Istanbul is one of the world’s most impressive cities. Straddling two continents, this ancient capital has seen the rise and fall of many a civilisation and it’s now home to a whopping 20 million people (give or take a few million!). It’s no wonder that Istanbul is Turkey’s largest and most visited city, but as a tourist it can be a little overwhelming simply because there is so much to see. Byzantine cathedrals, peaceful island escapes, underground cisterns, ancient bazaars and city forests, not to mention the 3000 plus mosques that dot the cityscape. If you’re short on time, finding a local friend (or guide!) can be a great way to explore Istanbul and ensure you’re not wasting your precious holiday time.
The first time I travelled to Istanbul was in March 2011 so I decided on a recent trip in September 2018 that I wanted to do something a little different. After a quick Google search, it seemed that the Princes Islands or the Belgrade Forest would suffice my curiosity for a slightly “out of the way” Istanbul spot. For the first time on my travels I used “Tourme,” a company that connects tourists with knowledgeable local guides through either their website or app. I found Rakib, who’s particular tour included the Princes Island, and I booked instantly. It wasn’t long before a confirmation came through. Easypeasy.
On the day I was to meet Rakib, I woke early and wandered slowly to the windy boat terminal in central Istanbul. Our ferry ride out to the Princes Islands was to be at 10am but I wanted to have enough time to grab Turkish coffee and a quick bite to eat, and of course do a bit of people watching! Just before the boat departed, Rakib, bounded up to me with a friendly “Günaydin!” (good morning in Turkish) and we rushed on board before the gangway rattled shut behind us. Moments later we were chugging over the choppy morning waters of the Bosphorus towards the infamous Princes Islands.
The Princes Islands are a collection of 9 islands that sit just off the coast from Istanbul. Historically they were used for exiled Princes (hence the name!), but nowadays they’re sleepy island retreats for the rich and famous of Istanbul, eager to get away from the bustle of city life. Out of the 9 islands there are 4 major ones serviced by the local ferries, and on Rakib’s recommendation we were to explore the 3rd, Heybeliada.
The ferry journey took approximately an hour and a half so by the time we arrived, Rakib had clued us in on the history and culture of the islands, as well as throwing in a few of his own facts. “I’ve been to the Islands about 50 times in the past year and half and I just love how relaxing they are,” he mentioned as we were docking at Heybeliada. As soon as we stepped foot on the Island, I knew exactly what he meant. Although only a few kilometres from the city, the island moves to a slightly different tune to the rest of Istanbul.
There are no cars on the island or motorised forms of transport, so the best way to get around is by bike or on foot. Preferring a slower pace, we decided walking would be the best option so we could duck into churches or mosques without the worry of dragging bikes around.
For most the day we meandered through the quiet streets and eyed up the different styles of building, whilst listening to Rakib’s tales. Although not a local, he is fluent in Turkish so it was incredibly useful having him translate and ask questions. My Turkish is, at best, basic so when we visited the local market, it was great knowing (or maybe hoping!) that we weren’t being ripped off, simply because Rakib could speak the lingo. The tour ended with a quick bite of the island’s classic fish sandwich, washed down with some tea and a couple of slices of baklava. All in all, a great day of exploring with an exceptionally friendly guide.
If you’re looking to connect with a local guide, Tourme offers 1000s of tours in over 390 countries. You can either book online or download their app and book instantly! A shoutout to Tourme for sponsoring this post and giving me an insight into another part of Istanbul.