Going to the Princes’ Islands in Istanbul feels like a special occasion. It’s technically still within the city limits, but when you step off the ferry you immediately feel like you’re in a different world. With daily ferry service to four of the nine islands to choose from, each island has something different to offer on a memorable day trip.
Why are they called the Princes’ Islands? During the Byzantine Empire, many Byzantine princes and deposed emperors and empresses were exiled to the islands. Some Ottoman sultans continued the tradition. Nowadays, you’ll find many beautiful wooden Ottoman homes, some restored and some run down, and quiet forests to walk through. You should be able to find beaches as well.
Ferry service to the four biggest islands, Büyükada, Heybeliada, Burgazada, and Kınalıada, leaves from Eminönü and Kadıköy with Şehir Hatları (Istanbul city ferry lines). You’ll be able to use your Istanbulkart to board the ferries. Be prepared for a long journey. It takes about 50 minutes from Eminönü to Kınalıada, the first island, and 100 minutes to Büyükada, the last stop. There’s no service to most of the other smaller islands.
A more direct service leaves from Beşiktaş, with a trip to Heybeliada and Büyükada and another to Kınalıada and Burgazada, but they don’t save a whole lot of time. Another choice are the direct fast ferries operating from Beşiktaş and Kabataş to Heybeliada and Büyükada via Mavi Marmara or other companies.
If you’re on the Asian side and heading to Büyükada, there are also a few ferries from Bostancı that are a bit shorter.
It’s best to go to the islands as early in the day as possible, and NOT on weekends. You’ll want to beat the crowds. The ferries get jam packed with both tourists and locals, and it can be difficult to find a seat on the way there. The earlier the better. On the way back, it’s usually not so crowded.
Once on the islands, you’ll notice there are no cars allowed. How do you get around? On the smaller islands, Burgazada and Kınalıada, I always walk. On the bigger islands, however, it’s more difficult to get to certain points.
Faytons (phaetons) are horse-drawn carriages that can take you from point-to-point on each island or on an “island tour”, all for set prices. Beware of some drivers trying to rip you off by telling you parts of the island are “closed” and that the grand tour is the only service available. Some negatives about the faytons are the fees can get expensive and lines can be very long during peak seasons. Also, the horses often crap all over the streets which makes the islands smell less than appealing.
Bikes are a popular and cheaper way to get around the islands. You can rent them hourly or for the day by leaving an ID with a rental agency. It’s more economical to rent by the day. I’ve been able to rent for 15TL, and always rent on Büyükada and Heybeliada.
Eating on each island is usually a little more expensive than eating on the mainland, but there are some great fish restaurants to be found
Here’s a short description of each island:
Burgazada, the third biggest island, has the unfortunate position as the second stop on the ferry, which also makes it the least visited. On a positive note, it’s the most peaceful. Because of this, it happens to be my favorite.
Büyükada is the last stop and biggest island. It’s the most visited of all the islands with the most attractions. It can get very crowded in summer, especially on weekends. It’s also the home of the popular Aya Yorgi Greek Orthodox Church.