Travel: Sailing on a vintage ferry from Istanbul to the Princes' Islands

Escape the bustle of Istanbul with a ferry trip to the Princes' Islands, writes Neil Geraghty
One of Isbanbuls ferries on the Bosphorus. Picture: Chris McGrath/Getty ImagesOne of Isbanbuls ferries on the Bosphorus. Picture: Chris McGrath/Getty Images
One of Isbanbuls ferries on the Bosphorus. Picture: Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Istanbul is a treasure trove of world famous monuments but look beyond the Old City’s fabled skyline of domes and minarets and another much loved city icon with Scottish heritage can be found chugging across the deep blue waters of the Bosphorus. Istanbul’s beautiful green and white vintage ferries were originally built by Govan’s Fairfield Shipbuilding Company and when nine were delivered to the city in 1961, Istanbullus instantly fell in love with their streamlined prows, curvaceous hulls and funnels cocked back at a jaunty angle. The ferries quickly became a mainstay of Turkish popular culture featuring in countless films and novels and to this day pop up regularly in TV advertisements and pop videos. For a city of 14 million people, they also provide a welcome respite from the hustle and bustle of urban life.

One of the most popular ferry journeys is over to the Princes’ Islands, a small archipelago of nine islands that lies in the Sea of Marmara about an hour’s sailing from Istanbul. Originally a place of exile for Byzantine and Ottoman royalty, in the 19th century the islands became a fashionable summer retreat for Istanbul’s elite who built sumptuous wooden mansions overlooking the sea. Nowadays the islands are blissfully free from motorised vehicles and with their shady pine woods and picturesque swimming coves are one of Istanbul’s favourite destinations for a summer day out.

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Alongside New York’s Staten Island Ferry and Hong Kong’s Star Ferry, the Princes’ Islands Ferry is one of the world’s most scenic public transport boat journeys. From central Istanbul’s bustling ferry terminal at Eminonu there are nine departures per day and on warm summer mornings it’s wise to arrive early to ensure you get a coveted outside deck seat. I arrive 20 minutes before the noon sailing and when the departure hall doors open, I join a mini stampede to the upper deck and arrive just in time to bag one of the last outdoor seats. With a juddering whoosh the engines fire up and, accompanied by an entourage of screeching seagulls, the ferry pulls out. The first 15 minutes is simply breathtaking and buffeted by refreshing winds I take in the timeless view of the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia and Topkapi Palace standing majestically on a hilltop overlooking the sparkling waters of the Bosphorus.

During the crossing waiters roam the decks with constant supplies of snacks and refreshments and their simits are selling like hot potatoes. Simits are similar to bagels but are coated in a thick layer of aromatic toasted sesame seeds. They’re a popular snack in Turkey but passengers on Istanbul’s ferries buy them as much for the seagulls as for themselves. Some lads start throwing pieces over the side and the seagulls swoop and lunge as they attempt to catch the titbits in mid air. I sit spellbound watching their intricate aeronautical ballets and before I know it we’ve arrived at Buyukada, the largest and arguably the most beautiful of the Princes’ Islands.

From the busy town square I jump into a horse drawn phaeton for a ride to St George’s church, one of many Greek and Armenian churches dotted around the island. Buyukada’s phaetons with their sun canopies decorated with tassels and tinkling bells are a delightful way to explore the island. Our route takes us along a coastal road lined with beautiful pastel wooden villas with ornate gables and balconies. It’s late spring and the Judas trees are in full bloom lighting up the gardens with drifts of magenta coloured blossom. The phaeton drops me off at the base of a hill from where it’s a steep 15 minute climb through fragrant pine woods to the church. While I’m walking I notice long threads of coloured cotton lying on the path. They’ve been left by Greek Orthodox pilgrims who come to the church on St George’s Day and as they climb the hill unwind reels of cotton while chanting prayers. After visiting the church I take a seat in the neighbouring tea garden and over a glass of black Turkish tea enjoy the dazzling view over the Sea of Marmara to the sunlit mountaintops of western Anatolia.

I arrive back at Buyukada’s quayside just in time for the early evening sailing and as we approach Istanbul the sun begins to set behind the domes and minarets of the Blue Mosque. It’s the classic image of Istanbul seen in a thousand tourist brochures but when another vintage ferry crosses our path silhouetted against the burnished waters of the Bosphorus it seems to conjure up all the magic and nostalgia of this incredible city.

Fact box Return flights from Edinburgh to Istanbul with Turkish Airlines ( start at £172;