On the ferries to Princes’ Islands, I would always drink copious amounts of tea. Waiters with dangling trays roamed up and down the decks touting chai for less than a dollar, delivering a tear-drop Turkish tea cup on a little glass saucer, complete with spoon and paper-wrapped sugar cube. Usually, I’d buy a simit, a sort of soft pretzel thing, just before boarding the ship, and combined with my tea, it’d make a bohemian breakfast to enjoy on the hour-plus ride to the Princes’ Islands. The journey, that breakfast, was always amongst the highlights of the trip.
As their collective name suggests, Princes’ Islands are a conglomerate that once—during the Byzantine era—played host to royalty. It wasn’t until the 19th century that they became popular for Istanbul’s wealthy, who constructed summer homes throughout the islands. Even today, they remain dissimilar from the nearby mainland: Motorized vehicles (expect service-related transport) are banned, leaving residents and tourists the choice of footing it, cycling, or flagging down a horse-and-cart. Best of all, Princes’ Islands are now accessible to everyone. Chai-ladden ferries run multiple times daily and cost only fraction more than other public transportation.
Nine in all, the islands are located in the Marmara Sea, just off the coast of Istanbul. Of the nine, only four are realistic accessible, and of those four, I only ever made it to one: Heybeliada, the second largest of the archipelago. Büyükada (“The Big Island”), Burgazada (“Fortress Island”), and Kınalıada (“Henna Island”) offer the same retreat from Istanbul’s unceasing hustle, both pedestrian and automotive, but I just couldn’t bring myself to go elsewhere. Heybeliada never let me down as a great day out.
In Your Bucket Because…
- Istanbul, a city that is simply a must on your world tour, despite its greatness, drives home the need for a little peace and quiet. Princes’ Islands are the best spot in town.
- Honestly, the ride out to Princes’ Islands, without ever setting foot on land, is stunning enough to warrant the trip. The great sites of Constantinople by sea is a pinch-yourself moment.
- Antique architecture, the Marmara, beaches, hiking, biking, 11th century monasteries, outdoor restaurants along the coast, the incredible sprawl of Istanbul—it’s a great place for families, historians, speed walkers, weekend cyclists, seagulls, and lazy beer swillers.
Heybeliada has a lot within its tiny boundaries of less than two square miles. The Naval Cadet School is immediately to the left as you disembark from the ferry. The academy’s grounds hold a Byzantine church, the last built before the fall Constantinople, as well as the grave of 16th century British ambassador (sent by Elizabeth I). Additionally, perched on its mountaintop at the center of the island, there is an 11th century Greek Orthodox monastery, which was once a great school but no longer operates as an educational institute (the high school is technically open but has no students). There is also a collection of Greek Orthodox churches that have been erected over the last century or two.
Whatever the historical highlights of the island, they had very little to do with my trips to Heybeliada. For me, visits always centered on hiking along the road that circles the island. I’d turn right at the end of the jetty, and once out of the small port town where the ferry drops you off, beyond the restaurants and rent-a-chair beaches, the island gives way to nature. Save for the occasional oddity—horse stables, a few posted lookout points, an ancient ruin—the three-hour walk is a shady pine forest stroll up-and-down some minor slopes and back-dropped with clear blue sea.
Towards the end of the hike, after passing the monastery and ruins along the coastline, I’d re-enter the island’s one town. The streets are lined with discrepant Ottoman-era houses, either abandoned altogether or fixed up to renewed loveliness by one of the island’s residents, most of whom are still impermanent summertime folk. After inevitably getting sidetracked and wondering through town, a good hiking lather built up, I’d settle down at one of those seaside restaurants and have a few cold beers and some French fries (my favorite kind of seafood). Never a bad afternoon.
Back Aboard the Ferry
The sea air usually chilled quite a bit in the evenings and always felt nice on the ride back to Europe. Oh, yes, I forgot to say, as I lived in Beyoglu, the trip was intercontinental. Most tourists stay in Sultanahmet, on the European side also, so visiting the Princes’ Islands offers one of the kitschy Istanbul activities of changing continents in the same city. Regardless, rounding the corner back into the Bosporus Strait—the sun coming down behind Topkapi Palace, the Blue Mosque, Aya Sophia, Galata Tower, and the entire cityscape—is spectacular.
Not surprisingly, my favorite story from visiting the islands happened on a boat. An old Turkish lady setting next to me had gotten her cup of tea. Looking at me with a smile, unable to communicate beyond our merhaba (“hello”), she picked up her sugar cube and tried to hand it to me. My tea already sweetened, I thanked her but politely rejected the offering. After she attempted again, I began to feel uncomfortable at her insistence, and she looked sincerely disappointed. Finally, someone sitting across from us came over, unwrapped the sugar cube, and handed it back. It was for her tea.
I, too, had always had trouble managing my tea, the sugar, the spoon, and the rock of the boat. I just never thought of asking my neighbor for help. It was both an immensely embarrassing moment and one that, for me, unforgettably put us all on the same playing field, be us paupers or princes.
- Ferries from the European side depart from the port Kabatas, which is to the right after crossing the Galata Bridge into Beyoglu (from Sultanahmet) and about a twenty minute walk along the water.
- Don’t forget your swimsuit, sun cream, and a towel if taking a dip interests you.
- It is possible (and popular) to stay on the islands if spending a night outside of bustling city interests you.
- Getting on and off the ferries is sometimes mad rush. Show up early for the best seats, and I suggest waiting for the crowd to thin before disembarking.