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Büyükada – The Big Island

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With a name that literally translates to “Big Island”, Büyükada is the largest of Istanbul’s nine Princes’ Islands. We spent a day biking from one end to the other, enjoying fabulous views of the sea, swimming with jellyfish, climbing hills and finding ways to escape the crowds.

After disembarking the morning ferry, we hunted for a bike to rent and went straight to the shop with the newest-looking bikes on display. After receiving the payment, the guy took us past the nice bikes, around into a back alley and hauled much older bikes out of the shop’s garage. Shenanigans. We could have (and probably should have) complained, but were keen to avoid stress. Büyükada had already cast its “chill-out” spell on us.

Not even hordes of screaming Turkish high-schoolers could ruin our relaxed vibe. After having visited Burgazada on Easter Sunday, we had sworn to never return to the Princes’ Islands on a weekend… and so, we choose to visit Büyükada on a Monday. Little did we know, however, that this particular Monday was a school holiday. Every teenager in Istanbul was on our ferry, and they were all in exuberant, screechy spirits. Luckily, most of them made a beeline for the first beach and we quickly found peace.

At Yörükali Beach, on the southwestern end of the island, we paid 15 lira apiece and walked down a long path to the sea. The cover charge is apparently a way to keep the kids out, because we were completely alone except for a British couple and a few shirtless Turkish guys working on a new boardwalk. Acceptable. The sea water was cool and refreshing, and I would have stayed in hours but for the jellyfish.

Büyükada Bay

For lunch, we biked to the center of the island, where roads converge in a mad intersection full of bikes, tourists and donkeys. This is the central nexus of the island, where you can grab lunch or choose to climb one of Büyükada’s giant hills… or have a donkey climb them for you. We felt guilty about burdening the poor beasts, so locked our bicycles and walked up. At the top of the southern hill, we found the Greek church of St. George, and a surprisingly affordable restaurant with a view of the Marmara Sea.

After eating, we punished our aching legs even further, and hiked up the other of Büyükada’s big hills to an abandoned Greek orphanage. This massive wooden building was falling apart, and a little creepy, so I wasn’t upset when we weren’t able find a way inside. From here, we returned to the ferry terminal. The great majority of Büyükada’s 7000 residents live on the northern side of the island, and hidden among the impressive mansions is a dilapidated home which hosted Leo Trotsky for four years.

This was a fantastic excursion, perfectly manageable in a day. It might be the busiest of the Princes’ Islands, but Büyükada has a lot more to do than Burgazada, and is the more lovely of the two. We never made it to the other islands (Heybeliada and Kınalıada) so are unable to conclusively judge which is the best, but it’s hard to imagine a more satisfying day out than the one we enjoyed on Büyükada.

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June 30, 2013 at 7:46 pm Comments (9)

Easter Sunday on Burgazada

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Burgazada is the third-largest of the popular Princes Islands, found just off Istanbul’s southern coast in the Sea of Marmara. Around 2000 people live there permanently, but its population swells considerably in the summer… and on sunny Sundays, like the one we stupidly chose for our visit.


While boarding the ferry at Kabataş, we were shocked by the crowd. When the sun is shining, a single idea pops into the collective mind of Istanbul: “Princes Islands!” This was the first truly warm weekend of the year, and we had expected a mob, but not like this. We crammed on the ferry, lucky to snatch a seat, then watched with increasing dismay as it filled to capacity. And then continued filling. 30 minutes past the scheduled departure time, people were still squeezing on, occupying every conceivable inch of space: the floors, aisles, railings, laps.

And this was just at the first stop! The ferry also picked up passengers at Kadiköy, where hundreds more people somehow managed to find space on the already-overflowing boat.

Despite the crush, the atmosphere on the ferry was festive. After a long period of rain and cold, the sun was finally shining, and people were in good spirits. In the aisle, a guy jammed on his guitar while friends and strangers found room to dance. A group of Turkish students challenged each other to backgammon. And despite my distaste for dangerously overloaded ferries, I found myself curiously content. I wouldn’t say the boat ride was “fun”, but it was certainly entertaining.

Any stress began to evaporate the minute we arrived in Burgazada. Friends of ours were visiting, and we wasted no time in finding a four-person phaeton (a horse-drawn carriage) to carry us off to the far side of the small island. By the time our rickety journey ended at Kalpazankaya Beach, we were rejuvenated and ready for some amusement. “What should we do first?” I asked.

“Drink rakı”, came the immediate, unanimous reply. Exactly the answer I’d been hoping for!

So we sat down to a great meal of meze and grilled fish at Kalpazankaya Restaurant, where we had a lovely view over the Sea of Marmara, Asian Istanbul looming surprisingly close on the horizon. (We had to fight for a table here — be sure to make reservations if visiting on a weekend.) After eating, we relaxed on the beach a bit and then began a slow, leisurely walk back to the port, about two kilometers away.

There wasn’t much to do on Burgazada; the island’s only museum, dedicated to novelist Sait Faik, was closed for renovation. But I suspect that “doing things” isn’t really the key to enjoying the Princes Islands. We admired the sea, played with stray cats, took pleasure in the lack of cars and city-noise, and wandered around the lively port area before boarding the ferry back home.

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April 17, 2013 at 6:57 am Comments (6)
Bykada - The Big Island With a name that literally translates to "Big Island", Büyükada is the largest of Istanbul's nine Princes' Islands. We spent a day biking from one end to the other, enjoying fabulous views of the sea, swimming with jellyfish, climbing hills and finding ways to escape the crowds.
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