While it’s possible to spend a few days simply enjoying the sights and sounds of Istanbul’s central Old Town and New District, everyone visiting the city should consider taking a day cruise along the Bosphorus Strait to see this sprawling, romantic, transcontinental city at its best.
Along the piers in the Eminonu district—on the Old Town side at the mouth of the Golden Horn—you’ll find hawkers selling a variety of cruise packages. Consider one of these shorter, pricier guided tours only if you have a time limit or are looking for a more customized itinerary. Most tourists skip the persistent salespeople and go right to the Bosphorus Cruise Pier to get inexpensive tickets to the daily ferry terminating at Anadolu Kavagi, confirming departure times the day before.As the ferry departs the terminal, look back along the skyline of the Old Town to see the silhouettes of Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, and the Divan Tower of the Topkapi Palace. In the New District, you’ll get a clear view of the fourteenth-century, Italian-inspired Galata Tower on the hilltop. Looking across the wide Bosphorus, you are looking at the continent of Asia—the continental border runs through the Bosphorus from the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara.
This strategic waterway has been a crucial trade route between Europe and Asia for centuries, and on the cruise you’ll see what remains of castles and defense forts built to protect and monitor this busy channel. Stopping at the small ports along the way to drop off and pick up passengers, you’ll be reminded that today, it’s also a busy commuter superhighway, carrying hundreds of thousands of locals to and from work every day.
Around the first bend, you’ll see the Bosphorus Bridge, the first bridge to span a continental border. Once you pass under the bridge, look ahead to the banks on the European side to see the ruins of the Rumeli Fortress. This Ottoman castle was built to control Bosphorus traffic in preparation for an invasion of what was then Constantinople, and it effectively cut off supplies and aid to the city during the siege, leading to its fall in 1453.When the ferry reaches the terminal station at Anadolu Kavagi, step off the gangplank to Asia. This small fishing village welcomes Bosphorus tourists, but the main attraction is Yoros Castle at the top of a steep hill just north of town. Confirm the departure time of the ferry back to Istanbul and follow the well-marked path through the village and up to the castle. Be careful not to leave the marked trail; most of the hillside is part of an active Turkish military base.
When you reach the castle at the top of the hill, you’ll understand why this spot was chosen for a defensive fortification—and why the Byzantines, Ottomans, and Genoese battled for control of it so fiercely. Enjoy unobstructed views of nearly half the length of the Bosphorus, including its mouth at the Black Sea. On your way back down to the village and your return voyage to Istanbul, consider stopping for lunch at one of the many hilltop cafes.When making your Istanbul plans, save a day for a Bosphorus cruise. The scenic ride, the hike to the castle ruins on a green hilltop, and a fresh seafood lunch at a cafe with a view will be a refreshing change of pace from the frantic city center.