Napolean once said “If our whole world would be one country, Istanbul would be the capital” – there is a reason. It’s not just the central location of the country which sits in the middle of Asia, Europe, and Africa. It’s not just the broad minded nature of the people. It’s not the many oceans, straits and seas that surround it – I like to think it’s the pure diversity of the city itself. There is plenty to do and see in Istanbul.
For those looking for something a little different to do in Istanbul, a trip to the Princes’ Islands in the Marmara Sea is an absolute must. Once the place for exile of disruptive princes and political problem makers, today the Princes’ Islands are a haven of calm and tranquility for escaping the franatic bustle of Istanbul’s nearly 17 million residents, honking horns, and fast paced lifestyle.
The easiest way to get to the islands is from Kabatas on the European side of the Bosphorus or Kadikoy on the Asian side. There are multiple ferry companies, but the commuter ferries are the cheapest and the run with the most regularity. The fare as of Spring 2011 was 3.5 Turkish Lira for each leg. The ferries make approximately ten trips per day starting at 6:50 a.m and the last one coming back at 8:00 p.m.
Until the 19th century, the islands were a place of exile but with the arrival of easy steam transport, they became retreats for Istanbul’s wealthy families. In addition, Jewish, Greek, and Armenian families found their way to the solitude of the islands during times of unrest when violence would often break out between Turks and minorities. Unlike most of Istanbul, the Princes Islands have retained some of this ethnic flavor. Another thing that makes the islands special is that there are no cars with the exception of service vehicles. Residents get around by horse and carriage, bicycle, or by foot. After Istanbul’s traffic you will be amazed at the peacefulness these islands offer. There are nine islands in total, but this article will focus on the four reachable by ferry.
The ferry usually stops at the islands in the following order. First is Kinaliada, the smallest of the main four islands. This was the island most used for exile since it is the closest to Istanbul. While a charming place, there really isn’t much to see on Kinaliada. My recommendation is to stay on the ferry for better things.
The second stop is Burgazada. Burgazda was populated mostly by ethnic Greeks until the 20th century and much of that flavor remains. Many people choose to pass up on Burgazada in favor of visiting the two largest and most populated islands but they miss out on quiet strolls down gorgeous streets, a scenic waterfront, and restaurants that tend to charge fair prices and serve great food. The hidden gem is Kalpazankya (the counterfeiters rock) Restaurant which looks over it’s namesake rock. This was the favorite haunt of Turkish writer Saif Faik Abasiyanak and a statue of him still looks out over the counterfeiters rock. To get there from the ferry take a fayton (horse and carriage) for 20 Turkish Lira and then enjoy the stroll back to town. Along the way there is a monastery and some beautiful Ottoman wooden houses.
The third ferry stop is Heybeliada, the second largest of the chain. Sitting on one of the peeks is a famous 11th century Greek monastery. It is currently closed to the public but is rumored to be opening later this year – a word of caution – that rumor has been circulating for ten years! In addition, Heybeliada is home to the Turkish Naval Academy. Those who wish to wander in the pine forests or through the charming wood house neighborhoods will find the residents to be friendly and generally cheerful.
The final stop for the ferries is Buyukada. The name means Big Island and it is the largest in the chain. Buyukada has two peaks. On one of them is the second largest wooden structure in Europe, a collapsing Greek orphanage that has long since been closed. On the other is the Ayia Yorgi Church where pilgrims flock during late April to make wishes. This island was the home to many exiled Empresses, a large Jewish community, and even the famous communist Leon Trotsky who lived here for four years after leaving the Soviet Union. A tour of Buyukada by horse and buggy is recommended and costs 45 Turkish Lira as of 2011.
A number of seafood restaurants line the shores, but visitors should be careful and make sure that you ask about cover charges, service charges, added gratuity, and make sure you know the price before you order. One visitor reported having to pay 300 Turkish Lira (about A$200) for two kebabs and orange juice. Another said that he was charged 25 Turkish Lira (about A$16 each) for two ice cream cones.
If you are planning to stay the night, make sure you book in advance as the islands can be busy in the summer and many places close during the winter.