The thought of a cruise along the Bosphorus in Istanbul did not fill me with excitement. Winter is not the ideal time to be sitting on a boat, shivering with cold. However, every Istanbul travel expert recommended it as a “must do activity” so it was on my bucket list.
The problem was the cost. Local agents sold tickets priced at fifty Euro or more. They promised an elaborate dinner and an evening show but I was on a budget. Then while wandering around the fish boats of Galata Bridge, we saw a ferry sign.
A short two-hour cruise of the Bosphorus was only 12 lira (6 USD or 4 UK pounds on average). We jumped on board and after filling with passengers, the ferry slowly backed away from the harbour and departed on its journey.
The décor and seating was bland and uncomfortable, the coffee served by the café was vile, and the itinerary listing all major shoreline landmarks blasted loudly over the speakers in Turkish, ensuring I could not understand a word.
It started raining and many of my photos were marked with water drops. Yet this simple cruise was one of the satisfying excursions I have completed in Istanbul. I even adored the mischievous seagulls that followed the boats waiting for customers to throw bread in the air.
So what changed my opinion?
This cruise enhanced my intrigue and obsession with the former capital of the Byzantine and Ottoman empires. On the shore banks stand hundreds of ancient and modern landmarks that cannot be ignored by any Istanbul enthusiast. We also passed numerous neighbourhoods, all respected by locals for one characteristic or tradition.
For someone who considered herself an expert in Turkish travel, I learned more on that short cruise than I did on two previous city breaks. My shame at ignoring the importance and history of one of Istanbul’s most prominent locations was kept to myself.
The History of the Bosphorus
This 31-kilometre strait of water is the boundary between East and West. It has always and still is, an important strategic point for governments, empires, business and warfare. Allied powers fought for it in the First World War, and failed miserably causing many casualties at the Gallipoli campaign.
The Russians launched many operations to gain control of it during the latter 19th century and presently many oil tankers from the East travel through there on their way to the West. Transportation plans by the government are always on the books and the latest project is to build a third suspension bridge over the strait that connects the two continents.
Ottoman Yali Houses
The Yali houses are the most impressive and dominant shoreline landmarks. Built during the Ottoman Empire, their architectural styles blend discreetly into the scenery.
Often made from wood, they were the summerhouses of rich Ottomans and notable properties include the yali of Huseyin pasha built in 1699 and the Erbilgin Yalisi, listed as the fifth most expensive house in the world when it went on sale for 100 million USD.
Many yali houses are still occupied and in front of them sit luxury yachts, owned by rich people who can afford a property on one of the most important water straits in the world.
Palaces, Mosques, and Castles
Topkapi palace was the first home for the Ottoman sultans and was built in its location because the rich and elite favoured sea travel. However, when they grew tired of its out-dated architecture, Ottoman rulers then built a second palace called Dolmabahce in the Besiktas district.From the cruise boat, the obvious neoclassical architecture style, which was a first for that era, is seen plainly in the exterior façade.
Prominent mosques such as Ortakoy and old castles like Rumelian castle also complete the generic makeup of the Bosphorus.
So, now I have to make a humble apology for underestimating the importance of the Bosphorus, not because of its strategic importance but because of its ability to portray modern day and historical Istanbul. Although, I ticked a Bosphorus cruise off on my bucket list, I added many more items to it including local neighbourhoods that need to be explored.
Alternatively, if you are already booked for a city break, do not forget to cruise the Bosphorus. The cheapest way is to use ferries departing from Eminonu throughout the day. Most travel agents also sell luxury packages including dinners and entertainment.
Did you know?
Some of the old yalis have been renovated and turned into luxury boutique hotels One night in the Presidential suite of the Les Ottoman Yali will set you back a massive 8896 Turkish lira (Approximately 4000 USD or 2700 UK Pounds).
Have you been on a cruise of the Bosphorus? If so, how much did it cost and did you enjoy it?
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