The Sultans of Sail Istanbul: where east meets west

More than 100 ships a day pass through the Bosporus. Trystan Grace was on one of them.

‘She’s really going some now lads,’ skipper Dick Beaumont’s voice cuts through the whistling wind. He can’t hold back a big grin as we feel White Dragon power through the waves as a fresh gust hits us. We are flying in the perfect sailing conditions as we speed up the Dardanelles Strait towards our final destination, Istanbul.

Approaching Istanbul

I had been lucky enough to join White Dragon for several passages during her 32,000 ‘shakedown cruise’ from Hong Kong to Turkey: I had visited such dream destinations as Manila, Madagascar, and Cape Town, but this was the end of this mega voyage and as such, I was infused with the poignancy, expectation and relief of arrival.

When sailors cruise the Mediterranean they rarely travel as far east as Turkey. The Greek islands snare most, this is a big mistake not least due to warmth and friendliness of the Turkish people. The coastline is littered with historical sites from Byzantine amphitheaters to Ottoman castles. In just one example, as we sailed up the Dardanelles Strait, we passed Gallipoli, notorious for the blood-letting between the Allied forces and Ottoman Empire.

Once through the Strait and crossing the Sea of Marmara, the coastline forms in the distance. A coastline along which was forged Istanbul, one of the most historically, tactically and commercially important cities of all time. Here the meeting of two continents, Europe and Asia, split by the mighty Bosporus, naturally created a valuable trading hub as far back as the seventh century B.C.

Istanbul really is a tale of two halves, spreading over an area more than 5000 km2 and is far more liberal and cosmopolitan than many, who misunderstand modern-day Turkey, believe. Having spent some time in Istanbul, I want to share my go-to places among the must-see historical sites of the city. 

The historical and commercial heart of Istanbul beats on the European side where the original Byzantine city of Constantinople stood. It is a fascinating area to explore with remnants of the Roman/Byzantine empire dotted throughout. My favourite Roman site is the Basilica Cistern in Sultanahmet.

Basilica Cistern in Sultanahmet

This subterranean waterworks was built during the 6th century by Emperor Justinian the Great and is breathtaking as you walk down the steps into the cool chamber. The symmetry of the columns and the lighting is spectacular and at the far end, there are two huge Medusa heads placed upside down. 

Head to Fatih to see the old city walls which were impregnable to invading forces and which held off the Ottoman forces for so long. And of course, no tour of Istanbul would be complete without visiting Hagia Sofia, built originally by Emperor Constantine as a grand Byzantine church or the iconic Galata Tower which watches over the city.

Galata Tower Ceiling

The truth is, there are endless historical sites and museums, too many to cram into this travelogue. 

When I arrive in a new town I simply grab my camera and head off into the streets. Go where the locals go, eat where the locals eat. Spend time on the Anatolian side (Asian side) of the Bosporus to get an authentic feel of Istanbul and Turkey. 

You can’t visit the Anatolian side without visiting Kadikoy, by far my favourite part of Istanbul. This laid-back district is the place to go for lively cafes, bars, shops and art galleries. A picturesque ferry ride is the best way to arrive and then ride the short vintage tram line to take in the atmosphere and see some of the huge murals decorating many of the buildings.

Maiden Tower

Although Kadikoy definitely does attract tourists, it is a far more of a local hang out district than those found on the European side. The famous market is definitely worth a visit for produce and spices and for those that watch Netflix’s ‘Chef’s Table’ can experience the traditional Turkish cuisine by Çiya Sofrası.

From Kadikoy, you can jump on a ferry to the Princes’ Islands, a chain of nine beautiful small islands that sit parallel to the Anatolian coastline. If you sail into Istanbul, these islands are a perfect spot to cruise over a couple of days. White sandy beaches, excellent seafood, local craft shops and hikes alongside exquisite wooden Victorian-era houses which sport great views of the Turkish coastline. 

To round off the day and to catch the best sunset, head to Üsküdar, a short ferry ride from the European side. Once there, take a short walk along the side the Bosporus south until you reach my favourite building in the city, the Maiden’s Tower. This medieval period tower, built on a small island, has gone through many iterations but legend tells of the Byzantine emperor of the day, building the tower after hearing a prophesy which foretold of the death of his beloved daughter to a snake bite on her 18th birthday. After building the tower, he sent her to live on the island in solitude but alas, she could not escape her destiny and died to a snake that was hidden in a fruit basket, brought over from the city. Since then, the tower has been used as a customs point, defensive watchtower, and finally now is a tourist spot and restaurant.

Before you jump on a ferry to the island however, the spot I would recommend is on the seawall where you can enjoy a stunning sunset view of the tower with the city backdrop whilst sat on comfortable cushions and enjoying Turkish tea.

Whether you sail in or fly in, perhaps for a visit to Kraken Yachts’ HQ, I guarantee an unforgettable experience in the streets of Istanbul. 

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