Riding in Rumeli Lighthouse, Istanbul

How to survive in Istanbul – A guide for touring cyclists

Previously, I wrote an article for the website cycling-passion.com titled “Road Cycling in Istanbul” – which was written for roadies and triathletes. That post received many comments, and some of them were dropped by the touring cyclists.

Since Istanbul is the only city which lies on two continents in the world, it is a must-see place for many touring cyclists. The city also offers a beautiful and short way to cross between Europe and Asia. But, probably everybody heard that (or simply experienced that) Istanbul is not a bike-friendly city.

In the recent years, a few touring cyclists came and stayed in my home in Bahçeköy as guests. Sometimes I guided them in Istanbul, and also instructed them how to approach to Istanbul and leave the city safely. Now, I decided to put all these knowledge into a blog post. Here’s my guide of “how to survive in Istanbul for touring cyclists”.

Approaching the city

I will tell about how to approach to Istanbul from Europe. If you’re coming to the city via Anatolia (Asia), you can just read this post in the opposite order, from bottom to the top.

There are (obviously) many ways to travel to Istanbul. Here are some of them.

Using the North Istanbul Highway (by bike)

This was the most popular route until recent years (not any more, and I’ll tell you why later). When Transcontinental Race was really a transcontinental race (from London to Istanbul), most cyclists were also using that route in the last part of the race – in the borders of Turkey.

After crossing the Turkish border, you will cycle to Edirne first. Edirne is the western city of Turkey. It has a very rich history, since it served as the third capital city of the Ottoman Empire from 1363 to 1453, before Constantinople (present-day Istanbul) became the empire’s fourth and final capital. So, as a result, there are a lot of historical and touristic places like the “Selimiye Mosque”, which is one of the most important monuments in the city and also in Turkey. Other tourist attractions include: three historic covered bazaars (Arasta, next to Selimiye Mosque, Bedesten and Ali Pasha Bazaar), Edirne Palace, Grand Synagogue of Edirne, historic Karaağaç railway station (today serves as Trakya University’s Faculty of Fine Arts) etc.

Selimiye Mosque, Edirne, Turkey
The Selimiye Mosque (Turkish: Selimiye Camii) is an Ottoman imperial mosque which was commissioned by Sultan Selim II, and was built by architect Mimar Sinan (c. 1489/1490 – July 17, 1588) the chief Ottoman architect (Turkish: mimar) between 1569 and 1575. It was considered by Sinan to be his masterpiece and is one of the highest achievements of Islamic architecture. The mosque, together with its külliye (complex of a hospital, school, library and/or baths around a mosque), was included on UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 2011. Image: wikimedia

After Edirne, the next city is Kırklareli, one of the main cities on the route. Then you’ll pass two more cities: Vize (a district of Kırklareli) and Saray (a district of Tekirdağ). Then you’ll ride to Çatalca, the first district of Istanbul on the route.

After Çatalca, after around 15-20 kilometers from Durusu Park, between Tayakadın – Göktürk, there is the most problematic part: because of the construction of the 3rd airport of Istanbul, the traffic of trucks begins. Thousands of trucks! And the road conditions gets a bit worse – the road conditions usually change actually, sometimes get better, sometimes worse, because of the ever-continuing construction. This last part is the exact reason that the Transcontinental Race that I mentioned above is not finishing in Istanbul any more.

I ride sometimes that road with my road bike to visit my father who lives in Silivri. I don’t enjoy that problematic part, but it is still doable.

Tips:

  • You can bypass Çatalca (the purple line on the map below).
  • Passing through Arnavutköy is the trickiest part, after Opet gas station (marked on the map below) always follow “Göktürk” signs.
  • After Göktürk, you can follow the road passing through forest to reach Bahçeköy (the green line on the map below). If you do so, there is an entrance fee to the Belgrade Forest, but they usually don’t apply it to the cyclists. But be prepared.

The map of Edirne-Istanbul route (using the north Istanbul highway):

Distances

  1. Border to Edirne:
    • Kapıkule Border Gate to Edirne city center (entrance from Bulgaria): 17.7 km (11 mi)
    • Pazarkule Border Gate to Edirne city center (entrance from Greece): 7.61 km (4.7 mi)
  2. Edirne to Kırklareli: 62.9 km (39 mi)
  3. Kırklareli to Saray: 74.5 km (46.3 mi)
  4. Saray to Çatalca: 67.3 km (42 mi)
  5. Çatalca to Göktürk: 65.2 km (40.5 mi)
  6. Göktürk to Taksim: 39 km (24.2 mi)

I used (almost) that route when I rode from Istanbul to Edirne in 2009 (in the opposite way).

Pros:

  • Easy to follow. No other transportation method (bus, train, boat) needed. You can do it completely by bike.
  • Most used road by the touring cyclists.
  • Especially at weekends, you can see some roadie/triathletess doing training rides there. Most of them speak English, so you can ask them questions.

Cons:

  • Between Tayakadın and Göktürk, due to the massive construction of the 3rd airport of Istanbul, road conditions are bad and there are thousands of trucks.
  • Passing through Arnavutköy is tricky.

Taking the boat through Dardanelles strait (Çanakkale Boğazı) and Marmara Sea

In the summer of 2017, world-traveler cyclists Dea and Chris used this route. You can read their experiences on their blog.

The map of Ipsala-Istanbul route – by ferry through Dardanelles strait (Çanakkale Boğazı) Marmara Sea:

Distances

  1. Ipsala to Eceabat ferry port: 100 km (62 mi)
  2. Lapseki to Biga: 60.7 km (38 mi)
  3. Biga to Bandırma: 69.7 km (43 mi)

These distances are for the main road. The highway mostly has a good shoulder, but it disappears around the town of Biga. But you can follow other small roads through villages like Dea and Chris.

Pros

  • The roads goes through near some beautiful beaches i.e. Saros Beach.
  • Sailing through Dardanelles (Çanakkale Boğazı) and Marmara Sea are unforgettable experiences.
  • Until Biga, the highway has a good shoulder.

Cons

  • Edirne-Çanakkale highway is a bit busy, especially in summer weekends.
  • The highway losts its shoulder around Biga.

Other alternatives

  • You can always arrive in Istanbul by taking a flight, of course.
  • If you enter Turkey from Ipsala or Pazarkule, you can still use the Bandırma-Istanbul ferry. Just ride from Edirne to Keşan. The distance between Edirne and Keşan is about 111 km (69 mi).

Cycling in Istanbul

Warnings and suggestions

  • Istanbul is cold in the winter. A cold, freezing rain is usual, and sometimes it snows. Heavily.
  • Contrarily, it is really hot and humid in the summer.
  • Drivers show almost no respect and pay no attention to the cyclists (especially in the specific districts of the city). But it is possible to survive in Istanbul, you just have to be very careful. Never, ever say “s/he saw me, I can safely go in front of her/him”.
  • It’s always much better starting to ride early in the morning. Even before or around the sunrise. A few hours later, traffic will get really congested.
  • If you have problem with a driver (or anybody), make it clear to him/her that you are a foreigner. People show more respect to foreigners.
  • Some popular bicycle parts are available here, especially Shimano parts. You can also find popular bicycle brands such as Giant, Trek, Cannondale, Specialized etc. in Istanbul. Finding high quality bike wear can be problematic. And keep in mind that prices of the bikes, components and clothes are above European (or US) standards.

Places to see (or ride) in Istanbul

I wrote another post about the main tourist attractions in Istanbul. But,you can see a lot of lesser-known but beautiful places riding your bike. Here are some of them.

Rumeli Feneri (Rumeli lighthouse) and its castle.

There’s a historic lighthouse, a Medieval Genoese castle and a small village also named “Rumeli Feneri” in the north end of Istanbul, near black sea. You can ride there using the coastal road near Bosphorus and then a beautiful, well-surfaced road going through forests. It is about 40 km from Taksim.

Özgür Nevres, inside Rumeli Feneri castle in 2014
This is me, inside the Rumeli Feneri castle in September 2014. The Rumeli Feneri castle is built by the Genoese, but during the Ottoman period, the original medieval fortification was totally redesigned to place many cannon there. Because for many centuries the Black Sea was an Ottoman lake, the change must have occurred in the late 18th century or even later.
Bosphorus, July 2017
The Bosphorus near Rumeli Feneri. The Bosphorus is a strait that forms part of the boundary between Europe and Asia. The Bosphorus, the Sea of Marmara, and the Dardanelles strait to the southwest together form the Turkish Straits. The world’s narrowest strait used for international navigation, the Bosphorus connects the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara (which is connected by the Dardanelles to the Aegean Sea, and thereby to the Mediterranean Sea.)
The Bosphorus, Istanbul
The Bosphorus, Istanbul, as seen from the Rumeli Lighthouse road

Rumeli Kavağı

Rumeli Kavağı is a neighborhood of Sarıyer district. “Rumeli” is the Turkish name for Thrace, and “Kavak” means “control post” in Ottoman Turkish referring to the strategical position of the location on the Bosporous. Formerly, it was a small fishing village. In the 17th century, a castle was built to check Cossack naval assaults from the Black Sea. In 1877, during the Russo-Turkish War (1877-1878), a part of the immigrants from the Russian occupied provinces settled in Rumelikavağı. Up until the 1960s, most of Rumelikavağı was a restricted zone by military.

There are many places of interest in Rumelikavağı, such as ruins of medieval castles, mosques, churches, fountains, hamams etc. The Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge (also known as the third bridge) over the Bosphorus is to the north of the neighborhood.

Rumeli Kavağı, İstanbul
View from Rumeli Kavağı

Kilyos

Kilyos, also Kumköy, is a village located in the Sarıyer district like Rumeli Feneri, also near the Black sea. It is also a well-known seaside resort.

Kilyos, June 2017
Kilyos, June 2017

Uzunya Beach

Uzunya is a small and beautiful cove in the north of Istanbul, near Black Sea. It has a beautiful beach, one of the best beaches in Istanbul actually. There’s also a restaurant in the beach. There’s a short but very steep climb on its road.

Uzunya beach, Istanbul
Uzunya beach

Dalia Beach

Dalia beach is a small, clean beach near Black Sea, between Kilyos and Demircikoy. It is really good to swim in the sea of Dalia Beach.

Dalia Beach, Istanbul
Dalia Beach

Kısırkaya

Kısırkaya is a small village in the North of Istanbul, near Black Sea. Its road has a lot of short-but-really-steep (up to 20%) climbs.

Kısırkaya village, Istanbul
The Black Sea from Kısırkaya village, Istanbul.

Leaving the city

Using the Ferry

You can use the Yenikapı-Bandırma or Pendik-Yalova ferries to leave the city. My friends Dea and Chris used the latter, then they rode to Iznik (Nicaea), through the Lake Iznik (historically known as Lake Ascanius) shore.

If you are going to the east, using Pendik-Yalova Ferry is more suitable. You can ride up to Pendik (there’s a bicycle path between Bostancı-Pendik), then take the ferry. After Yalova, you can ride to Iznik (Nicaea). Nicaea was an ancient city, its history goes back to the very early days of civilization. It came under the rule of the Roman Republic in 72 BC. The city remained one of the most important urban centers of Asia Minor throughout the Roman period.

Lefke Gate, Nicaea
The Lefke Gate, part of Nicaea’s city walls. The ancient city of Nicaea is primarily known as the site of the First and Second Councils of Nicaea (the first and seventh Ecumenical councils in the early history of the Christian Church), the Nicene Creed (which comes from the First Council), and as the capital city of the Empire of Nicaea following the Fourth Crusade in 1204, until the recapture of Constantinople by the Byzantines in 1261. Image: wikipedia

In the Byzantine period, the importance of the city continued. By the 4th century, it was a large and prosperous city, and a major military and administrative center. The city is primarily known as the site of the First and Second Councils of Nicaea (the first and seventh Ecumenical councils in the early history of the Christian Church), the Nicene Creed (which comes from the First Council), and as the capital city of the Empire of Nicaea following the Fourth Crusade in 1204, until the recapture of Constantinople by the Byzantines in 1261.

In 1331, the city was conquered and incorporated into the Ottoman Empire by Orhan I, the second bey of the nascent Ottoman Sultanate (then known as the Ottoman Beylik or Emirate). After the conquest, many of its public buildings were destroyed, and the materials were used by the Ottomans in erecting their mosques and other edifices. With the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the town lost a great degree of its importance, but later became a major centre with the creation of a local faïence pottery-making industry in the 17th century.

Today, still the excavations are underway, the ancient walls, with their towers and gates, are relatively well preserved. A lot of Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman era ruins can be seen there.

Lake Iznik
Lake İznik (Turkish: İznik Gölü) as seen from the town of İznik. It is around 32 km in length and 10 km in width with a maximum depth of about 80 meters. The town of Iznik lies at its eastern end. The lake’s Ancient Greek name was Askania. Image: wikipedia

There are at least three route alternatives from Yalova to Iznik. First and second, after riding to Orhangazi, you can go either north or south of Lake Iznik. The road from the south is narrower, but has less traffic and more lake views. But there’s also a third alternative: you can ride to Altınova using the Yalova-Izmit main road (there’s a broad shoulder), then use Soğuksu – Yalakdere – Kızderbent – Bayındır road to reach the north of Lake Iznik. I cycled all three options in the past, and I’d recommend this third option, which is drawn with a green line on the map below.

After Iznik, you can ride Geyve – Taraklı – Beypazarı route. Taraklı is a historic town and a member of cittaslow movement. The city is a tourist attraction, which features cobblestone streets and architecture dating back to the Ottoman Empire.

Beypazarı is also a historic city. It used to be an important city in Asia Minor in ancient times. With its rich history, architectural heritage and attractive rocky countryside Beypazarı is becoming increasingly attractive to visitors.

Using the E-5 road (to Europe)

In the beginning of this guide, I wrote that “if you’re coming to the city via Anatolia (Asia), you can just read this post in the opposite order, from bottom to the top” – but there is actually one more option – if you can start very early in the morning: using the E-5 road.

To use this option, first you’ll ride to Ataturk Airport using the coastal road (Kennedy street). Then you’ll join the E-5. Using E-5 main road, you’ll ride up to Çatalca exit. Around 17 km (11 mi) after exiting E-5, you’ll arrive Çatalca. Then you can follow Çatalca – Saray – Vize – Kırklareli – Edirne road which will take you to the border.

If you want to leave Turkey via Ipsala border gate, then simply don’t exit from E-5 from Çatalca junction. Just continue riding on E-5, the road will take you to Silivri. Then you’ll follow the beautiful coastal road up to Tekirdağ. After Tekirdağ, you’ll follow the Malkara – Keşan – Ipsala road.

Distances

  • Taksim – E-5 junction: 28 km (17 mi)
  • E-5 main road (up to Çatalca exit): 25 km (16 mi)

Using Çatalca/Saray/Kırklareli/Edirne route:

  • E-5 Çatalca exit to Çatalca: 17 km (11 mi)
  • Çatalca to Saray: 67.3 km (42 mi)
  • Saray to Kırklareli: 74.5 km (46.3 mi)
  • Kırklareli to Edirne: 62.9 km (39 mi)
  • Edirne to Border:
    • Edirne city center to Kapıkule Border Gate (exit to Bulgaria): 17.7 km (11 mi)
    • Edirne city center to Pazarkule Border Gate (exit to Greece): 7.61 km (4.7 mi)

Using Silivri/Tekirdağ/Malkara/Keşan/İpsala route:

  • E-5 Çatalca exit to Silivri: 30 km (19 mi)
  • Silivri to Tekirdağ: 71 km (44 mi)
  • Tekirdağ to Malkara: 57 km (36 mi)
  • Malkara to Ipsala Border Gate: 54 km (34 mi)

About the author

Özgür Nevres, July 2017
I am Özgür Nevres, a 1974-born cyclist. I was a road racing cyclist until 2015. Now I am just riding for fun. I work as a software developer.

Sources

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