Sailing the Bosphorus – By Ferry and By Cruise

Bird in Flight

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.

Istanbul Harbor

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.

Istanbul Harbor

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.

Istanbul Harbor

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!

Maiden's Tower in Istanbul

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.

Sunset Over The Bosphorus

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.

Sunset Over The Bosphorus

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.

Bosphorus Cruise

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.

Bosphorus Cruise

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.

Bosphorus at Sunset

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.

Bridge Over Bosphorus at Sunset

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.

Maiden's Tower in Istanbul

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.

Maiden's Tower in Istanbul

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.

Sunset in Istanbul

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.

Istanbul: The City That Took Me By Complete Surprise

Istanbul City Bench

When I chose Turkey as the destination for my holiday trip, one key factor was weather.  While I still didn’t expect it to be terribly warm, I was hopeful that the weather would be notably warmer than what I had grown accustomed to in Copenhagen, Denmark.  Little did I know what I was in for: the coldest weather Turkey has experienced in over 25 years.  After diving into my bags and layering on just about every piece of warm clothing I had, I quickly set out to explore the historic district of Sultanahmet which immediately surrounds the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, more commonly known as the Blue Mosque. I have to confess that I was more than a little frustrated by the cold and snow flurries which made visibility difficult.  Still, I decided to take stock of my situation and make the absolute best of it – after all, when was the last time you saw photos of Istanbul covered in snow?  Eager to take care of this rare occurrence, I began to explore the neighborhood..

Blue Mosque in the Snow

The trip was my first to a Muslim country.  It was also my first to an arab-influenced country.  I say arab-influenced country because I know that many Turks don’t consider themselves to be arabs and are regularly frustrated by the mis-association.  As I crunched out into the snow the first time I honestly had no idea what to expect.  I had heard that Turkey was much more liberal, western and progressive than many of the more traditionalist/conservative Muslim countries, but I had no idea just where the boundaries between the two might fall.  Would I see lots of women covered from head to toe in traditional garb? Would beer and alcohol be available – or even legal?   What about pork?  Would people pause during prayer periods to pray in the streets?   Some of these unknowns no doubt seem silly to some of you, especially some of my Turkish friends who have known me for years.  For others, I imagine you likely share the uncertainty I did before my arrival in Turkey.

Sultan Ahmed Mosque in the Snow

What I found was a city full of surprises. While there were some women in full-body traditional conservative outfits, most wore a headscarf, or nothing particularly unusual – choosing instead to dress as one would find and expect anywhere else in the world.  In truth, there are probably more women dressed traditionally in the heavily-Arab district of Norrebro back in Copenhagen than there are in the Sultanahmet district of Istanbul.  In part, that’s due to the tourist-centric nature of that part of town.  Mostly, however, it is indicative of exactly what you would expect in any major metropolitan area.  Similarly, despite the loud sing-song of the Muslim call to prayer echoing through the city several times a day, I never saw anyone pause to pray in public. In truth, few Turks even paused as they went about their business. Should I be surprised? Probably not.  Was I?  Most definitely.

Hagia Sofia in the Snow

As my time in Istanbul quickly raced by I came to realize just how far off most of my perceptions about Turkey had been.   During our visits to the Taksim area, which is a shopping sector and bar district within Istanbul, I quickly learned that Istanbul has a thriving bar and nightlife scene.  While drinks are relatively expensive, they’re easily on hand in most parts of the city (though perhaps slightly more difficult to find than some other major cities). Perhaps most surprising was that there even seemed to be unofficial open container laws, as long as you were careful and remained within Taksim.  The city was not at all what I expected or what many of the westernized portrayals of Turkey depicted.  Heck, to our total surprise (and dismay) several fellow hostelers and I actually stumbled into (and right out of) what we thought was a bar which ended up being a brothel – located right in the heart of Taksim.

Blue Mosque in the Snow

Now, all of this isn’t to say that Istanbul doesn’t have its conservative districts and idiosyncrasies.  It does, but it’s also nothing like the city I was expecting.  Another aspect that took me by complete surprise was the city’s size.  A review of online literature about Istanbul in preparation for my trip left me expecting a mid-sized capital city with a hearty population in the 10-12 million range.  What I found was a city that locals claim has at least 19 million residents and, given the population density and size of the city, I believe it.  This, and other experiences during the trip led me to realize that  Istanbul is one of the world’s great cities and it is not discussed as such as often as it should be.

Blue Mosque Area and Obelisk

More than that, it possesses a charm that few cities of its size and scale are able to nurture or retain.   Istanbul is a city of empire.  A city of history.  Of wonder. With its well-manicured boulevards and crumbling historic districts, Istanbul befits a city that straddles two continents – two worlds – that has served as the sentry of the Bosphorus for thousands of years.  Despite spending more than a week in Istanbul, I feel as though I’ve only just scratched the surface.  There are still so many historical buildings, museums, and remnants of the past to explore.  But, it goes far beyond that.  The foods, music, cafes, and cultures of Istanbul are also intoxicating, rich, and complex. I’ll find my way back to Istanbul as soon as the chance permits and as someone who isn’t generally a fan of mega-cities, that is a take away from the city that I found extremely surprising.   If you find yourself considering a visit to Istanbul – don’t be mislead by headlines, silly stereotypes and hear-say.  If you haven’t considered Istanbul and Turkey as a destination in the past – I hope my series on the country will help inspire you to add it to your list and to consider it seriously.   After all, Istanbul is the city of Byzantium and Constantinople – a city that demands every traveler’s attention!

Dos Ojos, Tulum and Akumal – the Video

Hopefully you’ve had the opportunity to read my post on my day long adventure exploring the cenote at Dos Ojos, ruins and city of Tulum and snorkeling at Akumal in Mexico.  For those who haven’t make sure to view the post and photos [here].

As promised here’s a video compilation of footage filmed throughout the day/during the adventure.  As always I value your comments and would appreciate it if you take an extra second to rate the video.  Enjoy!