The nine small islands about 20 km (10.5 miles) southeast of the center of Istanbul in the Sea of Marmara (map) were called the Princes Islands by foreign chroniclers because of Byzantine emperors’ practice of sending bothersome princes there to be blinded, exiled or executed, but today’s citizens of Istanbul call them simply Adalar (“The Islands”).
In medieval times they were the sites of monasteries, away from the bustle and temptations of the city, but with the advent of steamships and convenient ferryboat service the 19th century, the four larger islands—Büyükada, Heybeliada, Burgazada and Kınalıada— became summer resorts. Istanbul‘s wealthy Ottoman families, especially Greeks, Jews and Armenians, built elaborate Victorian summer cottages along the narrow island-village streets.
The quiet ambience of a century ago is preserved today as no private motor vehicles are allowed on any of the islands. Everyone walks, or rides bicycles, or takes horse-drawn carriages.
The voyage is half the fun as your ferry enters steams down the Bosphorus and into the Sea of Marmara, showing you Topkapı Palace, Ayasofya, the Blue Mosque, Seraglio Point, and indeed all of Istanbul, from a different angle.
On your first visit go to Büyükada, the most interesting island, where you can take an island tour by horse-drawn carriage, or rent a bike and tour the island yourself, and have lunch or dinner, and sip drinks, and even perhaps have a swim at one of the tiny beaches.
Note that the islands get mobbed on summer weekends. In July and August, plan your visit for a weekday (Monday through Friday) if possible.
Büyükada and Heybeliada even have a few hotels, should you want to stay the night, but reserve well in advance in summer, especially on weekends.
Prices are high for food and lodging, as all provisions must be brought to the islands by boat, and because the islands are a popular tourist destination. Unfortunately, ripoffs are not uncommon. “Is their anyway to complain about a restaurant in Büyükada?” one TTP traveler asked. “Our invoice was 660 Turkish Lira for 4 persons without alcohol drinks it is unbelievable (i have copy of this invoice, 4 Kabab = 200 Turkish Lira …..).”
By the way, the five smaller islands—Tavşan, Yassı (Plati), Sivri (Oxia), Sedef and Kaşık (Pita)—are not served by ferries and are essentially uninhabited, although Yassıadawas the detention site of ex-prime minister Adnan Menderes in 1961 while he was being tried by a military tribunal for subverting Turkish democracy. He was found guilty and executed there.