During the summer months the Princes' Islands are popular destinations for day trips from Istanbul. As there is no traffic on the Islands, the only transport being horse and cart, they are incredibly peaceful compared with the city of Istanbul. They are just a short ferry ride from both the Asian (at Bostanci and also Kartal) and European sides (from Sirkeci/Eminönü, Kabatas and Yenikapi) of Istanbul. Most ferries call in turn at the four largest of the nine islands: Kinaliada, Burgazada, Heybeliada and finally Büyükada. Ferry services are provided by Istanbul Seabuses (IDO), a firm operated by the municipality of Istanbul. In spring and autumn the islands are quieter and more pleasant, although the sea can be rough in late autumn and winter.
During the Byzantine period, prince and other royalty were exiled on the islands, and later members of the Ottoman sultans family were exiled there too, lending the islands their present name. During the 19th century the islands became a popular resort for Istanbul's wealthy, and Victorian era cottages and houses are still preserved on the largest of the Princes' islands.
The Princes' Islands have become more and more ethnically Turkish in character due to the influx of wealthy Turkish jetsetters, a process which began in the first days of the Turkish Republic when the British Yacht Club on Büyükada was appropriated as Anadolu Kulübü, for Turkish parliamentarians to enjoy Istanbul in the summer. However, the Greek, Armenian and Jewish communities still constitute a small part of the islands' population. The islands are an interesting anomaly because they allow us to have a rare and incomplete insight into a multicultural society in modern Turkey, possibly alike to the multicultural society that once existed during the Ottoman Empire in places such as nearby Istanbul/Constantinople
For many Turkish people the islands are fondly remembered as the home of famous short story writer Sait Faik Abasiyanik and football legend Lefter Küçükandonyadis.
Büyükada (Big Island - Prinkipos, Πρίγκιπος in Greek) is the largest of the nine islands consisting the Princes' Islands in the Marmara Sea, close to Istanbul.
As on the other islands, motorized vehicles – except service vehicles – are forbidden, so visitors explore the island by foot, bicycle, in horse-drawn carriages, or by riding donkeys.
A convent on Büyükada was the place of exile for the Byzantine empresses Irene, Euphrosyne, Theophano, Zoe and Anna Dalassena. After his deportation from the Soviet Union in February 1929, Leon Trotsky also stayed for four years on Büyükada, his first station in exile. Princess Fahrelnissa Zeid was born in the island.
There are several historical buildings on Büyükada, such as the Ayia Yorgi Church and Monastery dating back to the 6th century, the Ayios Dimitrios Church, and the Hamidiye Mosque built by Abdul Hamid II. Büyükada consists of two peaks. The one nearest to the iskele (ferry landing), Hristos, is topped by the former Greek Orphanage, a huge wooden building now in decay. In the valley between the two hills sit the church and monastery of Ayios Nikolaos and a former fairground called Luna Park. Visitors can take the 'small tour' of the island by buggy, leading to this point, from where it is an easy climb to Ayia Yorgi, a tiny church with a cafe on the grounds serving wine, chips and sausage sandwiches, this being part of the "classic" Ayia Yorgi (St. George, in Greek Άγιος Γεώργιος) experience.
Heybeliada (Greek: Χάλκη Chalki) is the second largest of the Princes' Islands in the Sea of Marmara. It is a neighbourhood in the Adalar district of Istanbul. The large Naval Cadet School overlooks the jetty to the left as you get off the ferry. There are two interesting pieces of architecture on the grounds of the school. One is Kamariotissa, the only remaining Byzantine church on the island, and more importantly the last church to be built before the conquest of Constantinople. The other is the grave of the second English Ambassador to be sent to Constantinople by Elizabeth I of England, Edward Barton, who chose to live on Heybeli to escape the bustle of the city.
To the right of the jetty lies the town with its bars and cafes, a hotel that stays open all year round, and many lovely wooden houses.
At the top of the central mountain is an 11th-century Greek Orthodox monastery, it housed the Halki seminary, the main Greek Orthodox seminary in Turkey and Theological Seminary of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. The monastery, attracting tourists from all over Greece and Turkey.
To prevent the island from becoming polluted, the only motorized vehicles permitted on the island are service vehicles (ambulance, fire, police, and the like) the only forms of transport are by foot, horse and buggy and service transport . There is no airport; the only way of getting there is by boat.
The winter population of the island is around 3,000, but in the summer, the owners of the summer houses return and the population swells to a 10.000 people. The main attractions during the summer are small-scale open-air concerts laid on the local council, a swimming and fitness club next to the sea, and an annual Independence Day march. which is commemorated by a resident naval band touring the island.
Kasikadasi (Spoon Island) viewed from Burgaz Island.Burgazada is the third largest of the Islands, a single hill 2 km across. Demetrius I of Macedon, one of the Diadochi (Successors) of Alexander the Great, built a fort here and named it after his father Antigonus I Monophthalmus. The island took this name, but today is generally known by the Turks simply as "Burgaz" (Turkish for "fort"). In 2003 Burgaz suffered a forest fire, losing 4 square kilometres of woodland.
Burgaz is a common setting and even a major theme for writer Sait Faik Abasiyanik, where he also resided. Today, his residence is kept as a museum. At his favourite restaurant in Kalpazankaya (the counterfeiter's rock) one will also find his bronze statue enjoying the view with a glass of raki freshly filled everyday by the restaurant owners.
Kinaliada (meaning "Henna Island") is the nearest island to the European side of Istanbul (about an hour by ferry from Sirkeci). This therefore was the island most used as a place of exile in Byzantine times (the most notable exile being the former emperor Romanos IV Diogenes, after the Battle of Manzikert, 1071). This is one of the least forested islands, and the land has a reddish colour from the iron and copper that has been mined here.
Sedef Adasi, meaning "Mother-of-Pearl Island" in Turkish (Greek: Τερέβυνθος Terebinthos, and in ancient times also Androvitha or Andircuithos) is one of the smallest islands of the archipelago, and has 108 private homes. The section that's open to the general public largely consists of a beach hamlet. The island is mostly private property and the current pine forests were largely planted by its owner Sehsuvar Menemencioglu, who purchased the island in 1956 and also played an important role in the imposition of a strict building code to make sure that the island's nature and environment will be protected. It is not allowed to build houses with more than 2 floors.
The island's Greek name, Terebinthos, means 'turpentine', which suggests a significant presence of the Turpentine tree or Terebinth in earlier times. In 857 AD Patriarch Ignatios of Constantinople was sent in exile to the island, where he was imprisoned for 10 years before being re-elected as Patriarch in 867 AD.
Yassiada (Greek: Plati) was used by the Byzantines for sending prominent figures into exile. One such person was the Armenian Patriarch (Catholicos) Narses who was first sent to this island before being imprisoned at Büyükada in the 4th century AD. In the 11th century AD the Byzantines used the island for political prisoners. The remains of the 4 underground prison cells from this period can still be seen. The Byzantines also built a monastery and church on the island. Yassiada (Plati) was captured by the Latin Crusaders during the Fourth Crusade in 1204.
In 1857 the island was purchased by the British ambassador Henry Bulwer, brother of novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton, who built himself a mansion and a small castle-like structure to live undisturbed on this distant island. The tiny castle and the wharf in front of it are still standing today. Henry Bulwer also organized agricultural production on the island to self-sustain his little realm at least to a certain degree, but later sold Yassiada to the Khedive of Ottoman Egypt & Sudan, Ismail Pasha, who, however, didn't construct any new buildings and completely neglected the island.
With the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923 the island became a property of the Turkish state, and in 1947 Yassiada was handed over to the Turkish Navy which built several school buildings.
It is also where the trials of the members of the former ruling party, Demokrat Parti, were held after the military coup of 1960. Several of the defendants were sentenced to death, and three of these, including the former Prime Minister of Turkey Adnan Menderes, were executed.
After the end of the trials, Yassiada was given back to the Turkish Navy and lessons continued to take place at the naval school buildings until 1978.
In 1993 the island became a property of Istanbul University's department of Marine Life and Sea Products, which used it for lessons and research. But the strong winds on the island made life hard for the students and eventually classes were held elsewhere.
Today the island is a favourite location for scuba diving schools like Balikadam Türkiye as well as amateur divers.
Sivriada (Greek: Okseia) meanwhile is deserted. The island was often used by the Byzantine clerics as a distant place for peaceful worship, and by the Byzantine emperors as a convenient prison to detain prominent people whom they deemed troublesome. The first famous person to be imprisoned in the island by the order of emperor Nikephoros was Platon, the uncle of renowned cleric Theodoros Stoudites, for publishing books of pagan antiquity. Other famous people who stayed in the island for religious and political reasons were Gebon, Basileios Skleros, Nikephoritzes (the close servant of Michael VII Ducas), Patriarch John of Constantinople and Patriarch Michael II of Constantinople. The graves of those who died in the island during the Byzantine period can still be seen today.
The ruins of a Roman settlement and a 9th century Byzantine monastery can still be seen on the shore, close to the fishermen's shelter, a small wharf which is often used by yachts. The most important buildings on the island were built in the 9th century AD, including a church, a chapel dedicated to religious martyrs, a monastery on the eastern end (with its walls still seen today) and a cistern in the center of the island (a part of which can still be seen.)
In 1911 the governor of Istanbul ordered the stray dogs in the streets to be gathered and deposited to Sivriada, but a severe earthquake which immediately followed the event was perceived as "a punishment by God for abandoning the dogs" and they were transported back to the city.