took me a long time to take one both before and with the baby), but other passengers will help you. On my last ride with Vera in her wrap, I saw another family with a baby waiting to board with a stroller and grandmother (three adults on a dolmuş doesn’t really make sense financially, I wondered why they weren’t taking a private taxi), but it’s difficult to hop out wherever you want if you need them to unload a stroller.
That should get you out and about in Istanbul, stay tuned for more on where to stay and what to do in Istanbul with a baby. Questions? Feel free to ask me in a comment or email.