Note - the German name for the islands appears as the category heading.
Just a short ferry ride from Istanbul, the Princes Islands are a brilliant place to kick back and escape the relentless noise and bustle of the city. Other than emergency vehicles, motorised vehicles are not allowed on the islands which makes them very peaceful and makes walking more enjoyable. I love to walk but Istanbul can be hard work for walkers and so visiting the Princes Islands gives you an opportunity to stroll without needing eyes in the back of your head. Huddled together in the Sea of Marmara, each island has a character of its own and it's easy to forget the proximity of one of the world's largest cities.
The Islands can be visited all year round but ferry and hydrofoil services are less frequent in winter. One of the reasons they are so popular is that several of them have beaches and this is the nearest place to the city for bathing. However, from what I could see the beaches weren't that great (small patches of pebbles and too close to the ferry terminals) and certainly wouldn't persuade me to take the ferry over. No, what is so appealing about the Princess Islands is the legacy of the different cultures that moved out to the islands in the late Ottoman period. The people who have lived on the islands, or owned holiday homes there have always been wealthy Istanbullus and that means a heritage created in particular by the Jewish, Greek and Armenian communities.
The islands got their name because princes and princesses who had outlived their roles were exiled to the islands during Byzantine times. In the middle of the eighteenth century a ferry service to the islands was established and the islands became a popular place for the wealthy merchant classes to have extravagant villas built.
Of the nine islands, five are populated. Four of the five populated ones can be visited by ferry; the fifth, Sedef, is privately owned.
GETTING TO THE ISLANDS
A brilliant part of a trip to the Princes Islands is the ferry ride. On the outward journey we took the car ferry from the "Adalar Iskelesi" dock at Sirkeci. You need to get there at least thirty minutes before the scheduled departure time as the queues are long and you need to buy a ticket first. Once you have your ticket you join the scrum at the gate; take care once the gates open as people tend to sprint onto the ferry in order to get a good seat. You have been warned! When the ferry sets sail you will get excellent views of the Topkapi Palace, the Blue Mosque and of the Aya Sofya as the ferry passes Seraglio Point. It is worth the trip just for this!
It takes 30 minutes to reach the first island and then about fifteen minutes between islands after that. Then the ferry goes back to the city and terminates at Eminonu. You can also make the journey by catamaran to and from Eminonu. We did this on the way back. It's a ten minute bus ride from Taksim Square or Sultanahmet.
We stopped for the day at Burgazada which is the second stop of the ferry but I will write a little on each of the others first.
Kinaliada - this island is most popular with Istanbul's Armenian community and has quite a distinct look with its white houses that cling to the hill. As the ferry pulled in there were quite a few people bathing on the pebbly beach but we had read up a little and couldn't find enough that we wanted to see on this island and didn't fancy swimming here as the ferry terminal was right beside the beach. There is Hristos Monastery which was built by the Byzantine Emperor Romanus IV but our guidebook told us it was only open on Fridays. Beside the ferry terminal is the most modern mosque I have ever seen, it looks like a single "sail" from Sydney Opera House.
Heybeliada - the island looks very attractive and the first thing you see as you approach is the Greek Orthodox school for priests because it sits on the top of a hill. It's housed in the former Haghia Triada Monastery and peeks out above the poplar trees. Another striking building you can admire without leaving the ferry is the naval academy, a huge white building that looks like a giant pavilion.
Buyukada is the largest of the islands and the final ferry stop. This island is more obvious as a tourist destination and I'm glad we didn't visit it. It looked too busy and too "manufactured" for my taste with the most over the top ferry terminal building adorned with more cupolas and balconies than is decent! Our guidebook said that the chief attraction of this island was the Greek St George's Monastery, a fifty minute uphill walk from the port. It also said there wasn't much to see when you got there.
Lucky then that we chose to visit Burgazada, the second stop on the ferry route. This is the island with predominantly Greek heritage. Our guide book didn't have many positive things to say about it but we thought it rather attractive with streets of wonderful wooden Ottoman houses and an interesting and picturesque museum dedicated to Sait Faik Abasiyanik, famous Turkish story writer from the beginning of 20th century and housed in the writer's former home.
The island is only 1.5 square kilometres so it's just the right size to explore on a day trip. There's only a very limited selection of accommodation on this island so it's best to stay on one of the other s or just come for the day. Having spent a few days in Istanbul, one of the attractions of Burgazada for us was that the place was so quiet. You can hire bicycles (or a donkey) or take horse and carriage rides (phaetons) around the islands. On Burgazada one needn't even do any of those things as the island is so small.
The first thing you'll notice is the smell from the little bakeries near the ferry terminal. It's very tempting but don't eat too much because you'll not be able to enjoy the excellent food at one of the meyhanes in the town. Better to wait and have something while you wait for your return ferry along with a glass of tea.
We visited in August, at which time it was very hot. We were glad we had chosen one of the quieter islands because we didn't feel obliged to see lots of things and could take it easy instead, stopping now and again for a refreshing mint tea. As wonderful as Istanbul is, just being there can sometimes seem like hard work so visiting Burgazada was a short break for us. There are a few restaurants and tea gardens to choose from and all of them looked lovely. We stopped for a leisurely meze lunch near the water and were spoiled by the friendly owner who brought us extra dishes at no charge. The food was wonderful; fresh fish, delicious dips and warm crusty bread as well as tasty aubergines in a rich tomato sauce and stuffed vine leaves that were seasoned with so many fabulous flavours. We ate far too much and retired to a shady tea garden afterwards to recover.
The Greek influence on the island is quite noticeable; in fact the first mosque was not built here until 1953. The Greek Orthodox Church of St John might be worth a visit but is likely to be shut and you'll need to find someone to open it. We couldn't find anyone and moved on.
The Sait Faik museum is dedicated to the writer often described as the Turkish Chekhov - quite an accolade! I've not read any of his work so can't give an opinion on that but I did enjoy visiting the museum. He was born in 1906 into a wealthy family of merchants. He studied in Istanbul France and Switzerland but always dropped out and eventually returned to Istanbul where he became a teacher to Armenia orphans, an experience that gave him a lot of materials for his short stories. He lived on the island of Burgazada with his mother and also wove everyday Burgazada life into his writing. The museum is small but well captioned and the house is certainly worth seeing. The museum isn't actually open set hours, but the caretaker, a lovely old lady, lives in the grounds and a knock at her door will get you access if she is around, of course. What I found particularly interesting was the suggestion that the writer might have been gay and living on this island, away from the conventions of the city, may have allowed him to live without persecution. Certainly, I did feel that the island had a certain diversity not found in the city, for all its vastness and cultures.
A bit further on than the museum is Counterfeit Rock (Kalpazankaya), a superb place to get wonderful views and somewhere Sait Faik used to spend a lot of time. Here you'll find the ruin of an old monastery and nearby is a shady cafe which you will be pleased of in summer. Beneath is Kalpazankaya beach which is quite pebbly but fine for a paddle. Unfortunately we noticed lots of litter during the walk down to the water which was really the only negative thing about the whole day on the island.
The Princes Islands are incredibly picturesque and offer an alternative side of Istanbul that many tourists don't get to see. The cultural history of Istanbul is diverse and rich but can be easily forgotten in the city and is easier to appreciate on the islands where there seems more acceptance and tolerance of the tapestry of Istanbul history.
If you are in Istanbul for more than a few days I would certainly recommend a visit in order to enjoy a break from the hustle and bustle of the main tourist areas although most literature I read advised staying away on Sundays in summer when the islands are flooded with visitors. The amount there is to see and do varies from island to island so I would suggest doing a little research before choosing which to visit. Of course, you could always hop from island to island either in one day (perhaps two would be the limit for one day) or over several days. However you would certainly need to research accommodation if you chose the latter option as there is not a vast amount on any one island and some of it is pricey. Reservations are advised for the height of summer and it should be noted that many hotels and pensions close entirely in winter.
The Princes Islands are not a secret to Turkish people but are somewhat less well known by tourists from other countries. However, I would say that visitors to any of the islands would not be disappointed; it is amazing to think that these tranquil traffic free havens are within sight of Istanbul and well worth the short sailing to enjoy their beauty.
As much as I love Istanbul I will always be one of the first ones to admit, that it can be a very tiring and exhausting experience to spend a few days of sightseeing there.
With so many things to see, the mad traffic with the forever honking cars, kerbs that seem to be a mile high ( you'll feel as if you've just climbed Mount Everest after walking around for a few hours), the hustle and bustle of the bazaars and the touts that are trying to lure you into their premises you'll sooner or later feel the need to take a long break - and experience some quietness for a change.
In 1997, when I travelled to Istanbul for the first time, accompanied by a female friend, we both didn't know much about the city and ended up in a less then recommendable area. Our hotel, although very nice and decorated with 4 (local) stars, was in an area that is swamped with seedy nightclubs and bars and the streets that surround it are the workplace of many prostitutes.
Our suite overlooked the patio area of the hotel, which bordered to a nightclub that kept us entertained until 3 o'clock in the morning with very loud music - just to give us two hours of peace until the bin people woke us up at around 5 in the morning again. After 4 days of sightseeing the lack of sleep and exhaustion got to us and we were lucky that friends who live in Istanbul realised that we were "ready for the island".
Later on during visits to Istanbul that followed, first alone, then with my husband, later with our firstborn daughter and finally with both our little girls, visits to the Princes' Islands - mainly Bueyuekada on which I want to concentrate here - became a fixed part of our repertoire.
A bit of history - What is it about the Princes' Islands ?
The Princes' Islands are nine small islands that are located in the Marmara Sea opposite to the Asian side of the city of Istanbul.
Bueyuekada (Big island) or Prinkipo as it is known is the biggest one, as the name already suggests, further inhabited islands are Heybeliada/Halki, Kinaliada/Proti and Burgazada/Purga.
The history of the Princes' Islands is far less romantic than the name suggests and they became famous for being used as exiles for unwanted Byzantine successors to the throne, over-ambitious princes and emperors that needed to be disposed somewhere until nature took its course - sometimes with a little help...
The latest chapter in this sad part of the history of this beautiful islands happened in 1960, after the military intervention, when government officials were incarcerated on the tiny island Yassiada an brought before a military court there. Several members of the former leading Democrat party were sentenced to death here, of which three were executed - including a former Prime Minister.
In the 19. century the bigger islands grew in popularity and they became the playground for the rich and famous of Istanbul who liked to keep summer houses there. They were especially popular with artists, writers and poets and the most famous escapist to the islands of modern times was probably Trotzki who lived on Bueyuekada from 1929-33, living a quiet live, contemplating whilst fishing, a pastime he was so successful at that he even discovered an until then unknown kind of fish that he named Lenin.
How to get there ?
If staying on the European side of Istanbul, where we usually stay, you take public transport to Sirkeci/Eminönü or Kabatas - whichever is closest to you.
From the Asian side you'll have to get to the ferry ports in Kartal or Bostanci.
I've always taken the ferryboat from Sirkeci so will concentrate on this location. If you come with the tramway you'll have to disembark in Sirkeci, then cross the very busy road towards the sea, follow the quay's to the right until you find the ticket booth with the direction "Adalar" (Islands).
All in all it should take less then 5 minutes from the tram-station, so it is really easy to find.
There is an inside waiting area and departure times are clearly signed out, but don't expect any further services. If you should feel hungry or thirsty there is a small buffet not far from the waiting area that sells some cold drinks and snacks and the occasional seller of simit (Turkish bakery with lots of sesame on the top) might pass.
Ferries leave fairly regular and often, even mostly on time, during the day.
About every 60 mins but check about the return for the evening if you are planning to have dinner on the island as ferries go less frequent after 7 pm and - if I remember it right - stop totally for the night at some point. You don't want to get stranded after all. Tickets are 2 YTL per person which is under £1.
Ferry boats or deniz autobuesleri are a very popular way of crossing from one side of the city to the other. They are cheap and efficient, but can vary immensely concerning age, comfort, services and cleanliness.
The boats that will take you to the islands are usually the older ones and you'll have to be prepared for a trip on a vessel that seems to have been build around the same time as the Titanic.
There is always an inside and outside sitting area and the trips to the islands usually never get that crowded that you'll have problems finding a seat. On the contrary, usually you should have plenty of choice, unless you decide to go on a weekend when lots of people from Istanbul venture out there too, so bear that in mind when you plan your trip.
After departure a waiters should show up who will offer you some hot drinks, usually tea or kahve (Turkish coffee, similar to espresso). If you want something else you'll probably have to find the bar yourself. You can bring your own drinks or food, they don't mind.
Toilets : So far, I only felt the need to use one once while crossing the Marmaris sea towards the Islands and therefore don't know if my experience is the norm. The time I would have loved to use one I found it right opposite of the bar. There was one single toilet on the whole ship and that one was not only one of the "hole in the floor"-kind, but also incredibly dirty and smelly and also littered with used toilet tissue. After seeing this I decided that I really didn't need it THAT urgent and also sustained from buying any food from the bar. So I would advice anyone who wants to make the trip to use a toilet before embarking the ship. There is a McDonalds at Sirkeci station that has excellent and clean facilities ...
The journey takes about 1 hrs 20 min to Bueyuekada, with several stops at the other islands if other travellers have bought to tickets to there or passengers are waiting there to be picked up. Bueyuekada is usually the last stop and you can get a nice view of the other islands on your journey.
The "Big Island"
Upon arrival on Buyuekada you will disembark your ferryboat at the wooden pier of the island. Don't expect something like in Brighton or other English seaside resorts. First, it is a very small pier compared to what we are used to here, and second, there will be no slot machines, bingo halls or kiddies rides. The only thing that resembles "our" piers, apart from the structure itself obviously, is the white paint in which it is coloured. Inside there is just one small shop selling postcards and some souvenirs, a ticket booth that also holds the timetable for the return and a small waiting area.
If you start to walk over the pier you'll be greeted by a scenario that might as well date back a few decades - cobble-stoned streets, colonial style wooden houses and huge mansions with Victorian grandeur, a promenade with a small park to your right, horse drawn carriages - and not one car in sight !
You will be hard pressed to spot any motorized vehicle at all on the islands as they are, without exemption, traffic free and only service vehicles are allowed.
For means of transportation during your stay on Bueyuekada - or any other of the islands you might wish to visit - you'll have to rely on what nature gave you - your feet - or hire either a bike or a carriage.
For the kids it was like entering paradise, they could run around nearly without any restrictions and for us it was quite a relief after navigating two toddlers throughout an extremely busy city for several days. I guess I didn't really have to mention that the horses and their carriages were an absolute hit with the girls ???
Our first stop is usually the cafe that is situated opposite to the pier. They serve excellent capucchino and have outside seating where you can take in the scenery before you start to look around - and use the restrooms if necessary.
Straight up from the pier leads a road that can get fairly busy with tourists as there are some smallish shops - mostly souvenirs, several cafes and fast-food type restaurants. At the end of the street you will find the terminal for the carriages and in between are several bike rentals - if you feel fit enough as the island mostly contains of two rather steep hills. To rent a bike for a day will cost you around 20 YTL.
The more you venture into the side roads or up the hill the more you will lose the crowds as most of them seem to be stuck near the pier.
There are some really beautiful houses around here and a walk around is worth the time.
Follow the signs to the "Kultur Ev" (Culture House) which is a lovingly restored most splendid mansion. It houses a museum about the fin the siecle island life. It also has a very cosy tea garden in which you can take a break and enjoy some refreshments.
I've found the people to be very friendly and chatty and most of them are, if you can overcome some language barriers, more than willing to share some of their stories about "their" island. You will find out that the mixture of people living on the islands is a totally different one from the town. There are still many Greek-orthodox inhabitants, but also many Jews (there ancestors have come as refugees from Spain during the Inquisition and some still speak a very old-fashioned Spanish) and Armenians are living on the islands. The places of worship that you can find on Bueyuekada reflect this. All in all there are 4 orthodox churches, an Armenian catholic church, a synagogue, a roman catholic church and one mosque, as well as an orthodox monastery with church. All in all this mixture makes this small islands a bit like a museum itself as it reflects very well, how life about 100 years ago in Istanbul must have been like.
Take a trip :
A visit to Bueyuekada without taking a trip in one of the phaetons would be half the fun. They can be used either as a regular taxi service or - more suitable for tourists that just want to get to know the island a bit better,
offer 2 different tours over the island. The shorter one takes you around one of the hills while the longer one takes you over both around the whole island.
We've taken longer which cost us 25 YTL - less than £10 for the whole family.
The phaetons are fairly comfortable and, especially if travelling with children, a great way of getting around. "Our" driver happily agreed to let the children sit with him for a while and they had the time of their life.
The trip takes you over the whole island and you'll be able to enjoy some great views over the Marmaris Sea, the other islands and Istanbul.
You'll take a break on the hill at the Luna Park, a fun fair that has shut down some 40 years ago, where you can either visit the restaurant, adore a herd of donkeys that is kept up there or, my favourite , take a picnic. There are plenty of picnic tables around, scattered all over the hill under the pine trees. Whatever you want for a picnic can be bought in the town, no need to carry it all the way from Istanbul, especially the sweets from the local pastahane (bakery) went down a treat.
If you are more adventurous than us - and not in need of carrying a push-chair with you, then you can take a stroll to the top of the hill.
You'll find the old monastery of Ayayorgi (St.George) there, have the best view from the island and, if you are lucky, find the small church to be open. I've made the trip to the top only once, on my first and still childless trip there, and remember to have walked about 20 mins. It's been a few years and if I remember it right the church had some very pretty icons but all in all I was more impressed by the views.
On the way back you can always ask your driver to show you around for a bit longer and he can take you to some of the very small beaches where you can soak up some sun or even swim. Something that could never tempt me as I would expect the sea in such close proximity to a major town like Istanbul to be not the cleanest.
If you are looking for a nice restaurant that offers a bit more than fast food you can just follow the road to the left of the pier and will find some excellent restaurants, that seem to be specialised mostly on fresh fish.
There are waiters outside of the restaurants here too, but unlike the touts at the mainland, they leave you relatively in peace to make your choice.
The sitting areas are mostly outside, a bit set back from the restaurants and divided by the small road, under a wooden arcade with glass windows to the seaside which gives you shelter from sun, wind or rain without disturbing the magnificent views towards the Asian Istanbul.
Ordering is very easy, most of the waiters speak a bit of English and for the fish you just go into the restaurant, where you can make your choice from the array of fresh fish displayed on ice by pointing on it.
I have no idea what kind of fish it was that we had on the two occasions when we had food there, but both times it was very tasty and the portions were ridiculously generous. As a side dish you usually will get chips and salad and freshly grilled bread - the later usually can be re-ordered at no extra cost.
My only gripe here are the stray cats which seem to be all over the place. Thanks to my soft heart (husband says it's more stupidity in that case) I had the idea that it would be nice to give a small piece of fish to a very small cat - and within seconds our table was surrounded by around 10 hungry felines that requested their share very loudly - until the waiter appeared with a bucket of water and the belated advice to restrain from offering even one of them something from our table.
The kids found it hilarious and I ended up with wet feet.
If you are tempted enough to stay the night or even longer - which we are planning to do for our next trip to Istanbul so we've made some inquiries on our last one - this is the hotel that we are planning to visit :
Hotel Splendid, a palatial white mansion with two domes, situated directly at the pier. Apart from rooms it also offers two restaurants, a patisserie and a swimming pool. According to my information rooms cost around 200 YTL ( around £70) , tel. 0090 - 216 382 6950.
Please note that this is not a recommendation as I haven't actually stayed there yet, but if the rooms, by chance, should be as good as the bakeries in the patisserie than I have no doubts the a stay there would be enjoyable.
I recommend a trip to Bueyuekada to everyone who is staying in Istanbul for longer than just 2-3 days as the trip will probably take up one whole day itself. Especially smaller children travelling with you will enjoy the day as a sightseeing holiday in Istanbul doesn't cater very well for their needs. You can enjoy a very relaxing day with lots of fresh air - set in a scenery that seems to come straight from the past.
Thanks for reading this, Sandra
P.S. I've seen that this destination has been added by its German name (Prinzeninseln) to the Dooyoo Database. Believe it or not - it is just a strange incident, it wasn't ME...