Istanbul, Turkey: All aboard the world's greatest public transport thrill ride

As the diminutive, ketchup-coloured tram trundles along at barely a walking pace, the vehicle's driver furiously sounds his bell in a vain attempt to thread a path through a throng of hundreds, maybe thousands, of oblivious pedestrians.

But the sound emitted is more a pathetic "dong" than resounding "ding". This bell is so clearly worn from overuse along this section of crowded track that the frustrated driver would do just as well if he bashed a frypan with a wooden spoon out the tram window.

It's mid-afternoon on a Sunday in Istanbul and I'm passing along Istiklal Caddesi, the city's long, narrow and notoriously crowded avenue-cum-pedestrianised shopping mall.

This is the less than a two-kilometre journey aboard Istanbul's so-called Nostalgic Tram, a faithful and convincing replica of the original 19th-century version which once operated along here until it was, like so many city trams around the world, withdrawn from service.

Happily it was revived in 1990 with Istanbul's transport officials having to rely largely on old photographs of its predecessor in order to recreate it.

Today it connects two famous squares, Tünel with Taksim, the latter being Istanbul's main public gathering point.

I've visited many of the great transport cities of the world such as San Francisco, Lisbon and Hong Kong but for sheer variety of public conveyances in stupendous settings, Istanbul comprehensively mows all of them down.

To me cities like Istanbul, possessed with intricate, colourful and at times vintage transport networks designed to conquer both land and water and which are still actively patronised by their citizens, are akin to mammoth theme parks.

Every ferry, funicular, tram or train is a thrill ride of sorts to be savoured and enjoyed.

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I'm visiting this beguiling city of 15.5 million, sprawling over 5000 square kilometres, on an overnight shore excursion, part of a pre-pandemic Mediterranean cruise aboard the Regent Seven Seas Voyager with Istanbul one of its premier ports of call. (The cruise line recently resumed cruising to the city as the effects of the pandemic in Europe have finally begun to ease).

With so little time in Istanbul, famously straddling two continents, I've devised, with the help of an experienced tour guide, a breakneck itinerary that will see me circle the city, sampling each of what I like to call its Turkish transports of delight and the sights en route.

I depart early from my luxury hotel, Raffles Istanbul, one of the city's best hotels which is set on a hill overlooking the Bosphorus. I've just spent a night here off the ship with the plan to look around and return to it in plenty of time to continue my cruise.

All going well, I'll have enough time to also visit the Spice Market and Blue Mosque, though this being a Sunday, the Grand Bazaar is sadly closed.

As it eventuates, there are two Nostalgic tram lines in Istanbul - one on the European side and another on the Asian side.

In order to reach the Asian shore, I need to take the modern Istanbul metro from Gayrettepe, the station below Raffles Istanbul, and connect to the Marmaray railway tunnel, among the great feats of modern-day engineering.

Opened in 2013, the traffic-beater Marmaray stretches almost 14 kilometres with a large part making its way beneath the Bosphorus.

The name "Marmaray" is derived from the combination of the name of the Sea of Marmara and the word "ray", Turkish for "rail".

During the construction of the tunnel, work had to be halted after the discovery of ancient trading boats that had been preserved, complete with their wares, for centuries in the mud of the seabed.

After the trip on the Marmaray, which, to be honest, feels much like any modern underground train ride, we emerge from the European shore into the daylight of the more subdued Asian side of Istanbul where our plan is to take the other Nostalgia tram.

It was introduced after the success of the original service on the European shore. It began as an experiment in 1990 and proved such a hit with Istanbulites and tourists alike that it continued.

We've arrived a little before the Nostalgic tram has begun its daily service which allows time to explore the nearby narrow pedestrianised streets and to sample menemen, a classic Turkish breakfast omelette-like dish, at a local al fresco café in the fashionable suburb of Kadıköy.

This neighbourhood is stacked with worn low-rise apartment blocks with restaurants, cafes and shops below them, and even though this is the Asian side of Istanbul the palpable cosmopolitan ambience is reminiscent of a distant continental European city.

After our delicious repast, downed with typically thick Turkish coffee, we venture back to the Kadikoy ferry and metro stop where the Nostalgic tram has started its daily run along Bahariye Street and down through the fashionable neighbourhood of Moda.

The area's original Number 20 tram operated on the Kadıköy-Moda route and began service on October 29, 1934, the anniversary of the foundation of the Turkish Republic.

I'd like to linger longer in this delightful, easy-going part of Istanbul but I have a ship to catch, though there is time to take another vessel in the form of one of the classic public ferries that criss-cross the Bosphorus.

Of course, I could make it easier for myself by returning to the European side by taking the Marmaray but that would mean missing out on a ferry ride across the busy Bosphorus and its awesome views of the city with its emblematic dome and minaret-studded skyline.

By crossing the two continents on the Bosphorus the visitor is able to glimpse the city's magnificent historic palaces, the summer houses of the Ottoman Sultans and the famous Maiden Tower in the middle of the ever-turbulent waterway.

Firmly back on the European side, if there's one form of transport that the citizens of Istanbul most cherish it's what is known simply as "Tunel".

The almost 600-metre subterranean funicular is claimed to be the world's second oldest underground train line after the London Tube and the first in continental Europe.

Originally steam-powered, today it remains a beloved feature of Istanbul's intricate and colourful public transport mosaic, delivering citizens and tourists from the port to near Istiklal Caddesi along which the aforementioned Nostalgic tram travels.

There's one other, much more modern and far less romantic funicular, opened in 2006, which connects Taksim Square with the Sultanahmet tram line which we need to take to connect us back to the port.

From here, another modern tram across the bridge will take us towards a lunch of all manner of kebabs at a lively restaurant overlooking the Bosphorus and then visits to the famed Spice Market and the Blue Mosque.

It's been an enthralling, action-packed exercise circumnavigating this magnificent city on all of its myriad modes of transport and negotiating its relentless crowds.

There's been no time to pay a visit to other Istanbul attractions like its mysterious whirly dervishes, a centre for which we passed back in the Tunel district. But, as I make my way back to the ship, elated as I am, I do confess to feeling more than a little spun out.

GOING PUBLIC: FIVE MORE GREAT TRANSPORT CITIES

LISBON, PORTUGAL

The Portuguese capital boasts one of the most spectacular public transport rides in the form of Tram 28, which negotiates the city's hilly hoods. There are also quaint funiculars, ferries across the Tagus and the quirky Gustav Eiffel-designed elevators to Lisbon's upper levels. See visitlisboa.com

SAN FRANCISCO, US

The famous cable cars dipping up and down San Francisco's wildly undulating streets are joined by a lesser known street-car system along with ferries connecting outlying localities such as Sausolito and passing famous sites such as Alcatraz. See sftravel.com

TOKYO, JAPAN

Tokyo's massive metro and huge stations are an urban marvel but there's also the largely above ground, easier to navigate Japan Rail circle line (Yamanote Line). Don't miss the Tokyo Sakura Tram (Toden Arakawa Line), the last one in the Japanese capital as well as the monorail to and from Haneda Airport. See gotokyo.org

HONG KONG, CHINA

Hong Kong has it all when it comes to transport: the Star Ferry linking Kowloon and Victoria, the double-decker trams running the length of the island, a sophisticated city escalator system, the funicular to The Peak and, of course, the superb metro system. See discoverhongkong.com

BANGKOK, THAILAND

The Thai capital's death-defying (and not so death-defying) tuk-tuks and its elevated Skytrain, the world's biggest moving air-cooler. are two things. But it's the bargain round-trip on the crazed Chao Phraya river commuter ferry ride that takes the sticky rice cake. See tourismthailand.org

THE DETAILS

CRUISE

Regent Seven Sevens Voyage's 2023-2024 Voyage Collection, including Mediterranean itineraries featuring overnight port visits to Istanbul, was recently released. The cruise line has introduced "SailSAFE", a science-backed series of enhanced health and safety protocols to provide protection against COVID-19. See rssc.com

Note: Australia's borders are currently closed under the federal government's COVID-19 restrictions. You can only leave the country after obtaining special permission from Border Force. See smartraveller.gov.au

STAY

Doubles at the five-star Raffles Istanbul start from $973.73. Zorlu Centre, Koru-Sokagı, Besiktas, Istanbul. Ph +90 212 924 02 00. See raffles.com/Istanbul

RIDE

Buy an Istanbulkart (Istanbul Card) which provides access to all of the forms of transport in Istanbul. Load the card with sufficient credit at the yellow machines from which it is purchased. See istanbultouristpass.com

Anthony Dennis travelled as a guest of Regent Seven Seas Cruises and Raffles Istanbul.

See also: Crossing 55km of water: Taking the world's longest sea bridge

See also: The world's 20 coolest public transport rides

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