Istanbul’s Princes’ Islands are havens of tranquility and the ultimate escape from Istanbul’s noise and traffic without having to fly or drive long distances.
Dotted with impressive wooden country mansions, and full of fragrant tangerine and lemon trees, wisterias, pink magnolias, and yellow daffodils, Istanbul’s Princes’ Islands, while only a few kilometers from the city’s Asian shores, feel like a world away. The small-town vibe has made the islands one of Istanbulites’ favorite summer destinations.
The nine-island archipelago, called Kızıl Adalar (Red Islands) or simply Adalar (Islands) in Turkish, is also referred to as the Princes’ Islands, owing it to Byzantine era’s exiled princes and princesses. Throughout history, the islands have welcomed aristocracy, exiled politicians, authors, artists, and minorities, all of whom left their traces on the archipelago.
No cars except some service vehicles are allowed here, so the best way is to get around on foot or by bicycle. Alongside guides to the islands below, cycling enthusiast Aydan Çelik also shares his tips for the best routes in the area.
Take a ferry ride!The islands are only a ferry ride away to defy the chaos of a city with more than 15 million inhabitants. To experience the best of what they have to offer, it is essential to visit in the early morning hours, wandering the quiet streets while enjoying the island’s feeling of nostalgia.
Büyükada is the largest island and the most popular with tourists. Whether it is the historic pier, big market square, famous fish restaurants, spectacular summer mansions lining Çankaya Street, or the Aya Yorgi monastery overlooking the blue sea, Büyükada welcomes visitors with its history and beauty.
After stepping off the ferry, the main road divides into two and the left path leads to Ada Kahvaltı, which serves traditional Turkish breakfast. With cats and dogs resting in front of the place, as well as colorful flowers that beautify the entrance, Ada emits a resort-like vibe.
Just a short walk away, located on 23 Nisan Caddesi, is the Splendid Palace Hotel with its silver domes, and red shutters that resembles Parisian Haussmann-style apartments. Müşir Kazım Paşa from Chios Island built the hotel in 1908, today recognized as a Class I national monument by the Ministry of Culture. The hotel, which has been managed by the Hamamcıoğlu family since 1957, is decorated with original Ottoman furniture, Christofle silver-plated cutlery sets, and Lion Paris wicker seats, all from 1908.
On the corner of the same street lies the Anadolu Kulübü, formerly known as the Prinkipo Yacht Club. Nowadays it serves as a members only club and a hotel, as well as a spot for events.
On the highest peak of the island you will find Aya Yorgi Church, which is considered one of the two most important Christian pilgrimage sites in Turkey, next to the House of Virgin Mary in Ephesus. Each year on April 23 and September 24 Orthodox Christians climb the hill, making a wish by tying a thread on the trees leading up to the church.
Walking down from Aya Yorgi, you will see the Greek orphanage across the hill, built by Levantine architect Alexandre Vallaury. Although the building is largely in ruins, it is recognized as world’s second largest wooden mono-block structure. Other hidden gems include picturesque mansions such as the Sevastopulo at the base of Hamlacı Street. There is also the wild garden and a former home to exiled Russian politician Leon Trotsky, where he stayed from 1929 to 1933 and where he wrote his autobiography and History of the Russian Revolution. Local government buildings toward the end of Çankaya Caddesi are worth a visit for their gardens.
The ideal spot for the last break on Büyükada is the Prinkipo Ice Cream near the historic pier, a long-time local classic favored both by kids and adults.
Spots to go
- Ada Kahvaltı: Akdemir Sokak No.6; T: (0216) 382 16 62
- Splendid Palace Hotel: 23 Nisan Cadesi No.39; T: (0216) 382 69 50
- Anadolu Kulübü: 23 Nisan Caddesi No.44; T: (0216) 256 59 46
- Trotsky’s house: Hamlacı Sokak No.6
Aydan Çelik’s cycling route for Büyükada
Cycling on Büyükada dates back to 1885 when Thoman Stevens, the author of the first cycling travelbook visited the island. The locals had never seen a bicycle before and reportedly said: “His horse neither eats nor drinks anything, never gets tired but goes like the devil,” giving birth to the phrase “devil’s gear.”
While many locals have their own two-wheelers, there are bicycle rental shops near Saat Meydanı (Clock Square). Aydan Çelik suggests starting the tour there, continuing to the now-deserted house of Leon Trotsky, who was a bicycle lover.
Continuing towards the former Greek orphanage, you come across the Sotiros Christou Monastery. If you have a mountain bike, Çelik suggests exploring the small pathways around the island. Be sure to continue on to the Aya Yorgi Church, which sits on the highest point of Büyükada. Despite the challenge, the view from the top is worth it.
While Heybeliada is smaller in size than Büyükada, it packs a punch. Worth a visit is the mansion of İsmet İnönü, the second president of the Turkish Republic, on Lozan Victory Street. İnönü was close with the locals and their daily lives, greeting them from his balcony. The place is open for visitors as the İnönü House Museum, displaying furniture, personal belongings, and paintings from the early twentieth century.
İnönü had come to the island for its fresh air and treatment at the sanatorium, which opened in 1924 as a 16-bed hospital for men. Shortly after, an extension was created for women and the facility remained in operation as Turkey’s first tuberculosis hospital until 2005.
Climb the island’s highest peak to see the former School of Theology for the Eastern Orthodox Church’s Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. The school was closed in 1971 but you can still visit the church and the surrounding garden to take in the sea view.
If you want to take a step back in time, just below Lozan Zaferi Caddesi there is an antique dealer and second-hand bookseller next to each other. The “time-selling bookshop,” as the place is known among the locals, sells dozens of black and white photographs of former residents sold in vintage suitcases, as well as history books about the islands. Bring your new book to Luz Cafe, a charming spot to take a lunch break, before waving goodbye to the island.
Spots to go
- İsmet İn.nü Museum: Refah Şehitleri Caddesi, Büyükada; T: 0216 351 84 49
- Heybeli Sahaf: Lozan Zaferi Caddesi. No.57, Heybeliada; T: 0535 829 46 92
- Luz Café: İşgüzar Sokak, No. 34/B; T: (0216) 935 10 905
Aydan Çelik’s cycling route for Heybeliada
On Heybeliada, start from the ferry pier cycle past the house of Turkish author Hüseyin Rahmi Gürpınar to the Saint Spyridon Monastery, around Çam Harbour Bay, and to the former sanitorium. Afterwards, head to the Seminary of Aya Triada on the northern hill of the island. From there, you can cycle back directly to the ferry pier.
Perhaps the most unspoiled island in the archipelago is Burgazada. The town center features a handful of shops and restaurants within easy walking distance. On Çayır Street is the former home of Turkish author Sait Faik Abasıyanık which today serves as a museum. Nearby is the Aya Yani Greek Orthodox church, which is one of the most breathtaking monuments on the island with its dome dominating the view from the ferries.
Kalpazankaya Cove is a must-visit spot. Requiring a walk to the opposite end of the island, it rewards the weary hiker with the most spectacular sunset.
Spots to go
- Sait Faik Abasıyanık Museum: Çayır Sokak No.15 Burgazada; T: (0216) 381 20 60
- Kalpazankaya Restaurant: Kalpazankaya Yolu Sokak No.42, Burgazada; T: (0216) 381 15 04
Aydan Çelik’s cycling route for Burgazada
Burgazada largely owes its popularity to the literary works of prominent Turkish author Sait Faik Abasıyanık, therefore his former residence should be every cyclist’s first stop.
Continuing from there, cycle along the coastal road to the Aya Yorgi Garipi Monastery. Built in the seventeenth century, the Greek Orthodox church housed White Russians who fled the country after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. Continue to Kalpazankaya to take a break at the restaurant where you can sit and enjoy a meal while looking over the water. After taking in the view, cycle up Hristos Tepesi (Christ Hill), also known as Bayraktepe (Flag Hill), for a view of the Asian side of Istanbul and the Princes’ archipelago from 141 meters above sea level.
Dominating Kınalıada is the monastery atop the island surrounded by a beautiful green field called Hristo, derived from the Turkish word for Christian. From the hill you can also see the full coastline of Istanbul’s Anatolian side. Worth a visit is the Surp Krikor Lusarovic Church, the first and only Armenian church established on the islands, which serves as a place of worship for the island’s largest community.
If you want to take in nature, visit the blue Ayazma Cove but be prepared to walk, as the island is steep and small in comparison to the others, and there are no horse-drawn carriages. After a day spent exploring, stop by Dezire Patisserie for the island’s traditional, fresh cookies with a glass of sage tea.
Taking cycling into another level
If you are an experienced cyclist who can cycle long distances, a trip around the islands may not be enough to satisfy your quest for adventure. If this is the case, take Aydan Çelik’s longer and more challenging route stretching out 115 kilometers from the former Formula One track on the Asian side to the coastal town of Şile, passing through many picturesque villages along the way.
Start at the former Formula One track and head toward Göçbeyli village, which is full of greenhouses and vegetable and fruit farms. From there, either take the dirt road toward Bıçkıdere or the paved road toward Darlık. Continue on past the tiny villages that dot the way to Şile, an old fishing village by the Black Sea and a popular getaway location for Istanbulites. Once you arrive, sit by the sea for a seafood dinner and enjoy the gentle breeze.