Who wouldn’t love to spend a day at the sea? Planning a Princes Islands day trip from Istanbul is an excellent idea for a relaxing escape from the city. The Princes Islands, or simply The Islands (Adalar) as locals call them, are an archipelago of nine islands in the Sea of Marmara of which only four are inhabited and open to visitors: Kınalıada, Burgazada, Heybeliada and Büyükada. Since cars and motorbikes are not allowed on any of them, the Princes Islands provide a peaceful haven away from the hustle and bustle of busy Istanbul.
The islands were once places of exile for royalties, such as princes, hence their name. However, during the 19th century, the islands became the place to be for wealthy Istanbulites. The magnificent Victorian style villas we see there today are remnants of the islands’ glorious past. The Princes Islands are also famous for being the nuclei of thriving Greek, Armenian and Jewish communities in the past. Nowadays, the islands rely primarily on tourism.
How to plan the perfect Princes Islands day trip from Istanbul
During our 5-day trip to Istanbul, we knew we’d definitely plan a Princes Islands day trip at some point. Of course, our initial wish was to get a glimpse of all four of the main islands. However, we decided to take it easy. Instead of running like crazy to catch the ferries from one island to the other, we chose to visit the two largest ones, Heybeliada and Büyükada. This way we would have enough time to enjoy ourselves at a leisurely pace. As a side note, if you only have time for one island, choose Büyükada. It is the largest of all and home to the best things to see on the Princes Islands.
How to get to the Princes Islands
There are many ferry companies operating in Istanbul. The most popular one is Şehir Hatları, Istanbul’s public ferries. Şehir Hatları operate ferries to the Prince’s Islands primarily from Eminönü pier and ticket prices are ridiculously cheap. As in less than 1€ cheap. If you use the almighty IstanbulKart, the city’s public transport smart card, prices drop further down. Check out the Princes Islands ferry schedule here.
Another ferry company which connects Istanbul to the Princes Islands is Dentur Avrasya. These ferries depart from Beşiktaş and Kabataş stations. One-way tickets cost 10TL (1,5€) and you can’t use your IstanbulKart on them. They are slightly faster than the Şehir Hatları ferries. For the Dentur Avrasya Istanbul ferry timetable, click here.
Although ferries are quite frequentish, always check timetables beforehand. Once you set foot on any of the islands, make sure to check out the times for the last ferries back to Istanbul so that you don’t end up spending the night away from your cosy Istanbul hotel room. Similarly, always double-check ferry schedules for the other islands if you plan to hop on more than one of them, like we did. Şehir Hatları timetables are displayed on large boards on the islands stations. Keep in mind, though, that apart from Şehir Hatları and Dentur Avrasya there are also a handful of other smaller companies, especially during summer months, so you should definitely check those out too.
The trip from Eminönü to Büyükada Island, which is the final stop on the route, takes about 90′. Journey times vary depending on departure point (Eminönü, Beşiktaş, Kabataş or even Kadıköy on the Asian side of Istanbul), destination (Kınalıada, Burgazada, Heybeliada, Büyükada) and ferry company.
When to go to the Princes Islands
The Princes Islands are extremely popular with tourists and locals alike. Therefore, do whatever humanly possible to visit on a weekday rather than the weekend. As far as seasons are concerned, spring and autumn are the best. The islands can get unbearably crowded during summer and creepily lonely in winter.
Our Princes Islands day trip itinerary
We took the 12:00 ferry from Eminönü. If you are even a tiny bit of morning people, don’t be us. Take an earlier ferry so as to avoid crowds as well as enjoy a full day on the islands. We decided to start our Princes Island tour from Büyükada Island. Being the largest of all four islands, we wanted to spend as much time there as possible. So we sat back and enjoyed the ferry ride from Istanbul to the Princes Island. It turned out to be an unforgettable experience. The ever-present image of pretty Istanbul in the distance, veiled by a pinkish sky, is mesmerising.
Moreover, all along the 90′ trip, we were accompanied by more seagulls than we could count. In search of food and human company, the beautiful birds offered us many close-ups. It seems that there is an unspoken contract between seagulls and locals as the latter kept buying simit (Turkish bagels) just to feed the birds who, in their turn, never left our side. Before we reached Büyükada, we got glimpses of the three other islands, Kınalıada, Burgazada and Heybeliada, in that order.
As soon as we set foot on Büyükada, we were taken aback by the number of people on the island. Although a weekday, it was a very sunny and warm one, thus ideal for a day spent at sea. To make matters worse, we visited during pre-election period and there were various happenings because of that. Not only on the islands but in Istanbul as well.
How to get around Büyükada Island
As mentioned at the beginning of this post, no cars or motorbikes are allowed on Büyükada Island. There are three ways to get around the largest (yet still tiny) of the Princes Islands: by horse drawn carriage, by bicycle or on foot. Due to its small size, it is possible to have a good look at the entire island in any of these three ways.
Although by far the most popular way to see the island, the horse drawn carriages option was a huge no-no for us. Never ever do we use means of transport, not to mention entertainment, that exploit animals. Even if we knew for a fact that those horses are well taken care of and happy, which we don’t of course, we still wouldn’t choose to ride a horse carriage. Streets in Büyükada are quite uphill so no animal should ever be forced to carry all this load for the sake of a so-called romantic ride. This was also the reason why we didn’t book a guided tour to the Princes Islands after all. Most, if not all, of them include a horse carriage tour of the island.
Those of you who have been following us closely know that riding a bicycle wasn’t an option for us either. To Katerina’s utter distress, I can’t ride a bicycle. I didn’t learn how to when I was a child so, now, even though I’ve taken lessons, I am too scared to try. I sincerely hope I will some day, though. Anyway, back to Büyükada. It turns out that even if I could ride a bicycle, it might not be such a great idea for us to do so because streets on the island are quite uphill. So, what’s left? That’s right, walking.
Our Büyükada Island walking route
Once we got off the ferry, we just wanted to get away from the maddening crowds as soon as possible. So, we turned right and soon we were on Çankaya Street, which is lined with beautiful Victorian style wooden mansions. This is also the route of the horse carriage tours so we never worried that we might get lost. Even though the wooden mansions are spectacular, you should know that the route is quite uphill and at times not very pleasant. This is because of the disturbing smell of horse excuse-my-French poop. There, we said it.
Anyway, we kept on walking (by then the street name had changed to Nizam Street) until we reached Birlik Meydani, the very heart of the island. This is one of Büyükada’s main squares but not even Google Maps call it by its name. You know you’ve reached your destination when you’re at Lunapark Restaurant. However, avoid the latter at all costs. We stopped for a cup of tea and we regret it to this day. Apart from non-existent customer service, which we could live with, this place has serious hygiene issues. I wish I had my cellphone with me when I made the terrible mistake to visit the toilet because seeing is believing. It was the filthiest toilet I have seen in my 40 years on this earth. Do you want to know the best part? I had to pay a fee to enter. I’m still laughing. And crying.
To cut a long story short and stop being disgusting, if you need a pit stop (which you will after an hour or so of uphill walking), stop at either Dilburnu Kafe or Lovers Hill Café. You will find both of them on your right hand side before you reach Birlik Meydani. Although we didn’t visit any of them, they seemed decent and very cosy. Especially the latter.
From Birlik Meydani, the island’s geographical centre, there are two routes to follow, each leading to one of Büyükada’s two peaks. A cobbled steep path starting right next to Lunapark Restaurant goes all the way up to the Greek Orthodox Church of St. George, Büyükada’s main tourist attraction. Keep in mind that this path is too steep for a horse carriage to climb and we can’t say for sure if it’s doable by bicycle either. From the other side of the square begins a path towards the island’s second peak, home to an impressive old Greek Orthodox Orphanage, also not on a horse carriage’s route. Obviously, we couldn’t visit both so we chose to take the road less travelled and head to the Orphanage.
Our 15′ or so walk towards the Greek Orthodox Orphanage was an extremely pleasant one. We walked in absolute silence in the shade of tall trees with the occasional glance at the blue sea below. Soon we were standing before one of the most impressive buildings we had ever seen. It was designed in the 19th century in order to become a luxury hotel and casino but the sultan never issued the necessary permissions. Instead, the building operated as an orphanage for the children of the Greek Community from 1903 to 1964.
It is considered to be the largest wooden building in Europe and the second largest one in the world. It is utterly wonderful to look at but at the same time depressing. To condemn such a masterpiece to neglect and deterioration due to the ongoing disputes between Greek and Turkish authorities is beyond words sad. It goes without saying that the building is not open to the public. You can only see it from outside a fence.
Before starting our descend towards the port of Büyükada, we stopped by the Greek Monastery of Sotiras Christos (Christ the Savior), yet another interesting and beautiful wooden construction. We then resumed our walk by strolling along Kadiyoran Street. The latter is a beautiful and tranquil street lined with superb wooden mansions. Walking along this splendid street is immensely enjoyable for yet another reason. We were constantly in the company of friendly fluffy kittens who didn’t hesitate to elegantly pose for endless photos.
We knew we were near the sea when we were suddenly surrounded by loads of people again. Soon, we reached Büyükada’s iconic Clock. With many restaurants, gelaterias and souvenir shops around, it is the island’s busiest spot. We spent some time getting lost in the cobbled side streets.
Then we strolled along the seafront promenade where some of the island’s best seafood restaurants are located. However, we didn’t have time for a proper lunch. Instead, we had Turkish tea and künefe at a sunny waterfront café until it was time for us to hop on the 17:30 ferry to our next destination. The island of Heybeliada.
Ten minutes later we were on Heybeliada Island. We had almost an hour at our disposal before catching the last ferry back to Istanbul. Heybeliada is the second largest of the Princes Islands. It is famous for the Greek Theological School which was founded on the island in 1844. Nowadays there are discussions between the Greek and Turkish governments and the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in an effort to reopen the School. Sadly, we didn’t have enough time to visit the School. To be entirely frank, apart from time, we also lacked the energy to climb yet another hill to reach it.
While still on the ferry, the first thing that caught our attention on Heybeliada Island was the imposing building of the Turkish Navy Academy to our left. However, this is a restricted area. Therefore, as soon as we got off the ferry, we turned right and started walking along the seafront. There wasn’t anything special about the latter so we decided to turn our backs to the sea and start wandering around the island’s inner streets.
One of the most central ones, Lozan Zaferi Street, got us under its spell. Lined with elaborate wooden mansions, this street has an irresistible air of nostalgia and elegance that is hard to put into words. Before leaving the island, we wanted to visit the Kangelaris Family ornate tomb as well. However, unsure whether we would find it open or not, we decided to save ourselves the risk of missing the ferry. So, we took our time taking in Lozan Zaferi Street’s beauty before heading back to the pier to catch the ferry to Istanbul.
Our Princes Islands day trip from Istanbul ended in the best possible way. All along our trip back to Istanbul, the golden hour literally fascinated us. The colours of the sunset reflecting on the calm waters of the Sea of Marmara with the fairest of them all, Istanbul, waiting for us in the distance is an image we won’t easily forget.