Istanbul has a secret…
As the ferry cut its course through the glistening waters of the Marmara Sea I looked back at the receding city and realized what a sprawling behemoth Istanbul is. The densely populated hills undulate down to the Bosphorus, the twinkling narrow strait that separates Europe and Asia. To the left I could see Topkapi Palace, the iconic minarets of the Blue Mosque and the graceful domes of the Hagia Sophia; and to the right the smooth apex of the medieval Galata Tower poking out amidst higgledy-piggledy roofs.
We were heading to The Princes’ Islands, a group of nine islands, which lie shimmering in the shadow of the immortal city, as if they were olive pits spat into the ocean by the gods themselves. Over the millennia the islands have had many uses: as places of exile for royalty during Byzantine and Ottoman times; as enclaves of ethnic and cultural minorities (Armenian, Jewish and Greek); and more recently as second summer homes for wealthy Turkish families. Since moving to Istanbul, we visited the islands regularly as they offered a respite from the chaos of the city. Only four are inhabited and each retains strong Greek and Armenian influences, elegant Ottoman architecture, and beautiful Greek Orthodox churches and monasteries. The pace of life is deliciously slow, and you won’t find grumpy taxi-drivers or hundreds of tooting motorbikes to disturb the peace, because the only forms of transport are horse drawn carts, or your own two feet.
The islands are popular with locals, expats-in-the-know, and intrepid tourists who have done their research and are not deterred by the complicated ferry schedules and departure points. As we lived on the Asian side of Istanbul, we’d head down to Kadıköy port early and join the crowds of people waiting for the ferry, which had departed from Kabataş on the European side. As the ferry docked, reversing its way alongside the quay amidst foamy waves, we’d jostle to maintain our places in the crush of people rushing to get a seat. Some days were blissfully quiet, but on hot summer weekends the cool and shady islands were the place to be, and on these days the whole city seemed to have the same idea. Our strategy was simple: I’d race ahead with my son in my arms, onto the ferry, up the steep steps to the covered top deck where I would claim two spots on one of the long benches. Berto would follow behind us after the crush had thinned, carrying the pram. It worked every time. We’d snack on sımıt (a round sesame seed bagel), and sip hot, sweet cay from lotus shaped glasses. Sawyer would watch the waves with fascination, and when he was older he’d throw sımıt to the chorus of seagulls tracking the ferry’s steady progress, and shriek with delight as they ducked and dived to catch the bread mid-air in a dazzling display of avian acrobatics.
The Princes’ Islands
After thirty minutes, the first island comes into view: Kınalıada (Henna Island) named after the colour of the island’s soil. This is the smallest and most overlooked island of the quartet and is home to the largest Armenian population in Istanbul. The ferry would pull up alongside the diminutive quay and a handful of people would disembark, most heading to their summer homes for the weekend.
Fifteen minutes later and the ferry arrives at the second island, Burgazada (Fortress Island). Horse and carts mill around the main street waiting to transport visitors to the island’s hidden treasure: a hillside restaurant with breath-taking ocean views, and delicious seafood…which will be the focus of Part Two in this Princes’ Island series.
The third island is another fifteen minutes away, and is called Heybeliada (Saddlebag Island), which is my favourite of the four. Wooden Ottoman houses cling gracefully to the slopes of the island, and along it’s spine grows a dense pine forest, scenting the air and creating pools of blissful shade. A picturesque Greek Orthodox Monastery dating from the eleventh century crowns the island and draws people from far and wide. Street names are still in Greek; goats and ponies graze along the quiet road that encircles the island; and old, hardy women trudge up and down the impossibly steep steps that criss-cross the small town. Read more about Heybeli Island in Part Three.
The fourth and largest island is Büyükada (Big Island), and is the last stop for the ferry. This is where the majority of people disembark, and for that reason we avoided the island on very busy days. The elegant Ottoman style ferry terminal dates from 1899 and always reminds me of Sirkeci train station in Istanbul where the Orient Express terminated. The quayside promenade is lined with seafood restaurants, which charge a premium for the pleasure of your patronage. Magnificent Ottoman villas draw your eye up hill from the sea, and the Monastery of St George is the main attraction on the island. Read more about Büyükada in Part Four.
A blissful respite…
Our visits to these islands during the four years we lived in Istanbul were always delightful. Sometimes we’d walk for hours peering into the intriguing open windows of the Ottoman mansions; sometimes we’d lazily lick ice-creams in the shade of a park while Sawyer played with the local kids; sometimes we’d head into the pine forests looking for tortoises; and always we’d feast on seafood and white wine, then finish it off with chocolate éclairs and iced coffee at the bakery. Once or twice we’d book into a hotel or apartment and wander the quiet, purple streets after the day-trippers had departed. After each visit we’d return to the chaos of Istanbul, our psyches soothed, our lungs cleansed, and our tummies full.
How to get there:
If you are staying on the European side of Istanbul, make your way to Kabataş ferry terminal.
There are three ways of doing this:
- Take a taxi. Make sure he puts the meter on! Depending on traffic, this could take you 30 minutes. Early in the morning should be much quicker than that. Kabataş is just past the Dolmabaçhe Palace.
- Make your way to Taksim Square and take the underground fenicular tram.
- Use the overground tram that runs pretty much through the old city to Kabataş and beyond.
There is another option which I think is easier, and could cut out the hassle of finding trains and trams: take the ferry to Kadıköy ferry stop on the Asian side. Ferries leave from Karaköy and Eminönü ferry stations, which are easier to get to if you are staying in Sultanahmet or Beyoğlu. Get off at Kadıköy, and walk about 200 meters to your right to the terminal that departs to the Princes’ Islands. Ask anyone to show you the way if you can’t see it. Turkish people are more than happy to help you!
Comprehensive information on getting to the Princes’ Islands as well as ferry schedules can be found here.
Where to stay:
With the advent of Airbnb there are a host of accommodation options now available on the Princes’ Islands. Try to find somewhere a short walk back from the front seaside promenade as it can be quite noisy during the day. There are oasis of peace to be found away from the port areas and the sea is always only a short walk away.
On Büyükada: Lale Kost is an historic wooden house and a welcoming B&B. An apartment with a sea view is 75 euro/night at booking.com.
Splurge and stay a night at the Splendid Palace Otel. It’s a spectacular Ottoman mansion and oozes the elegance of a bygone era. Doubles start at 145 euro/night. If the website doesn’t work properly (it doesn’t at the time of writing), use a third party booking site like booking.com.
On Heybeliada: I dream of renting this four bedroom historic villa. In fact, I don’t think I’d ever leave!
There are many other options on Airbnb to suit all group sizes and budgets.
On Burgazada: this gorgeous apartment has three bedrooms and a pool.
Where to eat:
There are many restaurants along the seafront on all of the islands. The food is good, the atmosphere is merry and the sea views add to the experience. Kalpazankaya on Burgazada is incredible and will be the subject of Part 2.
On Büyükada, eat with the locals at SofrAda Restoran (İsa Çelebi Sokak 10, Büyükada). There is no menu, just a daily selection of delicious Turkish dishes.
On Heybeliada grab an authentic Turkish ice cream and head down to the sea front promenade where you’ll get a gorgeous view of Istanbul in the distance. Pull in at any bakery and try the chocolate éclairs. I still dream of them.
Look out for Part 2: the best restaurant on the Princes’ Islands;
Part 3: cycling on Heybeliada;
and Part 4: climbing to the monastery on Buyukada.
Have you been to the Princes’ Islands? What is your favourite island?