Visit Buyukada: what to see and do

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The first time I went to Buyukada (Büyükada in Turkish) was in 1990. I was travelling solo and had met up with some English uni students spending their summer break in Istanbul and other parts of Turkey. I kept a diary at the time and here’s what I wrote. “It was the playing field of the rich, well groomed Turks strolled up and down the promenade while women in bikinis (bikinis my God!) … Walking along was like being in a scene from Dallas/Dynasty. Blonde haired Turkish women in black one pieces with gold chains at their ankles, lying on sun lounges, shielded by black shades (sunglasses), pouting their lips.” These were the type of women whose trips to the beach didn’t involve actually getting wet especially given how much I imagine their swimwear cost. I remember we sat on a stony beach and drank beer, intermittently making our way into the water for a dip to cool off.

Buyukada is still considered the most expensive of the islands to visit, with restaurant and beach entry prices higher than on the others, but you can still enjoy yourself there on a budget. Around ten years ago I often visited with gang of friends who made it a regular outing. We’d travel over by ferry, our day packs filled with salads, homemade börek and bottles of wine (we made sure someone always remembered to bring a bottle opener) and hire bicycles as soon as we disembarked. Back then people queued in a long snaking line in the Saatlı Meydan (Clocktower square) to hire a horse drawn phaeton and nostalgically tour the island at a sedate pace. After animal lovers and others drew attention to the way the horses were mistreated they were retired and replaced by electric buses that follow set routes. In summer the queues are endless so if you’re halfway fit, a bicycle is the way to go.

Hungry, anyone?

We’d head straight to Luna Park, a big open square actually named for a restaurant at the bottom of a hill, in the middle of a nature reserve. The name is still used as a geographical point of reference, Turkish style, useful if you’re planning to walk up Yüce Tepe to the Hagios Georgios Koudonas Kilesi (St George Koudonas Greek Orthodox monastery and church). Built in 1751, this monastery is an important pilgrimage place for Orthodox Christians – similar to the Virgin Mary’s House near Ephesus. On April 23 pilgrims celebrate the saint’s feast day and the coming of spring by walking up to the church barefoot, in total silence. Once at the summit they tie pieces of cloth to the branches of trees and make wishes as they head to the church. There it’s customary to get a key or a bell. These objects are supposed to act as lucky charms but if you want your wish to come true, you have to bring them back to the church. September 24 is another important day, commemorating Saint Thekla. This link provides a more detailed history.

These days most people mainly take the path to the top to enjoy the marvellous views out over the water to Istanbul. It takes about 40 minutes to walk to Luna Park from the ferry wharf and then another 20 minutes to get to the top.

Our route took us up the other hill where we’d lay out blankets on a grassy knoll, in a clearing just beyond the slowly crumbling Prinkipo Rum Yetimhanesi (former Greek Orphanage). This 20,000-square-meter wooden structure is recognised as the largest wooden building in Europe and second largest in the world. It was designed by the famous French architect Alexander Vallaury (think Pera Palace Hotel and Istanbul Archaeological Museum to name a few) in 1898. Initially a luxury hotel and casino, it was named Prinkipo Palace after the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits, the European passenger train company that operated the Orient Express. In 1903 the building became an orphanage and operated as one until 1964. Protracted disputes over ownership and use followed, resulting in the slow disintegration of the building. In recent years a decision was taken to restore it, but we’ll have to wait and see.

After eating and drinking our fill, and usually having a nap too, we’d cycle back down the hill at speed. We always stopped along the way and participated in a ritual our friends had established in their university days. We’d sit on the same particular stretch of wall and take a photo, our backs facing the camera, staring out to sea.

Enjoyable as those days were, I didn’t actually get to see a lot of the island itself so recently I decided to visit Buyukada again to discover what I’d missed. I caught a Mavi Marmara ferry from Bostanci on the Asian side of Istanbul. A limited number of city line services run from there too leave from Kabataş and Kadıköy more frequently.

Caramel is my favourite ice cream flavour. What's yours?

From the main ferry terminal, an Ottoman kiosk dating to 1899, walk straight up the street past all the ice cream vendors (don’t worry, we’ll get back to them). This takes you to Iskele Meydani, also known as Saatli Meydan. The street leading off to the left is Recep Koç Sokak takes you to an area filled with shops and numerous eateries. Our walk takes you to the right, along 23 Nisan Caddesi. Time to work up an appetite!

23 Nisan Caddesiis the street full of the mansions you see on the approach to Buyukada by ferry. These include the Anatolian Club, a pseudo Gothic pile set in beautifully manicured lawns and the Splendid Palas Hotel.

The view from the Splendid Palas Hotel is something, isn't it?
Splendid Palas Hotel terrace on Buyukada

Have you seen the Lion Paris wicker furniture sets in the internal courtyard?

And it really is splendid. It was built in 1908 by one Kazim Pasha after he retired from the Ottoman army. He wanted to recreate European hospitality and style, apparent in the French influences in the décor, perfectly melded with eastern architectural styles, as seen in the domes. The elegant lobby immediately transports you back to the 1920s with its grand piano, red curtains, and artworks on display. Throughout the hotel is decorated with original Ottoman furniture, Christofle silver-plated cutlery sets are in use in the dining room and the Lion Paris wicker furniture sets in the internal courtyard are originals from 1908. I can just see Noel Coward holding court here with a gaggle of ladies in flapper dresses and daringly short haircuts standing around him adoringly. That’s in my imagination of course, but in reality Atatürk used to come here to have dinner when he was in Buyukada. I’d love to add my name to the guest list so should anyone want to gift me a few nights stay with my husband, I wouldn’t say no. Anyone? Oh well, a coffee from the cafe in the grounds will have to suffice.

Continue along 23 Nisan Caddesi all the way to the end until it turns a sharp left, becoming Peşkeş Sokak. Walk until you reach T-junction. This is Çankaya Sokak. Turn right.

Çankaya Street is home to some of most beautiful and historic mansions on the island, including the Izzet Pasha, Con Pasha and Mizzi Pavilions. Also known as Al Palas, the Mizzi Pavilion was the home of Lewis Mizzi, a famous lawyer and astronomy lover, who built a tower to enable him to watch the stars. It was in this structure that Evgenios Adoniadis, the founder of the British Astronomical Association, discovered the crater of Mars while he was still a young boy. Prior to that it was thought to be one of the planet’s many valleys.

Reaching for the stars at the Mizzi Pavilion.

The road passes Yalman Mansion, a building owned by journalist Ahmet Emin Yalman but better known as the set for the famous soap opera Hatırla Sevgili. The Adalar Cultural Centreis also on this street. A bit further along on the right is Hamlacı Sokak. Down the end, past the overgrown hedges, behind a poorly maintained wall is Sevastopulo, the house where Leon Trotsky lived in exile from 1929-1933. He wrote his autobiography in this house, and The History of the Russian Revolution.

Çankaya Sokak becomes Nizam Sokak where you’ll see Azaryan (Seferoğlu) and Kuyumcuyan Mansions. The latter is also known as Mazlum Bey Mansion.

At this point you can either keep walking past Nizam private beach and go to Dilburnu Tabiat Park.(about 3km all up one way). There’s a small entry fee that lets you into a picnic area where you can set up your blanket and lounge. There’s a café too but no access to the beach. Alternatively, backtrack to Sıpahiıoğlu Sokak (2-3 streets past Yaman Köşk) where you turn right and then take the next left into Nezatbey Sokak and meander back to centre.

What to eat when you visit Buyukada

Back at the clock tower you can head towards Malul Gazi Street to see the Hamidiye Mosque and Meziki Mansion, now used as a hotel and a film set. However my preferred option was to have some Turkish ice cream. Some time in the unspecified past a local ice cream maker named Yunus often parked outside the Anadolu Club selling ice cream made from seasonal fruits. It was a family-run business with the ice cream prepared fresh each day and sold from a cart. Varieties were limited to lemon, cherry, peach, chocolate and kaymak, a thick yoghurt with the consistency of thickened cream, but the process of making the ice cream by crushing fruit resulted in intense flavours with a sorbet consistency. Scoops were in the shape of a rose. I didn’t see them so I don’t know if they’re still in business, but Roma Dondurmacısı offers a very tasty selection. As soon as I had my scoops (forget the diet, OK?) we went wandering through the tree-lined residential streets.

The lovely old school interior of Milano Restaurant. They have waterside tables too!
Milano Restaurant on Buyukada

I’ve been back to the island several times now with friends, one of whom spent his childhood summers there in rented holiday homes. In the past Istanbul’s Jewish and Armenian communities favoured the islands for summer escapes. My friend remembers long hot days spent playing out on the street, swimming in the Sea of Marmara and eating delicious seafood at Milano Restaurant. It’s one of the many seafood restaurants lining the water and I highly recommend it. They offer a varied selection of meze, as well as squeaky fresh fish. Tell them I sent you!

Pick up a snack at Buyukada Pastanesi (I doubt you’ll still be hungry after eating lunch and a serve of Turkish ice cream, but where there’s a will there’s a way!). They bake a selection of unusual sweet pastries such as tahinli tart (tart with tahini), mutlakı, merivan incir ceviz (fig and walnut compressed in the shape of a shell), kalçunya (sweet biscuits similar in appearance to date pillows) and arab boğacası. I can’t explain what every one of them contains so you’ll just have to try them all!

Where to swim when you visit Buyukada

Last but not least is swimming. I have to confess I’m not a big fan of swimming on Buyukada or any of the islands. Not because of the water quality (although this was an issue a few years ado) but because I’m an Australian and we don’t pay to use a beach. We don’t have to because access is free, which it should be. I believe the sea belongs to all of us. I know the argument goes you’re not paying to use the water, you’re paying to use the umbrellas, sun loungers and facilities but 1, I have my own umbrella, 2, again being Australian, I only spend a few hours out in the sun these days and always wear a hat to protect myself against skin cancer and 3, when the beach is fenced off on all sides, is guarded by security and has a reception desk with a cashier installed, you really are paying to use the water, aren’t you?

Nevertheless, if you’re not like me, and I know I’m pretty much in the minority on this, head east of the ferry wharf where you see small boats tied along the front, ready to take  you to the different beaches around Buyukada. After taking this photo I looked for more information and only came up with information abou Eskibağ Plaj. If any of you get there this summer or have other recommendation, please let me know.


Planning to come to Istanbul or Turkey? Here are my helpful tips for planning your trip.

For FLIGHTS I like to use

Don’t pay extra for an E-VISA. Here’s my post on everything to know before you take off.

However E-SIM are the way to go to stay connected with a local phone number and mobile data on the go. Airalo is easy to use and affordable.

Even if I never claim on it, I always take out TRAVEL INSURANCE. I recommend Visitors Coverage.

I’m a big advocate of public transport, but know it’s not suitable for everyone all the time. When I need to be picked up from or get to Istanbul Airport or Sabiha Gokcen Airport, I use one of these GetYourGuide website AIRPORT TRANSFERS.

ACCOMMODATION: When I want to find a place to stay I use

CITY TOURS & DAY TRIPS: Let me guide you around Kadikoy with my audio walking tour Stepping back through Chalcedon or venture further afield with my bespoke guidebook Istanbul 50 Unsung Places. I know you’ll love visiting the lesser-known sites I’ve included. It’s based on using public transport as much as possible so you won’t be adding too much to your carbon footprint. Then read about what you’ve seen and experienced in my three essay collections and memoir about moving to Istanbul permanently.

Browse the GetYourGuide website or Viator to find even more ways to experience Istanbul and Turkey with food tours, visits to the old city, evening Bosphorus cruises and more!

However you travel, stay safe and have fun! Iyi yolculuklar.

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  1. Nice article – loved your descriptions of your first visit in the 90s. Did you see that the municipality has opened a beach just this week. There is a separate motor boat in Bostanci to take you there right next to the Mavi Marmara motors . I think it leaves at 10:30 and comes back at 5. I went to Buyukada on Thursday for the Lavender festival and decided to bike around to see the new beach. ( I live in Burgaz so probably would go but just like to know things) and the beach is way at the back over looking Sedef Ada. In the week it is 95 lira (including boat) and at the weekend 120. It looked very empty but I saw it on its third day. I presume the food will be Beltur prices which is nice for some families.

    1. You’re a woman after my own heart as I too also like to know things for the sake of it. I must say I’m slightly jealous you live in Burgaz Ada. It’s a pretty little island. Thank you for the compliments and the information about the new public beach. I imagine it will be heaving with people by now but I might check it out one day during the week. BTW how was the lavender festival? Do you think I should add it to my list of thing to check out?

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