The Prince Islands are a group of nine small islands in the Sea of Marmara, just off the coast of Istanbul. In Byzantine times they were used for exile purposes, but today they are an extremely popular destination for Istanbulites and tourists escaping the hustle and bustle of city life. Only four of the islands have easy access to the public. They are Büyükada, Burgazada, Heybeliada and Kınalıada.
The history of the islands and some of the hidden gems that you will find will take you back in time to the period when Greeks, Armenians and the well off Jewish elite of Istanbul, had some grand homes on these islands. Evidence of those communities still exists through the churches, mosques and synagogues that you will see as you travel around. The mansions and grand homes of rich merchants and royalty in exile are now the property of Istanbul’s most wealthy citizens. Leon Trotsky is one of the most well known exiles who was held here for four years on Büyükada after being deported from the Soviet Union in 1929.
The Prince Islands or Islands of the Princes, Adalar in Turkish, can get extremely busy during weekends and in the holiday periods. The unique aspect of all the islands is the fact that you have no cars or buses or any kind of motor vehicles. The only transport is by bicycle, or horse and cart carriages, called Fayton or Payton in Turkish. Recent press reports around the condition of the horses, and the way they have been treated, has discouraged a lot of people from using the horse and carriage services.
Getting to the islands is easy. You take a short ferry ride from Istanbul where there are several departure points. The best time to visit is in the spring or autumn to avoid the crowds and experience the natural beauty and tranquility that the islands have to offer. Büyükada, meaning Big Island in English, is the largest and the most popular island.
Büyükada is a delight in any season. Its tree lined avenues and magnificent buildings, coupled with its natural beauty, make this island a “must see” on your list of things to do in Istanbul. There are plenty of historical buildings on Buyukada too. The most popular tourist attraction is the Ayia Yorgi Church and Monastery which dates back to the sixth century. There is also the Ayios Dimitrios Church and the Hamidiye Mosque. An old and dilapidated wooden structure that was the Greek orphanage is hopefully going to be restored to its original condition. This wooden structure is reputed to be the second largest of its kind in Europe. Walking or riding around the island is like being in a time capsule.
Try and visit Büyükada mid-week rather than at the weekends and avoid the holiday periods. The islands can get so busy with people during these times. The islands do have their own beaches but the Marmara Sea is not the best place for a swim, due to it being so close to the city of Istanbul. The Islands Museum or Adalar Museum, features a permanent exhibition that delves into the history and cultural aspects of the islands and their transformation as tourist resorts.
In English Heybeliada means “Saddlebag Island”. It is the second largest island in the Prince Archipelago and also a popular destination. The island has a large Naval Cadet school which you can’t miss as you get off the ferry. In the grounds of the school the only remaining Byzantine Kamariotissa church can be found. The grave of an English Ambassador, Edward Barton, sent to Constantinople by Queen Elizabeth I of England, is buried here.
The island has some beautiful houses and an eleventh century Greek Orthodox monastery. There was also a Greek Orthadox Seminary here which was closed by the Turkish Government in 1971 with no explanation. Just as with Büyükada the island has no vehicles except official ones. The only way to reach the island is by boat and the only way to travel is by foot, horse buggy or bicycle.
Burgazada means “Fortress Island” and this is the third largest of the islands. It gets its name from the ancient fort on the island which was built by Alexander the Great. This used to be a predominently Jewish island. The famous Turkish writer Sait Faik Abasıyanık lived here and his house is open as a museum.
Kınalıada means “Henna Island” due to the Henna colour of the earth found on the island. This island was the main place of exile during Byantine times and even had the former Emperor Romanos IV Diogenese interned here. There is also an old Abbey on the island which had predominently Armenian residents in the 20th century.
Sedef Island, or “Mother of Pearl” Island is one of the smallest islands with no regular ferry service. Most of the homes on the island are private and the residents strive to protect the environment and their privacy. There is a strict building code and no building must be more than 2 floors in height. The only part of the island that is open to visitors is a small beach area with access by private boat from Büyükada.
This island was orginally purchased by a British Ambassador who built himself a mansion house on the island. It was later sold to Ismail Pasha, the Khediv of Ottoman Egypt and Sudan. It fell into decay and dis-repair and was finally handed over to the Turkish State who passed it on for use by the Turkish Navy. Adnan Menderes, a former Prime Minister of Turkey was executed here in 1961 after a military coup. The island now belongs to Istanbul University.
Sivriada stands for “Sharp Island”. The island was used by the Byzantine Church for worship as well as a prison to exile troublesome prominent people. There are some gaves on the island and the ruins of a Roman Settlement and a ninth century Byantine monastery. Although the island has a small wharf and a fisherman’s shelter it is currently uninhabited.
Kaşık Adası or “Spoon Island” is the second smallest island in the archipelago. There is not a great deal here to see and the island is only accessible by private boat charter.
Tavşan Adası meaning “Rabbit Island” is the smallest of the Prince Islands.
You can visit Büyükada on a day trip but if you want to see all the accessible islands then you will need to extend your trip to 2 or 3 days. There are a number of hotels on Büyükada but they tend to be expensive. Most people prefer to travel to and from the islands on a daily basis.