Istanbul has long been a crossroads between the East and West for a reason: It sits surrounded by waterways that lead to both Europe and Asia. To the West, there’s the Sea of Marmara, which leads to the Mediterranean. Further to the north and east, there’s the Black Sea. The two are connected by the Bosphorus, a strait that bisects Istanbul and branches off into the Golden Horn.
These bodies of water have been vital transportation corridors for thousands of years. From antiquity on, civilizations have been moving both troops and goods through this area. For example, the fall of Constantinople in 1453 — which effectively ended the Eastern Roman Empire and way down the road would lead to the city’s new name, Istanbul — came after the Ottomans seized control of the Bosphorus.
And the waterways remain pivotal today; during our visit earlier this year, there was a steady stream of freighters going back and forth.
There’s plenty to do in Istanbul — the Grand Bazaar, the Hagia Sofia, the Spice Market, the mosques, the food, etc. — but given the significance of Istanbul’s waterways in both Turkish and world history they’re worth exploring as well.
Luckily, exploring these waterways is cheap and easy to do. Near the Galata Bridge, beside the boats that sell fish sandwiches (video below), there are cruises waiting to take people on, essentially, harbor tours between Istanbul’s European and Asian sides (here’s a map showing where the tours begin). Unlike most harbor cruises, however, these voyages are very cheap and quite pleasant.
During Our trip, the boat ride cost about 12 lira, or $4 at the time, per person. It lasted about two hours and offered panoramic views of both sides of Istanbul. There was no narration (most of the other passengers appeared to be Turkish, so it probably wouldn’t have been in English anyway), but between our guide book and phones we were able to look up information quickly enough to make the experience educational.
Through out the trip, waiters repeatedly made the rounds offering tea and salep, which during our visit was nice because it was extremely cold. We saw old castles — including one the Ottomans used to take the city back in 1453 — and grand palaces. Seagulls flew alongside our boat as we crossed wakes with massive freighters. It was a fine way to soak in the sunset and, in our case, spend our last evening in Istanbul.
If you go:
We did not make a reservation or prepare in advance. We just showed up. There are numerous people trying to sell boat rides down by the fish boats, but ended up buying tickets from a booth for a large ship that had posted prices and was departing soon.
— Jim Dalrymple II