Discover the hideaways of Istanbul in Princes' Islands
Got a weekend, or even better a long weekend while you’re in Istanbul? 3 days will be enough to see the beautiful islands surrounding Istanbul, well, perhaps 2 if you take a bike ride.
The Princes’ Islands (Adalar) are a chain of nine islands in the Sea of Marmara, within 2-15 km distance from Istanbul; Kınalıada, Burgazada, Heybeliada, Büyükada, Sedefadası, Yassıada, Kaşıkadası, Sivriada and Tavşanadası. The first four are open to public. Evolving from a place of exile during the Byzantine era, to a popular destination both for Istanbulites & tourists to escape the hectic city life, the islands do offer a unique fin-de-siècle flashback.
Left abandoned after the conquest of Istanbul by Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror, the islands started generating interest with the steamship journeys departing from Kadıköy. Preferred as both residential and vacation areas, different communities populated each; Armenians moved to Kınalıada, Rums to Burgazada, Jewish to Büyükada and Turks to Heybeliada. Kınalıada (Greek: Proti) used to be the summer retreat of the Armenian archbishop and the Armenian community of Istanbul, Burgazada (Greek: Antigoni) used to be a village inhabited by Greek shermen. Heybeliada (Greek: Halki) was the main Turkish settlement on the Princes’ Islands, while Büyükada (Greek: Prinkipos) was mostly favored by local Jews and foreign residents of Istanbul, mostly of European descent.
Today the islands serve as the closest tourism spot and hence are overpopulated in summer. Ideal in that sense, perhaps in spring, the only sounds you’ll come across are bicycle bells and the typical sounds of horse hoofs. Swimming; walking by untouched pine-forests or even riding through streets flanked by fine, wooden Victorian cottages, you’ll be more than happy to have made it to this small heaven.
Quick tip: Make sure you get on the very first ferry / fast ferry to the islands to beat the (local) crowd in summer.
Kınalıada (Henna Island) is named after the colour of the island’s soil. This is the smallest and most overlooked island of the quartet. First inhabited island is the closest to the mainland as well.
Kınalıada is known mostly for the Monastery of Hıristo. The founder of the monastery, the Byzantine Emperor Roman Diogenes IV, also became a prisoner in this very place, after he failed to stop the Seljuk from entering to the Anatolia in 1071. The present monastery of the Transfiguration was built on the site of the Byzantine monastery.
Kınalıada Mosque has an interesting story behind. The locals ask for a mosque to be built as one didn’t exist until 50s. The prime minister, Adnan Menderes orders the small mosque dismantled from Karaköy to be mounted here. However this doesn’t work and the locals have one built in 1964. It is one of my favourite modern mosque architecture up to date.
The Greek Orthodox Church is dedicated to the Genissa Panagia Theotokou, the Birth of the All Holy Mother of God, and was founded in 1886. Famous for its silver framed iconas , the church celebrates the panigiri, or feast-day, of the Virgin’s birth on 7-8 October.
Surp Krikor Lusavoric Armenian Gregorian Church is one of the most active churches that is open especially during the summer period. There are 3 important religious feasts where the church celebrates: Transfiguration "Vartavar" (mid July), Virgin Merry "Asdvadzadzin" (closest Sunday to August 15), Holly Cross "Khach" (closest Sunday to Sept 14).
The Sirakyan twin houses, on the seafront beside the iskele, appear in old postcard views of the village; built at the beginning of the twentieth century. My favourite twin houses are the ones in Heybeliada, look it up in the gallery 😉
There is a swimming pool at the Water Sports Club (Kınalıada Su Sporları Külübü) on the northern shore of the island, as well as at the Teos beach on the southern coast. The south coast of the island hosts Ayazma Beach, named after a sacred spring, dedicated to St. Fotini.
Called “Antigone” in history, the island is named after Antigonus, the former commander of Alexander the Great. Demetrius Poliorcete named the island after his father Antigonus when he sailed to the Marmara Sea to conquer the empire and to free the Bosporus in 298 BC. After the conquest of Istanbul, the island was named “Pyrgos” in Greek. And in time this name changed to Burgaz. In the 19th century, the island became a summer resort for native Rums and other foreigners in Istanbul. You can hear Spanish and Hebrew spoken on the streets of Burgazada.
You can see different communities living in peace on the island. Agios Ioannis Church (Aya Yani Kilisesi), is believed to have been originally built around 11th century as the church of John the Baptist. The island’s most striking monument, is rebuilt as an Orthodox church in 1899. The Great Orthodox Sanctuary; the Aya Yorgi Karipi Church, famous with its three bells; and the monastery named after the church are on the peaceful side of the island. Ohel Yaakov Synagogue is one of the 21 synagogues located in Istanbul. This synagogue was built in 1968 for the increasing needs of the Jewish community in Burgaz Island. It belongs to the Neve Shalom Synagogue Foundation, and is open for services only in the summer season. The only mosque of the island is called the Burgazada Mosque and was built in commemoration of the 500 year anniversary of the conquest of Istanbul in 1453.
Byzantine Monastery of the Theokoryphotos, is on the summit of Hristos (Christ) Tepesi. Greek tradition, unverified by the Byzantine sources, has it that the monastery was founded by the emperor Basil I the Macedonian (r. 867-86) on the ruins of an ancient Greek temple. Within the monastery precinct are four large vaulted underground cisterns which still collect rainwater even today. Greeks and others still come to the church to mark the panigiri of the Transfiguration on August 6.
There’s a museum of a famous Turkish author Sait Faik Abasıyanık who passed the last ten years of his life here in Burgazada. Upon his legacy, the house where he wrote his books, was converted to a museum.
“I don’t think differently
than you because I am the
narrator, I even can’t think
more than the things you
thought. So what would be
the story of this man?
Please don’t expect from me
to tell you about big cases.”
–Sait Faik Abasiyanik
Below’s painter Bedri Rahmi Eyüboğlu sketching the poet. Ssh, don’t tell anyone, I edited it :-/
Another place you should visit on the island is a recreation area called Kalpazankaya . The viewpoint, surrounded with forest on one side and sea on the other, is ideal for watching sunsets. You may wine & dine here at the restaurant named after the hill. It is possible to reach here with 30-minutes walk, horse carriages (we locals do not support the idea as we are not sure of their heatlh & care), or boat.
Another important recreation area is Bayraktepe. The area takes its name from the flag carved on wood somewhere on the island. The area is also home to a camping area.
By the pier, on the left is the Adalar Water Sports Club (ASSK). The institution founded in 1963, is specialized in training for swimming, water polo, sailing and subaqueous sports and is not open to public.
There are many good fish restaurants by the sea, Antigoni and Barbara Yani, to name a few. To taste home made food visit Fincan Cafe, for deserts Ergün Patisserie and ice cream Sinem Dondurma.
The second largest island has a year-round population of about 5,500, which in summer increases to some 30,000. Halki, the Greek name of the island, which means "copper," comes from the copper mines that were worked here in antiquity, mentioned by Aristotle. The island took its Turkish name, Heybeli, from the word for saddlebag, heybe, which it is said to resemble because of the shape of its hills and their intervening valleys.
In the area, mining, the commerce school, churches, monasteries and wine-selling were more important in the daily life in the Byzantine era. In the Ottoman era, the Patriarchate of Fener and Jerusalem was on Heybeliada. Therefore, the island hosts many graves and remembrances of many patriarch metropolitan and other clergies especially of Orthodox.
The Navy Academy, founded in the 1700’s, welcomes you right by the ferry terminal.
İnönü House Museum, is the house where the second president of Republic of Turkey spent first his summers and later, major part of his life. Today it serves as a museum and is run by the İnönü Foundation, established by his children. Free of charge, the modest art deco styled house gives a chance to have a glimpse of 40s.
Ayios Nikolaos Church (Aziz Nikola Rum Ortodoks Kilisesi) built on the ruins of a byzantine church in 1857, is dedicated to St. Nicholas, the patron saint of fishermen.
Monastery of Hagios Georgios / Saint Georges (Aya Yorgi) is built upon a brink around 1583-93. The English traveler Richard Pococke has recorded in 1739 that the Greeks from Istanbul took shelter against plague in the monastery.
Monastery of Hagios Spyridon (Terk-i Dünya) is on the southwest coast of the island, perched on the promontory that forms the western horn of the huge crescent-shaped bay known as Pine Port. Trust me, the walk up here is going to be worth the scenery here.
The Halki Seminary (Ruhban Okulu) is located on the site of the Monastery of the Holy Trinity (Hagia Triada) , founded by Patriarch Photius I almost a thousand years before the foundation of the theological school. In 1844, Patriarch Germanos IV converted the monastery into a school of theology, which was inaugurated on 1 October 1844. The facilities include the Chapel of the Holy Trinity, dormitories and the school's library.
Heybeliada Water Sports Club is in Değirmenburnu, the northwestern promontory of the island. The promontory takes its name from a windmill (in Turkish, değirmen), which appears as a landmark in all views of the island going back to Ottoman times.
Heyamola Ada Lokantasi is a perfect storm of inspired food, chill ambience, and small-label Turkish wines. Check out the Halki Palas for a luxurious place to spend the night.
Büyükada is the largest of the islands on the Marmara Sea with 5,4 km squares.
The Greek Orphanage is Europe’s largest wooden building, and the second largest in the world, according to Jak Deleon. The building was erected in 1898 by a French company, who planned to open it as a grand hotel called the Prinkipo Palas, with a gambling casino on the style of Monte Carlo. Those were the days when islands were the favourite of world’s jet set. But Sultan Abdül Hamit II refused to give permission for such an establishment. The building was then purchased by Eleni Zarifi, widow of the banker Leonidas Zarifi, who donated it to the Ecumenical Patriarchate on condition that it be used as an orphanage. The Greek Orphanage, which had been at Balıklı in Istanbul, reopened here in 1903, helped by donation of Abdül Hamit II, who also gave it tax-exempt status. The orphanage closed in 1964 and has since fallen into ruins, awaiting to be revived.
On the highest hill of the island is the Monastery of St. George Koudonas (Aya Yorgi). On the way to the greek orthodox church, you may notice many ropes tied to trees. A pilgrimage point for Christians, this church is haunted by many people from all religions, who believe that their wishes could be realized, every year especially on 23 April and 24 September. According to the belief, you must climb the hill to the church without a word, take a bell or a key from the church and make your wish. If your wish comes true, you must return the bell or the key to the church. I have to warn you it’s not an easy climb guys. I remember donkey rides after a certain point, check it out.
Roman Catholic Church of San Pacifico is a large basilica in the neo-Gothic style, with a wooden roof, built by the Franciscans in 1866. Above the altar there is a large painting by the Italian artist Giovanni Battista depicting San Pacifico.
Dedicated to (Hagios Dimitrios), the patron saint of Prinkipo, the Metropolitan Church of St. Dimitrios was designed by the Greek architect Fistikos Kalfa and built in 1856-60.
John Pasha (Con Paşa) Mansion, famous for its elaborate wooden facade and eclectic architecture is definitely my favourite on the island. John Avrimidis, who had established the first ferry service between Kadikoy and Princes’ Islands, had the mansion built in 1880.
The Yanaros Mansion, gardens and pier were built in the 1850s by Nikola Demades on the Western side of Büyükada. Leon Trotsky (Troçki) lived here between 1932 and 1933 at the end of his four-year exile on the island.
The ambulance boat named Horoz Reis is in fact named after Berç Yanvart Akdeniz’, aka, Ambulansçı Horoz Reis, a fisherman who helped transfer anybody with a health issue from the island to the main land, no matter the weather. The first part of his nickname, amulance man derives from here whereas the second because he dropped a toy cock to the sea when he was a kid and left known crying after it a lot.
To swim, you may use the facilities of the Büyükada Water Sports Club or other beaches daily with a small charge.
Club Mavi is a restaurant and a hotel located inside a rambling old house on the island's undeveloped backside. It’ll be worth the prices with its stunning location up on a bluff that overlooks a nearby island and the open sea. SofrAda Restoran, a homey version of a tradesmen's restaurant, located on a small side street near the aromatic lot where the horse carriages are parked, is a budget one, though.
Psyches soothed, lungs cleansed, and tummies full, it’ll be hard to leave the deliciously slow pace of life behind to return to the chaos of Istanbul. With their sacred precincts, striking history, ornate mansions, rustic fish restaurants, inspiring spots and breathtaking views, the Princes’ Islands will dazzle you.
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