One quickly learns, on a stroll along the Bosphorus, why this short strait has been coveted and conquered by empires since the time of the Ancient Greeks. Not only does the Bosphorus connect the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, but owning it meant bridging the divide between Europe and Asia – so much so that it marked the capitals of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires.
Today, it’s one of the busiest and most scenic places in Istanbul, flanked by stunning architecture and vibrant neighborhoods that are worth more than just a quick glance on a perfunctory tourist cruise. You’ll definitely want to take some time to dine and soak up the scenery along the way.
If you’re planning to explore Istanbul’s waterfront areas, here’s all the info you need to plan your own Bosphorus tour by riding on the cheap and equally enjoyable public ferries.
The Istanbul public ferry service is operated by Şehir Hatları, and fares are extremely affordable. The fare for each trip ranges from 2.60-4 Turkish lira if you pay using an Istanbulkart, Istanbul’s public transport fare card. Otherwise, each trip costs 5 lira.
There are also privately operated ferries by Dentur Avraysa and Turyol with some additional routes, and they cost the same as the public ferries. However, the ferry terminals/piers are different (~100-300m away) so make sure you go to the correct terminal!
Finally, there are also seabus ferries run by another company, IDO. You can also pay using an Istanbulkart but they mainly operate routes outside the Bosphorus and to other Turkish cities.
Quick pronunciation tip: Ş = “sh”, Ç = “ch”, i = “ee”, and “ı” (undotted) = like the “i” in “cousin”.
Bosphorus ferry tour routes
Instanbul’s ferries all serve the purpose of connecting the European side of Istanbul to the Asian side, so your DIY tour route will criss-cross the Bosphorus several times. Here’s a preview of my Istanbul ferry map showing the most common routes you can choose.
Routes in blue are by Şehir Hatları; routes in orange are by Dentur Avraysa. The latter also runs a hop-on hop-off Bosphorus tour for 20 lira, which offers more unique stops and flexibility than a typical Bosphorus cruise. Other routes such as the “Bosphorus Line” are not marked, as these have limited schedules meant for the local morning/evening work commute.
Stops along the European shore
If you’re staying in the Sultanahmet or Eminonu district, you’re in luck: Eminonu ferry terminal offers routes to multiple other piers so you can choose how to start and end your Istanbul ferry tour. Also, you can easily go for a Turkish bath.
As you go along the waterfront, look out for some fancy boats selling balık ekmek, literally “fish and bread”. Munching on these fried fish sandwiches may help explain why so many people like to fish on the Galata Bridge!
Better known by its historical name Galata, Karakoy’s ferry terminal is just a short walk across the Galata bridge from Eminonu, so you can simply walk over instead of taking the ferry. It’s a lovely cosmopolitan neighborhood: this was where Europeans settled during the Ottoman period, and many of Istanbul’s churches and synagogues are located here.
There’s no way you’ll miss the 63m high Galata Tower, built by the Genoese during the Byzantine era. It’s now one of the most popular vantage points in Istanbul, and for 25 lira you can take an elevator + climb three floors to get to the top.
The Istanbul Modern art museum occupies a scenic spot in Karakoy, and the showcase of local contemporary art can feel especially refreshing when you’re perpetually surrounded by historical architecture. Note: it has temporarily moved near Sishane while a new building is being constructed.
Besiktas ferry terminal is actually located in the historical Besiktas quarter; the name is also used to refer to the entire Besiktas district stretching north until just before Rumeli Fortress. This area is one of my favorites with its narrow cobblestone streets overflowing with shoppers and alfresco diners, with not a single recognizable brand in sight.
If you happen to be visiting on a Saturday, hit up the Besiktas Saturday Marketto see what a real local flea market is like! It’s also possible to walk along the shore up to Dolmabahçe Palace or down to Ortakoy.
Besides being home to the picturesque Ortaköy Mosque (Ortaköy Camii), Ortakoy is a lively seaside neighborhood with restaurants, shops, bars – and pigeons – congregating along the waterfront. Here I was treated to my first taste of MADO ice cream, and if there’s a Turkish chain you should visit, MADO is it.
Sailing along the coast of Arnavutkoy and beyond, you’ll find the shoreline draped with increasingly extravagant-looking houses. These yalı (waterfront houses) typically feature colorful art nouveau facades and elaborate woodwork, so you’ll want to stop here for some photos.
Arnavutkoy actually means “Albanian Village”, which should give you a good idea of the area’s history. This wealthy, surprisingly cosmopolitan neighborhood was home to Albanian workers who paved the city’s streets before Armenian, Greek, and Jewish communities moved in.
Pretty houses aside, if you love tasting new foods, look out for the Arnavutkoy Strawberry (or Ottoman Strawberry), a smaller species of strawberry with a delicate flavor that used to be grown across Arnavutkoy.
More upscale than Arnavutkoy, Bebek is home where most of Istanbul’s wealthy and worldly residents live. If you’ve been traveling around Turkey and craving a taste of western cuisine, head to the cafes here: you’ll find pancakes and Eggs Benedict listed alongside the kahvaltı (Turkish breakfast) in the menu.
Feasting will also do you good if you’re planning an ambitious hike up the steep battlements of Rumeli Fortress (Rumeli Hisarı). As there’s no ferry stop at the fortress, you’ll have to walk 1.6km (~20 min) from Bebek ferry terminal – I recommend taking a taxi instead.
Stops along the Asian shore
The Asian bank of the Bosphorus is much more laid back compared to its European counterpart. However, ask a local and you might be granted some insider info on the hip and happening bars, boutiques, and galleries in the area.
It’s impossible to miss Haydarpaşa station when taking crossing the Bosphorus to Kadikoy ferry terminal. Built at the dawn of the 20th century, the German gothic structure has withstood tumultuous times and was previously the busiest railway station in the country.
When I visited the station back in 2013, it had already closed for the construction of new rail projects and seemed forlorn in its emptiness. Fortunately, it is set to reopen as part of the Marmaray rail network, hopefully by 2019.
Kadikoy’s artsy personality flows throughout the district, with restored opera houses, underground music bars, and art house cinemas. There’s even a street art festival, Mural Istanbul, that adds dozens of new works to the buildings of Kadikoy each year.
Uskudar is one of Istanbul’s oldest residential areas, and it’s popular as a cheaper alternative to living on the European side. Since late 2013, residents commuting for work even have an alternative to the ferry: the Marmaray train goes across the undersea Marmaray Tunnel to Yenikapi (so you can travel via that too instead of the ferry).
While traveling solo in Istanbul, I took the public ferry to Kadikoy and walked to Uskudar before taking another ferry back. The shoreline of Uskudar is one of the most scenic spots along the Bosphorus, with the Maiden’s Tower (Kız Kulesi) in the background, and the stepped bank is often crowded with people waiting to catch the sunset. There are even little pavilions every hundred meters or so where vendors sell tea and snacks.
I highly recommend spending the night in Uskudar if you can go beyond a day tour. It’s a great place to experience Istanbul’s local way of life; you realize there’s way more to this city than what you see at Sultanahmet or Istiklal Caddesi.
Beylerbeyi doesn’t really show up on the tourist radar, but since it’s on the Istanbul ferry map, it’s worth a quick stop. The main attraction here is Beylerbeyi Palace (Beylerbeyi Sarayı), which you’ll see right out on the waterfront. It was built as an imperial summer residence, with marble exteriors and lavish interiors, and even has its own hamam.
The Anatolian Fortress (Anadolu Hisarı) is as far north as I would recommend for a first-time visitor to Istanbul. It’s the Asian counterpart to Rumeli Fortress, but it does have a ferry terminal where you can alight.