Bosphorus Cruises: Exploring Istanbul by Boat

Istanbul on the Bosphorus, Turkey
Istanbul on the Bosphorus, Turkey | © Roberto Lo Savio / Alamy Stock Photo
Mark Nicholls

The shimmering expanse of the Bosphorus strait divides Istanbul’s European and Asian sides. Viewing this mesmerising city from one of the many ferries and tour boats that continually cross the Bosphorus offers a new dimension to this destination.

Explore this historic waterway between the shores of Europe and Asia on Culture Trip’s 12-day group tour, where you’ll get to glimpse the architectural highlights of Istanbul, such as the Rumeli Fortress.

Spanned by three awe-inspiring suspension bridges and linking the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara, the vibrant Bosphorus waterway is a busy commercial shipping route, yet one that is also crossed constantly by passenger ferries and tourist vessels. Viewing Istanbul from the water offers arguably the finest panorama of this amazing city, bringing to life Asian and European vistas and a shore that is lined with fabulous palaces, stunning mosques and imposing public buildings, as well as small inlets and fishing villages as you head further away from the metropolis.

The different seasons, and even different times of the day, enhance and alter the perspective. To cruise the Bosphorus, whether on a tourist vessel, private yacht or public ferry, is to see Istanbul in all its glory.

Scenic view of Arnavutkoy and Bosphorus, Istanbul

Hop-On-Hop-Off Bosphorus Boat Tour

This cruise stops at locations along the Bosphorus, offering the chance to discover the palaces, mosques and bridges of Istanbul. Explore different neighbourhoods at your leisure with a cruise ticket that’s valid for the day. If you stay on the vessel and do the full tour in one take, it lasts just over an hour and a half, or you can get off at each stop and catch the next boat one or two hours later.

Starting and finishing at Kabataş Pier, the stops are Emirgan, Küçüksu, Beylerbeyi and Beşiktaş, each with its own focus of interest. Emirgan offers the chance to see an 18th-century mosque and enjoy a Turkish coffee or a shoreline stroll; Küçüksu is renowned for a 19th-century Neo-Baroque royal hunting pavilion; Beylerbeyi hosts a royal summer palace and mosque; while Beşiktaş on the European side has interesting markets. By returning to Kabatas, it is possible to take the funicular to popular destinations like Taksim or the tram to the old city of Sultanahmet.

The Hop-On-Hop-Off boat tour departs from Kabatas Pier

Official ferry companies

Istanbul’s official ferry company is Şehir Hatları and it offers Bosphorus tours to suit all budgets, timescales and preferences. The options are the Short Circle Bosphorus Cruise, the Full Bosphorus Cruise and the Full Bosphorus Cruise by Night. The schedule changes with the seasons, so check departure times online or at the Şehir Hatları Bosphorus lines sales office, which is near the Eminönü docks, close to the Galata Bridge.

The Short Circle Bosphorus Cruise (Kisa Boğaz Turu) lasts two hours and runs daily from April until the end of October, departing from Eminönü to İstinye past the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge (the second main suspension bridge).

The Full Bosphorus Cruise (Uzun Boğaz Turu) lasts six hours and departs from Eminönü, going all the way to the Black Sea. It passes Beşiktaş, Üsküdar, Kanlıca and Sarıyer. Disembark at Anadolu Kavağı – the last harbour before the Black Sea – to visit the fortress or have some lunch in one of the town’s fish restaurants. With several departures a day, there is also an audio guide explaining some 70 points of interest in 10 different languages.

The Full Bosphorus Cruise by Night (Mehtap Gezi) departs at 5.30pm and offers a whole new perspective on the city, following the same route as the full daytime tour but leaving at dusk for spectacular sunset views of the city. It stops in Anadolu Kavagi for two hours for guests to enjoy dinner in the fish restaurants at the shore and heads back to Eminönü at about 10.30pm. However, it is only available on Saturdays in July and August, so check departures.

Sehir Hatlari ferry

Morning Bosphorus boat Tour with Local Guide

Join Culture Trip’s exclusive small-group adventure to Turkey and your guided Bosphorus cruise will be arranged for you during your stay in Istanbul. After taking in all the vibrant maritime activity on the strait – and glimpsing sites like Dolmabahçe Palace, Beylerbeyi Palace and the Rumeli Fortress – you’ll disembark at the historic neighbourhood of Kozguncuk to join a food-tasting tour of Turkish specialities, away from the bustle of the city.

Otherwise, you can arrange your own morning tour to see the palaces, bridges and villas on the European and Asian sides of Istanbul. A two-hour tour starts at a meeting point on Divanyolu Street in the Sultanahmet area, where guests return to after the voyage to continue exploring the heart of the city.

The Dolmabahçe Palace

Zoe Yacht Bosphorus Cruises

Feeling fancy? You can hire a private yacht for the day through Zoe Yacht Bosphorus Cruises. Locally owned and managed, the 17-metre (56-foot) motor vessel operates a range of daily private cruises and yacht charters. Tours include sightseeing, sunset and dinner cruises, plus routes along the Bosphorus, the Black Sea, Golden Horn and Princes’ Islands, and is suitable for couples, families or small groups of up to 12.

A typical itinerary for a two-hour private Istanbul sightseeing cruise will offer views of the shoreline on the European and Asian sides of the Bosphorus, passing the waterfront Dolmabahçe Palace, Çiragan Palace, Rumeli Fortress, the Bosphorus Bridge, Anadolu Fortress and Beylerbeyi Palace. Take in the view from the sundeck, lounge or flybridge, while the crew take care of the yacht and guests. Zoe Yacht can also help organise bigger boats for bigger groups.

Hire a private yacht and get up close and personal with the Ciragan Palace

Standard shuttles

One of the best ways to enjoy the Bosphorus is to join the thousands of local citizens who cross the strait daily on one of the standard shuttles. Despite the three suspension bridges and the Eurasia road tunnel, plus the metro system, many locals still use – and enjoy – the scheduled ferry services to get about the city. A favourite route among commuters is Eminönü to Kadıköy, which takes you from Europe to Asia and offers stunning perspectives of the city.

The cosmopolitan Kadıköy neighbourhood on Istanbul’s Asian shore is renowned for its vibrant fish and produce market, atmospheric streets and buildings, boutiques, bookshops, cafés and eateries – which is why it features as another site visited on Culture Trip’s carefully curated tour of Istanbul. Your street food tasting tour will continue here, with authentic snacks like kaymak (buffalo cream cheese with honey), stuffed vine leaves, durum kebab and exquisite baklava on the menu.

Kadıköy is also where the landmark Haydarpaşa rail terminal stands. Departing Eminönü at sunset offers epic views across the Sea of Marmara to Sultanahmet, with the Topkapı Palace and the minarets of the Blue Mosque and Aya Sofya silhouetted against the skyline.

In addition to the Eminönü to Kadıköy crossing, there are numerous other routes to select from the timetable to criss-cross the Bosphorus at your leisure and sip a glass of çay (tea) on deck as you go.

Visit the Kadıköy neighbourhood for great views and beautiful buildings

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