Did you know that Istanbul had a collection of nearby islands? I didn’t, until I overheard someone saying that they were going to the Princes Islands, and I needed to enquire with them what they were talking about.
Before I went to Istanbul, I saw it as a city destination; a concrete jungle, busy and always on the go. This is kind of the case for the city itself, but you can head over to the Asian side of Istanbul, and will find it is much more peaceful there.
However, if you are truly looking for some tranquility and something a little different – head to the Princes’ Islands. They aren’t as you’d imagine a traditional island to be, with white sandy beaches and palm trees, but they are a lot less busy, and have a different vibe to them. They reminded me a little of the Gilli Islands, off Bali in Indonesia.
Where are the Princes’ Islands
The Princes’ islands lie 20km South East of the city of Istanbul, on the Asia side, and are a collection of 9 (nine) islands, of which 4 have permanent settlements.
Most locals head here for a bit of peace and quiet, but some permanently live here. No cars are allowed on any of the islands (just government vehicles). Transport is via bicycle or a horse a cart, which adds to the peace and tranquility.
How to get to the Princes’ Islands
To get to the islands, you’ll need to catch a ferry (there are no airports on the island). The best place to catch the ferry is from Kadikoy (where you can also catch the ferry to Karikoy on the Asian side too), There are a few options regarding the ferry. The public (slow boat), which I got going over. This can take up to 2 hours to arrive (depending to which island you are going to, and how long the ferry has to dock to allow for people to get on and off), but is cheaper (see below), or there is the IDO ferry company, which can be as fast as a 45 minute crossing. I got the fast ferry back, as I wanted to get to the Galata Tower by sunset.
The boats are fairly comfortable, the public boat is a little less so – but it was ok for me (wooden seat on a public ferry, and softer seats on the IDO ferry).
Cost of the ferry
This depends on which ferry you use, the public ferry is 4 Lira, and the fast ferry is anything over 9 Lira.
What to see and do on the Princes’ Islands
This will vary, depending on which island you choose to visit. I went to two islands on my trip there, so can only speak for them.
The Islands are:
Kınalıada, Burgaz, Heybeliada, and Büyükada.
I went to Heybeliada, and Büyükada.
As Heybeliada is the first island you will come to on the ferry, I will start with that (as that is what I did). This is one of the smaller islands, and not so many people get off the Ferry here. The terminal is small, and you’ll be greeted by a row of little cafes and restaurants sitting by the waterfront, which are perfect if you want to watch the World go by. There are a number of tour guides offering trips to neighbouring (and more remote islands), which the ferry companies do not sail to. There you can kayak and swim. I declined this offer, as I had done plenty of that in the beach resort of Fethiye.
The Island is easily walkable, if you want to spend all day doing so, but it is best to hire a bicycle if you want to see it for yourself. There is a small tourist information office, at the end of the watefront (to the right of the terminal), where you can get a map.
If you so wish, you can get a tour in a horse and cart (but as always – bargain the price like crazy!)
On the island (and right by the ferry terminal) is the Navy Academy, founded in the 1700’s, which is an impressive building. There is also the Greek Orthodox School, high up on the hill, if you fancy a hike up there.
There are also some cool little coves, were you can paddle in, as you walk around the island.
Heybeliada was one of my favourites, as it was much quieter.
I also loved the architecture. It felt like I had stepped in a small French village. The villas dotted around had so much character.
The next island you’ll come to after Heybeliada is Büyükada, which is the largest of the islands, and one which everyone seems to flood to.
The Island has an impressive ferry terminal building, which had a Greek, Orthodox feel to it. Inside are a few shops, including one which sells good Baklava.
You’ll notice, as soon as you arrive on Büyükada, that it is much busier. I didn’t plan, or time my visit well, as arrived by about 2pm, which is probably peak time for most visitors.
The main street was donned with flags on my visit, but I am unsure why, and if these are always a feature. If you walk up this street, you’ll reach the main square, with the clock tower.
There are larger shops, (including grocery stores), shoe shops and gift shops, as well as larger restaurants, which the main speciality being fish (of course!)
On this island, it is best to get around by bike again, but as it is a larger island, a horse and cart tour may be your best bet (especially if you are running short on time).
If you are into it, there is a cute little handicraft market on this island, just off the main street (it is marked on all maps you can get handed out), and you can buy local gifts, which may be a bit more unique than the ones you’ll pick up at a market in Istanbul.
If you’re done exploring for the day, there are a number of lovely ice cream shops by the waterfront – the turkish ice cream is a little unique, but worth a try. I sat in the sun eating one, whilst waiting for the ferry.
If you are wanting to get the IDO ferry (fast ferry) back from Büyükada, the terminal is right down at the bottom of the waterfront (to the right of the main terminal). The ferry here seems to run every hour.
Planning your visit to the Princes’ Islands, in Istanbul
- Avoid the weekend – this is where there are a higher number of tourists
- Consider getting a transport card for Istanbul, which will cover the cost of your ferry ticket – otherwise you will have to keep buying single tickets, which adds up
- Head over there as early as you can, to beat the crowds
- Wear suitable clothing and shoes so you can walk, or rent a bike.
- There is an HSBC bank on Büyükada but I did not notice any on Heybeliada. Some places do take credit card, and there are a small handful of hotels, but as always, I’d take enough money with you.