Princes’ Islands (Turkish: Adalar) are a group of nine islands off the Asian coast of Istanbul, Turkey. Princes’ Islands take their name from the fact that during Byzantine and early Ottoman period, members of dynasties who fell out of favor were sent to exile there. Until late 19th century, when regular steamer transportation showed up in the seas around Istanbul, these islands were considered remote and far-away places. Apart from the exiled princes, only a handful of monks found these islands inhabitable then, a fact which gives the islands their former name in Turkish: Keşiş Adaları (“Islands of the Monks”).
These islands prove to be a good day-trip especially when you are bored of the crowd, noise, and traffic of Istanbul. Quite a shock is what many travelers experience upon their return to the city, when full-blast car horns are still the way how they were when left behind early in the morning.
One of the best times to be on the islands is during spring (April-May) and during autumn (September-October). During these seasons, the air is neither that cold nor hot, the islands are not very crowded and during spring (especially in late March), the mimosa trees, which are some sort of symbol of the islands, are in full bloom of their yellow flowers. At weekends during summer (June-August), all of the islands are really crowded, and so are the ships. Avoid if you can. During winter, the exact opposite is the case. However, if you want to enjoy the islands blanketed by snow and/or a very gloomy and almost deserted “ghost-town” experience and don’t mind the biting cold, then winter is definitely that season.
If you don’t have time to visit all of the islands, pick Büyükada: it’s undoubtedly the “queen” of the islands.
Upon getting off the ferry, you’ll recognize the clock at the square just a block up in front of you. This is the main square of Büyükada, and around it is the town centre. Most grocery stores are to your left, as well as the restaurants which also occupy the waterfront to your left when exiting the quay. From the clock, major roads of the island diverge left (east), right (west), and straight ahead (south) among some mansions (best of which are lined on the main road to right) towards the hill, as well as narrower streets and alleys connecting these. These roads join each other again in Birlik Meydanı Square, the geographical centre point of the island, lying amongst pine woods between the two main hilltops. From that square, whether you take the road to left or right, you will end up in the same square, as that road encircles the southern half of the island, at a distance to the sea. The Chuch of St George lies at the end of another cobbled uphill path starting from Birlik Meydanı. There is a large and detailed map of the island posted at the left of exit of ferry quay.
The only way to get to islands is by sea: whether Istanbul liners or fast ferries, available at various hours every day. From European Side of Istanbul, you can take a boat from Kabataş, while from Asian Side, the piers with a connection to the islands are located in Kadıköy, Bostancı, Maltepe and Kartal. The most frequent departures are from Bostancı (especially in winter), which also has private mid-sized boat connection to the islands in addition to liners and fast ferries.
Almost all ferries call at all four major islands in a row, but sometimes they first call at Büyükada, and other times at Kınalıada. Island names are not announced by voice inside the ships, so be sure to check the large signs on the quays to make sure that the island you are about to step on is the one that you want to step on.
On the islands
As the motorized vehicles (save for service vehicles like school buses or ambulances) are all banned on the islands, the most popular way of getting around is horse-drawn carriages (fayton), which can be likened to taxis, or the dolmuş, of the mainland. There is a fixed price for every location (in Büyükada, they are announced on the sign in the main fayton stop near the quay).
Renting a bike is another alternative. Most renters require you to leave an official identification to be returned after the payment is made. A student ID may suffice. Some renters distribute a road map of the island free of charge, don’t forget to ask for it. Walking the pleasant streets of the islands is obviously an alternative, too.
Between the islands
All boats operating between the islands and the mainland call at all of the major islands, so you can also take them for island-hopping.
Hagios Giorgios Church (Saint George/Aya Yorgi) is located on one of two summits of Büyükada. After reaching the central point of the island (known as Birlik Meydanı Square), you should climb a steep cobblestoned path on foot to get there (it’s too steep for a fayton, as well as a bike, to climb). It takes about 35-40 minutes. Although the church building itself is unexceptional with nothing really fascinating, the backyard of the church offers some very beautiful sights of the other islands and the sea. On April 23rd every year, which is St George’s holy day, a crowd of seemingly tens of thousands attend the church to make wishes. Wish making rituals that day range from usual burning a candle to climbing the cobbled path on bare feet to untying wool balls all along the path. The final part of the path that day is as crowded as a rock concert (except very early in the morning, like 6AM, it’s reported), because police officers let people in in groups of 10-15 at once, to avoid an overcrowding inside the church. If you decide to burn a candle that day keep in mind that nearer the church you are, cheaper the candles being sold around. But better of all would be to buy the candle inside the church for a donation (it’s up to you how much to pay) as none of the profit of the candles sold on the streets benefits the church. And a side note: Most of the people attending the church and waiting for a blessing from the priest upon exit that day are non-Christian Turks, but there is nothing surprising about that: This is Turkey, where east meets west (and vice versa) and cultures truly mix.
Sotiros Christou Church is situated on Isa Hill of Buyukada. The church dates back from the Byzantine era and today only the south wing of the building still exists, as well as a few outdoor buildings.
Both the eastern and western side of Büyükada is full of wooden Victorian-style mansions dating back to late 19th/early 20th century, similar of which have been bulldozed in the rest of Istanbul (with the exception of neighborhoods on Bosphorus banks) to make way for concrete, multi-story apartment buildings. The ones on the western side (right side when looking out of quay) seem more splendid. Just don’t be surprised and don’t start looking for them as soon as you get off the ship: Around the quay is more like a modest town center. They are located about 15 min walk away from the quay.
Please visit Princes Islands Tour Page for more details: