experience - Princes’ Islands, Istanbul
Written by Vanessa H. Larson
A day trip to the Princes’ Islands – just a short ferry ride from Istanbul’s city centre – is the best way to get ‘out of town’ without ever leaving the city limits.
The Adalar, as they are known in Turkish, are the classic getaway from the bustle of Istanbul, offering a relaxed ambience, proximity to nature, and old-fashioned pleasures. This archipelago of nine islands in the Sea of Marmara was where deposed or troublesome members of the royal family were exiled during Byzantine times, hence its name. Due to a ban on motor vehicles, the pace of life on the islands – five of which are inhabited, with a small year-round population that increases several-fold during the summer – is literally slower.
The traditional way to experience the islands is to hire a fayton (phaeton), or horse-drawn carriage. As you ride along in your four-person buggy, you’ll pass picturesque lanes shaded by bougainvillea vines and other flowering plants, hilltops covered with pine forests, and views of the sea, punctuated occasionally by the skyline of Istanbul’s Asian side in the distance. Lining the roads are beautiful Victorian-style wooden houses and villas with delicate trim and latticework, some lovingly maintained, others charmingly ramshackle.
Carriage rides offered on Büyükada – the largest and most populous island – vary in length (and corresponding price) from short jaunts to the 75-minute ‘long tour’. Phaetons can also be hired on Heybeliada and Burgazada. There are also a few historical landmarks, such as the Monastery of Saint George, a popular Greek Orthodox pilgrimage site located on one of Büyükada’s commanding hills – a legacy of the islands’ cosmopolitan, multi-faith heritage.
But the real attraction is the chance to soak up the idyllic atmosphere, breathe in the pine-scented air, and let yourself feel transported to an earlier time. To complete the experience, enjoy a meal of mezes and fish at one of the many waterfront restaurants. Frequent daytime ferries conveniently allow island-hopping, and if you just can’t bring yourself to leave, there are several old hotels on Büyükada and Heybeliada that are filled with character.
On your own
For those who prefer a do-it-yourself approach, bicycles are available for rent (by the hour or for the day) on the four largest islands. Pack a picnic lunch and set off to explore the terrain at your own pace. Be prepared to get some exercise, as the islands are quite hilly, but your reward will be magnificent vistas along the way. Scattered around the islands are a few small sand or pebble beaches; note that they can get very crowded during the summer, particularly at weekends.