After a morning spent touring the Old City of Istanbul and checking out the famous Spice Market, it was time for the second part of the tour package we had purchased, a boat cruise down the Bosphorous Straits. Cruising or driving across the Bosphorous is at the top of almost all Istanbul bucket lists, but unfortunately, we weren’t able to check that off on our first trip here in 2009. The Straits connect the Black Sea to the north and the Sea of Marmara to the south, making them a critical waterway for commerce and tourism. Perhaps even more significantly, the Bosphorous marks the border between two continents, Europe and Asia. Ultimately, for geography/travel geeks like me, that’s what makes the trip a must-do – the chance to say you’ve crossed between continents in a matter of seconds.
Our cruise started in the Eminönü section of Old City Istanbul, just across from the Rushtem Pasha Mosque and the Spice Market. The dock affords a fine view of the Ahi Ahmet Çelebi Mosque, and as you depart, a sweeping view of the Golden Horn area.
The tour briefly heads east through the harbor, and if you have a seat with a view to the south, you can catch a glimpse of both the Hagia Sofia and Blue Mosque, and finally, a view of the Bosphorous as it enters the Sea of Marmara before the boat makes a left turn to head north through the Straits.
Now heading north through the Bosphorous, our cruise initially hugs the left (European) side. Some of your better photo opportunities, though, are of the Asian side, specifically the Üsküdar neighborhood. This view shows what appears to be a fairly well-to-do residential area, with the Rumi Mehmetpaşa Cami (Rum Mehmed Pasha Mosque), an Ottoman mosque built in 1471, roughly in the center of the first photo.
Very shortly, you approach the Boğaziçi Köprüsü, or First Bosphorous Bridge. Completed in 1973, the First Bosphorous Bridge is a gravity-anchored suspension bridge 5,118 feet in length (slightly less than one mile), and was the first overland crossing of the Bosphorous in Istanbul. It was opened to traffic on October 30, 1973, one day after the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Republic of Turkey. Total construction cost was $200 million, or $1.06 billion in today’s dollars. We were supposed to drive across the bridge as part of a tour during our first visit in 2006, but unfortunately, due to heavy traffic and spending a little too much time at Dolmabahçe Palace, we didn’t have time. In the second photo, the marble structure on the north side of the bridge on the Asian side is the Beylerbeyi Sarayı (Beylerbeyi Palace), a relatively “new” building having been completed in the 1860s. It was originally designed as a summer residence for Ottoman Sultan Abdülaziz; today, it is operated as a museum.
Approximately 45 minutes through our tour, our boat curved almost all the way to the European shore, setting us up for the title of this post. First, we made a close pass to Rumelihisari (Rumeli Castle/Fortress), situated at the narrowest point of the Bosphorous (660 meters wide). Constructed c. 1452 by Sultan Mehmed II, Rumeli Castle was designed to help the Ottomans control sea traffic on the Bosphorous, and prevent potential invaders from executing a blockade of what was then the fledgling Ottoman Empire.
Notice the bridge in the background. This is the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Köprüsü, or the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge/Second Bosphorous Bridge, constructed in 1988 as an alternative crossing to the increasingly congested First Bosphorous Bridge. Our boat would make a U-turn just before reaching the bridge, first providing a panorama of Rumeli Castle.
It doesn’t take long to reach the midpoint of the bridge, the dividing line between Europe and Asia. We’d also picked up a contingent of sailboats that apparently wanted to race us back to the Golden Horn.
And finally, we make our turn back to the south, now hugging the Asian side.
So there you have it. We completed an inter-continental journey in roughly 45 seconds. Now on the Asian side, I spotted this beautiful building just south of the bridge. I’m not sure what this is, though I vaguely recall our tour guide saying it was a waterfront restaurant/hotel development of some kind. If you look to the left of the white building, just up the hillside, you can barely see Anadoluhisarı (Anatolian Fortress), built in 1393. It was built by Ottoman Sultan Bayezid I in anticipation of the “Second Ottoman Siege of Constantinople”, and later was a sister fortress of sorts to Rumeli Fortress, in that the two granted the Ottomans absolute military control of the Bosphorous.
About halfway back to the First Bosphorous Bridge is the Kuleli Askeri Lisesi, or Kuleli Military High School, the oldest military academy in Turkey. The building was constructed specifically to house the academy in 1843, but the school itself was moved in and out of its home multiple times, before finally moving back to its original location for good in 1947. In the interim, the building was used for a variety of purposes, including as a military barracks, military hospital, and even an orphanage for Armenian refugees during World War I.
Meanwhile, back on the European side, the ruins of what appears to be an old Roman fortification tucked into the hillside.
Crossing the First Bosphorous Bridge once again, a couple of the sailboats finally caught up to us. The sight of a sailboat under the bridge, and backdropped by the impressive modern Istanbul skyline, was quite the treat on such a beautiful day. The mosque you see is the Büyük Mecidiye Cami (Ortakoy Mosque), built in 1856 and now one of the most popular attractions in the New City.
Just a few minutes further down is the spectacular Çırağan Palace Kempinski. As the name suggests, this is a Kempinski hotel situated in a restored Ottoman palace. I’m sure rooms here cost a small fortune, though at least you’d have a really nice view.
This general area also featured unobstructed views of the Istanbul financial district and skyline.
At that point, we headed back over to the European side to make a quick stop at the port of Kabataş (our boat actually carried passengers for two tours, one of which got off here to tour this part of the city). This gave us a close-up of the beuatiful Dolmabahçe Palace. The largest palace in Turkey at more than 45,000 square meters (yes, you read that right), Dolmabahçe served as the main administrative center of the Ottoman government from 1856 to 1922, and then as office of the President of the Republic of Turkey from 1927 to 1949. The interior of the palace is extensively decorated with gold and crystal, and houses a collection of 202 oil paintings displayed throughout the palace. The palace and its grounds have been open to the public as a museum since 1984. We took a tour of the palace during our last visit, and it is definitely a must-see when you are in Istanbul.
After our quick stop, we headed south again towards the Golden Horn, with a great view of the Dolmabahçe Mosque with one of the city’s modern skyscrapers in the background as we left port. The mosque was built in 1855, and scenes like this are a big reason why Istanbul is one of my favorite places – the juxtaposition of the old and classical (though in the case, not particularly “old” in Istanbul terms) against the modern and gleaming.
As our cruise came to a close, we passed right by the cruise ship we’d be boarding in a couple of hours, the Emerald Princess, and took in the view of the Galata Tower and Galata Bridge as we returned to where we started from.
The Emerald Princess ready to welcome passengers
Traffic passing underneath the Galata Bridge
Note: this tour does not include lunch, so upon leaving the boat (our tour ended at 12:30), you’ll need to make your own arrangements. Given that there’s something like 10,000 restaurants, cafes, and food carts in the Old City, you shouldn’t have any trouble finding something. Our tour company (Turista Travel) also offers a dinner/sunset version of this tour for 50 euros a person. I actually would have liked to do that, but we didn’t arrive in town early enough to take advantage.
My bucket list item now checked off, it was time to briefly head back to the hotel before heading to the cruise ship port (which we ironically passed by on our boat tour) to kick off the primary reason for our trip, our 7-night cruise to Rome.
This post is part of my multi-part trip report series about my wife and I’s trip to Europe in June/July, 2015. Read the trip report introduction for an index and background about our trip.