Büyükada, the Biggest of the Princes’ Islands

by Istanbul Trails

in City Trip, Things To See & Do

In the past, the island was called Prinkipo after the Greek word for prince, but these days it’s called Büyükada. Logical, because with an area of 5,36 km² it is the biggest (büyük) island (ada) of the nine Princes’ Islands.
Life on the island is very laid-back. The elegant, wooden mansions together with the typical sound of horse-drawn carriages passing by create a unique fin-de-siècle atmosphere.

Horse-drawn carriage on Büyükada in Istanbul, Turkey

I’ve visited the islands on many occasions, so let me describe what a typical visit to Büyükada looks like for me.

Breakfast upon arrival

Take my advice and leave as early as possible to beat the masses. Check the timetables, but in summer the first ferry usually leaves as early as 06.50. If your ferry briefly stops at all the islands, Büyükada is last in the row. After exiting the lovely Ottoman-style ferry terminal, keep on walking straight ahead to the Saat Meydanı, the main square with the beautiful clock tower in the middle.

On the left-hand side of the square, you’ll find some places serving breakfast. Try a typical Turkish weekend breakfast, consisting of cheese, tomatoes, olives, jam, tea and scrambled eggs with some slices of baked sucuk. That should provide enough energy to get you through the day.

Choose a means of transportation

Maybe make a last sanitary stop and head for the Saat Meydanı. There you’ll have to make a choice about how to tour the island. The laziest and most nostalgic way is of course by horse-drawn carriage. You can hire a phaeton left of the clock tower. You have the option between a big tour (TL 60), which lasts one hour and takes you round the island, or a smaller tour (TL 40) around the town.

Alternatively you can rent a bicycle in the side streets of the square. They cost TL 3-4 per hour, around TL 10 for a whole day. The shop owner will also hand you a map of the island and a chain to lock your bike. The most challenging way is of course to explore the island on foot. My wife and I always prefer the big bicycle tour.

On your way to Luna Park and the Monastery of St George

If you chose to go by bike or on foot, follow 23 Nisan Caddesi from which you connect to Çankaya Caddesi. You can’t go wrong from here. When in doubt, just follow the phaetons. Enjoy the magnificent mansions and gorgeous avenues. (see Büyükada video) In case you’re wondering what these mansions cost while admiring them, the monthly rent varies from TL 4.000 to 20.000. If you want to buy one, you need to come up with something between TL 250.000 and 1 million. At 55 Çankaya Caddesi you find the house where Leon Trotsky used to live, after being deported from the Soviet Union in 1929.

A few hundred meters after a fairly steep road up a hill, you reach a reserve called Luna Park (Lunapark Gazinosu). From there you can climb an extremely steep, cobbled path up the hill, or hire a donkey at TL 4 to do the job for you, and visit the Monastery of St George. Along the way, you’ll see hundreds of pieces of cloth tied to the branches of the trees. Each of them represents a prayer, made by mostly female believers visiting the monastery, praying for a child.

Once you reach the top, you can visit the monastery’s chapel or enjoy great panoramic views (see the Büyükada picture gallery) from the restaurant terrace while sipping from a well deserved glass of wine. On clear days, you can even see all the way to Istanbul.

Beaches

If you’re by bike and want to take the big tour, once back down follow the road on your left that says Büyük Tur Yolu. With a minimum of effort since it’s mostly downhill from now on, the road will take you round the island back to the town center.

Regardless whether you took the long or short tour, along the way you pass some beaches. Don’t expect any king size versions though, some don’t even have real sand. One of the most famous ones are Naki Bey Plajı, Kumsal Plajı, Yörükali Plajı and Prenses Plajı. Most of them are private and ask for an entry fee. I personally visited Naki Bey Plajı once, which was a clean and nice place to sunbathe and take a dip in the Sea of Marmara.

Another option is to browse around in the small town streets and have an early dinner. But whatever you do, keep an eye on the clock so you don’t miss the last ferry back.

Phaeton

In Greek mythology, Phaeton was the son of Helios, who set the earth on fire while attempting to drive the chariot of the sun. Later the word was a 19th century term for a sporty carriage drawn by a single horse.
There are currently 229 of those traditional horse-drawn carriages on Büyükada. Most drivers are first or second generation islanders. Three workshops on the island produce new phaetons. A new phaeton, which takes about forty days to build, costs around TL 15.000.

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