The bright rays of the morning sun reflecting in the deep blue waters of the Sea of Marmara, seagulls flying alongside the boat on your way hint at an exciting day ahead on the island which not only provides an escape from the busy city life of Istanbul but also a trip back to the good old days of fairy tales and horse carriages.
Prince Islands were the place of exile for imperial families during the Byzantine era and then a favourite holiday destination for the aristocrats during the Ottoman period. Even today, you feel like you have time-travelled to one of those romance novel scenes with horse-drawn carriages on the alleys, small boutique shop-owners sitting idle with their handicrafts, old-school bungalows that are heritage houses, small and big shore-side eateries where lazy cats will expect a piece of fish from your plate!
It is a calm and slow life on the island. The trip to Prince Islands takes half a day, so you better start early and get back to the city for some shopping time at the Grand Bazaar! That’s what tourists normally do; otherwise, you may wish to spend a night there on one of the inhabited islands where you can find a couple of decent hotels and some good Airbnb options. Most of the good old Victorian-style villas have been converted into holiday homes and are rented out for tourism purposes. When you are in Istanbul, it’s best to plan your itinerary such that you visit Prince Islands during the weekdays rather than weekends because they are invaded by the townspeople and the local tourists.
The four main islands of the archipelago are Büyükada, Heybeliada, Burgazada, and Kinaliada. You can only get there by sea routes, but there are different ferries to choose from. There are sea buses (fast ferries) that take about 55 minutes and regular ferries which cover the journey in about 100 minutes. Both ferry types depart from Kabataş, in the Galata area easily accessible with public transportation. From the popular Taksim Square, it is easy to reach the ferry terminal where nice restaurants and restrooms are available before you embark on the sea ride. Tourists mainly take the ferry from the European side, but there are options to travel from the Asian side also. You can move around by boat for free between the islands as the ferries stop on each main island, so you just have to get on board. Private yachts are also available for those who are not limited by budget.
Very interestingly, previously on the islands motorised vehicles were not permitted except for service vehicles like school buses and ambulances. Till very recently, visitors used to explore the island either on foot or riding a bicycle or in horse-drawn phaeton carriages which function like taxi cabs, also offering round-the-island sightseeing tours.
However, this means of transportation generated a huge controversy due to the bad treatment of horses. Very recently the Prince Islands appeared in news headlines as electric vehicles hit the roads of the car-free streets of Adalar after a ban on horse-drawn carriages was issued as a result of the killing of dozens of horses due to an outbreak of glanders and years-long animal rights activism against the ill-treatment of horses. Though tourists will miss the fairy tale charm of horse-drawn carriages, local residents are happy that the bad odour caused by the horses will now disappear. They also think that the risk of accidents will now decrease. Along with the residents, animal lovers are also happy that electric vehicles have replaced the horses.
However, other than walking and electric buses, riding bicycles can be an alternative too. Bicycles can be rented by the hour, rental companies usually distribute maps of the island for free; but don’t forget to ask for one.
There are quite a few nice restaurants by the ferry quay offering a sea view, tasty, Turkish and authentic island’s cuisine serving fresh seafood, kebabs and also several vegetarian dishes. Local gift shops sell tiny small mementoes one can buy for everyone. Bargaining is strongly recommended, but politely.
The most enchanting part of visiting the Prince Islands is experiencing the silence. So far it was only the sounds of bicycle bells and the typical sound of horse hoofs. Now, with the horse carriages going off the streets and electric buses introduced, it remains to be seen how the sound-scape of the island changes. Anyway, till you visit the islands, fancy yourself, walking or riding through the narrow streets of the island lifted out of some fairy tale book flanked by untouched pine-forests and cobbled streets full of Victorian cottages.