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Istanbul Travel Guide

  • Photo: Prometheus72 / Shutterstock

Princes' Islands

Heybeliada, the closest island to Büyükada and the archipelago’s second largest, is similar in appeal, and the quiet, lovely surroundings attract similar boatloads of day-trippers in summer, some hoping to avoid the crowds on the "big island."

To the right of the dock are teahouses and cafés stretching along the waterfront. You can take

a leisurely carriage ride or rent a bike, stopping, if the mood strikes, at one of the island's several small, sandy beaches—the best are on the north shore on either side of Değirmen Burnu (Windmill Point).

The big building to the left of the ferry dock is the Deniz Lisesi (Turkish Naval High School), founded in 1773. The island’s most significant landmark is the Haghia Triada Monastery, built in the 19th century on Byzantine foundations and perched at the top of Heybeliada’s highest hill. The building served as the Halki Seminary (Halki is the Greek name of the island), a theological school for Greek Orthodox priests, until it was shut down in 1971 by the Turkish government in a controversial move that, decades later, is still unresolved despite diplomatic pressure from the United States and Europe. The island is also home to a modern Greek Orthodox church and a synagogue, though they are usually closed.

The Princes' Islands—a cluster of nine islands in the Sea of Marmara, known simply as "Adalar" in Turkish—are everything that Istanbul isn't: quiet, green, and car-less. They are primarily a relaxing getaway from the noise and traffic of the big city, though they can be quite crowded on weekends, particularly in summer. Restrictions on development and a ban on automobiles help maintain the charmingly old-fashioned and quiet atmosphere —transportation here is only by horse-drawn carriage or bicycle. There are few real "sights," per se; the main attraction is the laid-back ambience and natural beauty of the islands, which are hilly and mainly wooded, with a fresh breeze that is gently pine-scented. Thanks to frequent ferries from the mainland, an excursion to the islands makes a fun day trip, or a pleasant overnight getaway from the city.

The islands have served various purposes for the people of Istanbul over the years. Back in Byzantine times, religious undesirables and deposed members of the royal family sought refuge here, while during the Ottoman Empire, the islands likewise provided a convenient place to exile troublesome princes and other notables—hence the name. By the mid-19th century, well-heeled Istanbul businessmen had staked their claim and built many of the Victorian gingerbread–style houses that lend the islands their charm. The islands became especially popular as summer residences for Istanbul’s non-Muslim communities (Jews, Armenians, and Greeks), and were known for their cosmopolitan way of life. For several years in the 1930s, Büyükada, the largest of the islands, was the home of the exiled Leon Trotsky; the islands were considered to be safer than Istanbul, with its 35,000 hostile White Russian refugees.

Of the nine islands, four have regular ferry service, but only the two largest, Büyükada and Heybeliada, are of real interest to the general traveler, offering a variety of places to eat and stay and a few small beaches and other attractions. Two of the other inhabited islands are Kınalıada, long popular with the city's Armenians, and Burgazada, which has traditionally been more Greek. From the ferry you can see the larger two of the uninhabited islands, known in Greek and Turkish as the "pointy" Oxia/Sivri and the "flat" Plati/Yassı. Sivri's main claim to fame is that in the 19th and early 20th centuries Istanbul's stray dogs would be occasionally rounded up and dumped there, while Yassı was the site of the trial and execution of Prime Minister Adnan Menderes after a 1960 military coup.Büyükada is the largest of the Princes' Islands (about 5 square km, or 2 square miles) and generally the one with the most to offer. Just by the ferry docks is the main commercial center, filled with restaurants, shops, bike rental places, and a few hotels, as well as the boarding point for the horse-drawn carriages, which are known as fayton (phaeton) in Turkish. The island has a few tiny beaches, including Yörük Ali Plajı, located on the west side of the island and an easy walk from the harbor. An admission fee of 10–20 TL for the day at the island’s beaches generally includes the use of a beach chair and umbrella.Çankaya Caddesi, up from the clock tower and to the right, is home to the island's most splendid old Victorian houses, painted in pastel colors and with beautiful latticework. The carriage tour passes this way, winding up hilly lanes lined with gardens filled with jasmine, mimosa, and imported palm trees. After all of Istanbul's mosques and palaces, the frilly gingerbread-style houses come as something of a surprise. If you’re on foot or a bike, turn off Çankaya Caddesi onto Hamlacı Sokak and go down to the end of the lane to see one of the houses Trotsky lived in while exiled here. Now almost in shambles, with crumbling brick walls and a caved-in roof, the house can only be viewed from outside the locked gate, but offers an interesting glimpse into the past.The island’s most significant attraction is the Greek Monastery of St. George (Aya Yorgi), a 19th-century church built on Byzantine foundations at the top of Yücetepe Hill, with a view that goes on and on. It’s a fairly steep 20-minute walk up from Birlik Meydanı, where your driver will drop you off if you come by buggy. Drivers charge a waiting fee and there are always numerous carriages for hire in the square, so it’s cheaper to pay 30 TL each for two one-way rides than to do the "short tour." This is a popular Orthodox Christian pilgrimage site; as you walk up the path, notice the pieces of cloth, string, and even plastic that visitors have tied to the bushes and trees in hope of a wish coming true. The small church is open daily from 9 to 6.

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