While Istanbul's storied waterfront mansions (yalı), may arguably be some of the most sought-after real estate in the world, their appeal, at least to visitors, lies more in their history than in the symbol of wealth they project.
So enthralled was Lord Byron by the site of these mansions lining the Bosphorus that he immortalized them in his poetic epic Don Juan: “Each villa on the Bosphorus looks a screen/New painted, or a pretty opera scene.”
Since their construction in the late 17th century, the yalı - the wooden mansions that line both sides of the natural, 30 kilometer long Bosphorus strait that marks the continental divide between Asia and Europe - once attested to Ottoman spoils. Princes, Sultans, aristocrats of the era, and even the unbelievingly wealthy all staked their claim along the waterway to erect these opulent summer abodes. Istanbul's few remaining yalıs - pronounced “yahluh,” derived from the Greek yialos, or seashore - are a testament of the former empire's sweeping grandeur; its high society, politics and architecture, as well as the social standing they bestowed their owners.
These seasonal residences - crafted in styles historically popular, such as art nouveau, baroque, eclectic arabesque, or the neoclassical favored in the early 19th century - reflected their owners' tastes, and purses. Prominent European architects, such as Antonio Lasciac, who in 1899 designed and constructed Sait Halim Pasha's pink marble palace located on the upper European shore of the Bosphorus, were all the rage. But, perhaps the most renown of Ottoman art-nouveau designers was Raimondo d'Aronco, an Italian who served for 12 years as imperial architect to Sultan Abdülhamid II in the late 19th century. Inspired by the Viennese secessionist movement and the Italian stile floreale, d'Aronco melded these with Byzantine and Ottoman decorations to create the style unique of the era and the region.
The facades were traditionally tinged a light maroon, a color referred to as "Ottoman rose." Stained just so, as to pop against the backdrop of verdant hills splashed with the pink of cherry blossoms, the dark tones of reedy cypresses, and the plush green of chestnut and walnut trees. Later, the yalı's exteriors adopted the lighter pastel shades that were all the rave in early 18th century Europe.
Once inside, these mansions would reveal a floor plan inherited in part from traditional Turkish abodes, with a center salon - or sofa (a Turkish word, accepted in English literary annals in the 17th century, meaning a raised section of a floor, covered with carpets and cushions, and derived from the Arabic term suffah or bench). The center salon contained a fountain to acclimate its inhabitants during the torrid summer months. The largest yalıs also housed a haremlik for the ladies, a selamlık for the men, and a hamam (Turkish bath). The latter was typically constructed of marble, with a steam, sauna-like chamber, and adjacent rooms where one gender at a time could cool off.
Along the way, the newer yalıs became larger and more elaborate, adopting the trendiest designs, while still optimizing scenic water views and boat access. Most adopted names and are still known by their original moniker: Pembe Aslan (Pink Lion )Yalısı, Yılan (Snake) Yalısı, Mısırlı (Egyptian) Yalısı, Yazarlar (Writers') Yalısı ; even the “Deli” (Crazy) Fuat Pasha Yalısı in İstinye - so called for an Ottoman patrician who decried the tyrannical rule of Sultan Abdülhamid II.
With such prominent owners, the larger yalıs invariably played host to events that would change the course of history. Viziers would entertain foreign heads of state and ministers with lavish feasts set in sprawling salons overlooking the Bosphorus before negotiating the fate of their nations.
One such locale, the Köprülü Yalı, is where the Karlowitz Treaty was signed, a document that relinquished the once Ottoman-owned Balkan territories to Austria in 1699. The Küçük Kaynarca Treaty granting Crimea its independence was also ratified in the villa some 75 years later. The wall-to-wall sofas of the Sait Halim Paşa Yalısı also have witnessed the early 20th century tale of alleged musings with German politicos, negotiations that would lead the Turks into World War I.
Today, some yalıs have been reincarnated into pricey boutique hotels, popular open-air restaurants, and glitzy cafes. One of the best in this category in Asia has to be the splendid A'jia Hotel, a totally renovated 19th century yalı that offers state-of-the-art rooms. But if hopping continents is not de rigueur, Hotel Les Ottomans, situated in a European yalı, will lavish its guests in Ottoman-esque rooms.
Others were transformed into sumptuous apartment rentals and even served as sets for popular television series. But the majority have remained in families for generations, passed on like a torch. Some, through meticulous maintenance, have burned brighter than others.
Owning a slice of waterfront heaven along the Bosphorus will set you back millions, regardless of the currency you’re dealing in. For example, 400 square meters of waterfront real estate can list anywhere starting from 10 million dollars. Taking the financial and social value together, you realize that these yalıs are some of the most highly coveted properties in the world.
Where else can one leisurely witness the traces of three empires, be inspired by the architectural splendors lapped by the water; and, on a clear day, wave at European neighbors from a waterfront villa in Asia? Perhaps more telling of their magnetism are the words of 19th century poet and author Lamartine: "The Bosphorus can be described as an avenue of water surrounded by mansions one more beautiful than the other. Believe me, if fate had granted you one of these, you would never think of leaving to your last day."
The best way to see these gorgeous houses is with a Bosphorus tour. Check out our guide for the best experience.