Buyukada – The Big Island

Büyükada is the largest of Istanbul’s nine Princes’ Islands. The name literally means “Big Island”. We spent a day biking from one end to the other, enjoying fabulous views of the sea, swimming with jellyfish, climbing hills and escaping the crowds.

Although it’s large in comparison to its sisters, Büyükada isn’t all that massive. At just a couple square miles in area, you can easily bike around it within a couple hours. Still, it’s better to take the entire day, because there’s a lot to see.

After disembarking the morning ferry, we hunted for a bike to rent and went straight to the shop with the newest-looking bikes on display. After receiving the payment, the guy took us past the nice bikes, around into a back alley and hauled much older bikes out of the shop’s garage. Shenanigans. We could have (and probably should have) complained, but were oddly keen to avoid any stress. Büyükada had already cast its “chill-out” spell on us.

Not even hordes of screaming Turkish high-schoolers could ruin our relaxed vibe. After having visited Burgazada on Easter Sunday, we had sworn to never return the Princes’ Islands on a weekend… and so, we choose to visit Büyükada on a Monday. Little did we know, however, that this particular Monday was a school holiday. Every teenager in Istanbul was on our ferry, and they were all in exuberant, screechy spirits. Luckily, most of them made a beeline for the first beach and we quickly found peace.

At Yörükali Beach, on the southwestern end of the island, we paid 15 lira apiece and walked down a long path to the sea. The cover charge is apparently a way to keep the kids out, because we were completely alone except for a British couple and a few shirtless Turkish guys working on a new boardwalk. Acceptable. The sea water was cool and refreshing, and I would have stayed in hours but for the jellyfish. (At least they don’t sting… as I confirmed after swimming face-first into one).

For lunch, we biked to the center of the island, where every road converges in a mad intersection full of bikes, tourists and donkeys. In addition to being awfully cute, the donkeys carry people to the top of the island’s two big hills. These hills are too steep to bike, but we felt guilty about hiring a donkey and opted to walk up. At the top of the southern hill, there’s the Greek church of St. George, and a surprisingly affordable restaurant with a great view of the Marmara Sea.

After eating, we punished our aching legs even further, and hiked up the other of Büyükada’s big hills. At the top, we found an abandoned Greek orphanage. This massive wooden building was falling apart, and a little creepy. I wasn’t upset when we couldn’t find a way inside. From here, we returned to the ferry terminal. The great majority of Büyükada’s 7000 residents live on this side of the island, and hidden among the impressive mansions is a dilapidated home which hosted Leo Trotsky for four years.

This was a fantastic excursion, perfectly manageable in a day. It might be the busiest of the Princes’ Islands, but Büyükada has a lot more to do than Burgazada, and boasts superior views. We never made it to the other two (Heybeliada and Kınalıada) so are unable to definitively say which is the best of the Princes’ Islands, but it’s hard to imagine a more satisfying day out than the one we enjoyed on Büyükada.