With their charming waterfront villages, fin-de-siècle architecture, wooded hills and rocky coves, the romantic Princes’ Islands have always been a favourite retreat from the mainland. Set in the Sea of Marmara between 15km and 30km southeast of the city, the islands are easily accessible by ferry from İstanbul, and can get very crowded in summer, especially at weekends. Cars are banned on the islands, so transport is either by foot, phaeton (horse-drawn carriage), hired bike or donkey. Their proximity to the city makes them an easy, enjoyable and very cheap day-trip, but accommodation is surprisingly expensive, and, on summer weekends, hard to come by.
The copper mines of Chalkitis (Heybeliada), famed in antiquity, are long since exhausted, but they remain visible near Çam Limanı. During the Byzantine era, numerous convents and monasteries were built on the islands, which soon became luxurious prisons for banished emperors, empresses and princes (often after they had been blinded). The islands were neglected by the conquering Ottoman Turks and became a place of refuge for Greek, Armenian and Jewish communities.
In 1846 a ferry service was established and the islands grew popular with Pera’s wealthy merchants and bankers, becoming İstanbul’s favourite summer resort after the establishment of the Republic in 1923. Mosques began to appear in the villages, and hotels and apartment buildings soon followed. A Turkish naval college was established on Heybeliada and Atatürk’s private yacht was moored here as a training ship.
Sivriada, uninhabited and unvisitable, gained public notoriety in 1911 when all the stray dogs in İstanbul were rounded up, shipped out there and left to starve, while Yassıada is best known as a prison island, used for the detention of political prisoners.