“The Islands” as they are commonly referred to by locals, refer to an archipelago of nine islands, four of which are easily accessible by ferry: Büyükada, Heybeliada, Burgazada and Kınalıada. Although each island has its own particular character, they share a common past—namely, as a place of exile. During both the Byzantine and Ottoman empires, fractious members of the royal family were often banished to these islands. The 19th century saw a shift in public opinion: the city’s wealthier residents began building ornate wooden
The largest and grandest island of the bunch, Büyükada is often thronged with visitors. Yet there’s a reason it’s so popular: The streets are lined with stately, clapboarded mansions and towering bougainvillea, cafes and fish restaurants abound, and phaetons, horse-drawn carriages, are the preferred method of transportation as there are no cars on the island. The port area can feel overcrowded at times, especially on summer weekends, but the island is large enough that you can find some peace and quiet a bit further afield.
Hire a phaeton in the town square, or rent a bike if you’d like the exercise, and head to the southern end of the island, where you can hike up to Aya Yorgi church and monastery. Located at the top of highest hill on Büyükada, this complex serves as a pilgrimage site, while also providing stunning panoramic views of the mainland. You’ll likely see a large number of visitors climbing the hill in silence. According to custom, they make a wish while walking and then purchase either a bell or a key at the church; they must then bring this object back to the church if their wish comes true. Regardless of whether you take part in this ritual, hiking to the top of the hill will feel like an accomplishment, especially once you get a glimpse of the sea set against the Istanbul skyline.
Heybeliada is the second largest island and is easily identifiable by the naval academy that dominates the island’s coastline. This is the best island to walk around, follow the road that circles Heybeliada and you will be treated to the shade of a pine forest interspersed with vistas of the ultramarine sea. You can also wander up to the hill at the centre of the island that is home to Hagia Triada, an 11th century Greek Orthodox monastery which houses the now-shuttered Halki seminary. Make sure to stop by Heyamola, a well-appointed restaurant opposite the ferry terminal. They serve a scrumptious Turkish breakfast, the jams and olives are especially exquisite, but it’s also the perfect spot for a leisurely lunch of fresh seafood mezes.
The appeal of Burgazada is the fact that so few tourists (or locals) bother to visit it. If all you’re looking for is a bit of strolling, a bit of tea drinking and a bit of eating without the crowds, Burgazada should be your port of call. Set up camp at Kalpazankaya Restaurant, an open-air meyhane with magnificent views of the sea, for a long lunch of mezes and cold beer. If you want a table with a view, it’s best to book in advance. If solitude and a bit of nature is what you crave you can hike or bike up to Bayraktepe, the highest point on Burgazada, but you may find that a few afternoon drinks and the lapping waves have lulled you into an soporific state.
The smallest of the four islands, Kınalıada is a popular summer retreat for the city’s Armenian community. Although the area around the port is built-up with modern constructions, don’t let that deter you: Kınalıada is the perfect place for a quick dip in the sea. There are public beaches along the island’s north coast, which is where the ferry terminal is located, while private beach clubs stretch to the southern side of the island. Ayazma beach, nestled into the island’s southern flank, is especially popular. If you’re feeling particularly decadent, you can skip the walk and hire a private boat to take you to Ayazma from the ferry terminal.