For millenia the Bosphorus has served as an influential gateway that has, and continues to leave a powerful footprint on human society. It has been a key actor and primary muse in the generation of numerous empires and provided a fertile trade and bread basket to the peoples and civilizations that have controlled it. The Bosphorus is a relatively short waterway which connects the Sea of Marma and greater Mediterranean with the Black Sea. It serves as a dividing line between the European continent to the west and the Asian continent to the east, and is straddled by the great city of Istanbul, formerly known as Byzantium and Constantinople.
The Kadıköy (Kadikoy) Ferry
For visitors based out of hostels and hotels on the European side of Istanbul the ferry docks located just off of the Eminönü tram station offer a budget friendly, and convenient way to see the Bosphorus. You’ll find three harbor stations (one was under repair during my visit) that offer several different routes. Having heard that the Kadikoy district on the Asian side of Istanbul was well worth a visit I opted to give it a go. I also recall that the Uskudar line leaves from the same location.
The ferries are considered part of the standard public transit infrastructure and run regularly. You can purchase tokens at the small ferry terminals for 2 TL which are good for one voyage, though you could theoretically continue to ride the ferry back and forth for the duration of its shift. The ships are large and pedestrian only which varies them somewhat from many of the other local ferries I’ve ridden in the past.
I can never quite place my finger on the origins of my love of ships. I suppose it might date back to times spent as a toddler in Puerto Penasco, Mexico where we’d spend a month every winter as a family. Boating, fishing, swimming. There’s just something about the rocking of a boat, the smell of fresh salty air, and the sound of gulls and waves that is soothing. The Turkish ferries have large open deck areas as well as cozy interior seating with big windows allowing you to get the most out of the relatively short trip back and forth. Oh, and then there’s the Turkish tea of course which is dirt cheap and a must!
As I’ve mentioned in previous posts my timing was both fantastic and dreadful. I ended up in Istanbul smack dab in the midst of the worst cold front and snow storms they’ve had in 25 years. The result was an unusually snowy Istanbul, incredible light, and very, very, cold weather. While this made spending time out on deck rather rough, it also shortened the days and resulted in visually stunning views from the ferry as the European side transitioned from three dimensions to silhouettes, and then faded into the haze as Istanbul’s famous lighthouse and the Asian side slowly emerged and became visible. The lighthouse which, is perched on a tiny island just large enough for the building and a dock, is gorgeous and has been featured in a number of movies the most famous of which was featured in The World is Not Enough, the semi-recent James Bond/007 film.
I can’t stress enough how incredible the light was. This photo highlights the deep yellow/golden color of the light as it struggled to cut through the sea haze and snow clouds. You can see a mixture of snowflakes and birds in this photo which are semi-indistinguishable. The entire trip back and forth felt as though I was somehow caught in the midst of a 17th century oil painting.
One of the things that really surprised me about Istanbul was the number of major mosques and their size. These structures are incredible. They’re gorgeous. They’re ancient and they’re massive. They also created a really impressive silhouette. From time to time as a traveler you’re greeted with moments that take your breath away. This was definitely one of those moments – the type that, if I was religious, I would call divinely inspired. For me, they resonate as the type of moments where I feel an even deeper awe at the beauty and depth of the universe, humanity, and our relationship with nature. If I could have paused and drawn out that moment, I’m sure hours would have passed without me noticing.
The Tourist Cruise
The following day I opted for one of the actual harbor tours. In retrospect I should have just gone with one of the longer ferry routes. Still, it only cost a few dollars more and was a decent enough experience that I didn’t feel like it was a waste. As we left the docks and steamed in the general direction of the Asian side, the first third of the route was similar to the previous day, only instead of heading to the right we turned left when we reached the coast.
This took us up and past a number of beautiful old buildings that included administrative structures, palaces, and the Turkish military academy. It was a fun look at buildings and areas that were considerably less touristy than the city’s historic center.
They were in widely varied states of repair and it was clear that many were used semi-seasonally to take advantage of Istanbul’s warm weather and plethora of small islands during the summer. Most featured small docks and a few had built in boat garages, which were a really cool touch.
One of the most memorable buildings along the route was the Beylerbeyi Palace which is a historic Ottoman era summer palace built in the mid 1800s. A beautiful structure, it unfortunately sits immediately beside one of Istanbul’s largest suspension bridges. Despite the jarring visual clash between the two, it does serve as an interesting reminder of how things change. I know it’s a small detail, and perhaps i’m just easily entertained, but one of my favorite parts of the palace were the series of harbor gates set up along the water. They added a certain fantasy element to the palace which tugged at my romanticized daydreams of princesses, queens, and luxurious sea yachts. Granted, of course, that this was the Ottoman Empire and the names varied. Still, it definitely had Disney-esque potential.
The final leg of the tourist cruise took us back towards the Maidens Tower. I highly suggest spending time on either one of the cruises or the ferry around sunset. Even though the skies were partly cloudy, the city silhouette was something I was impressed by once again. It’s also fascinating to see the hundreds of ships lined up south of the city waiting for permission to make their way up and through the straights, fill up on freight, or to unload their cargo.
The tower/lighthouse has been used in some capacity or another since at least 1100. At various points it has served as customs station, military installation, lighthouse, restaurant and even a quarantine area. It also seems to be a very popular destination for the local birds. While I may find my way out to it during a future trip, my hunch is that it is best enjoyed in passing as a beautiful and historic oddity.
By the time we prepared to wrap up the cruise and return to the docks the snow had returned which treated me to another gorgeous sunset. There’s something about the minaret spires and domes of a mosque that really lends itself to brilliant silhouettes. Add in diffused sunlight reflecting off of dark water, a few birds battling snow and you end up with a very unique experience. Perhaps part of what makes it such a powerful visual is the seemingly exotic clash between the two. Though I know it is inaccurate, I always associate mosques and Turkey with Arab cultures and the desert. To see it and its occasional palm trees covered in snow in the midst of a light snow storm was definitely a bizarre contrast. Yet, perhaps that is fitting for Istanbul and Turkey as a whole – a city and a nation that sits astride two continents and is caught at the center, standing astride two vastly different cultures and worlds.