If there’s one thing first-time visitors to Istanbul can usefully do, it’s to kid themselves into believing that this metropolis on the continental cusp barely extends beyond the shoreline. For even though the booming city now occupies vast swathes of the hinterland, it remains the case that many of the best outings are within easy walking distance of the water; either the Bosphorus, the wide waterway which runs north-south along the city’s continental divide, or the Golden Horn, the fabled creek which leaves the Bosphorus at right angles to bisect the city’s European side. A ferry timetable, available at most of the pavilion-style ferry jetties or stations, a city map, an exploratory nose and a pair of stout walking shoes may be all that the rookie visitor to Istanbul needs. Oh, and the local equivalent of London’s Oyster, the Istanbulkart.
These waterways, for all the fishing smacks, the tankers, the freighters, the coastguard vessels and the ferries that weave their routes there, actually constitute comparative tranquillity given the perpetual traffic snarl that the city’s dry land is subject to. Visitors should therefore orient themselves in relation to the Galata Bridge if only because the main ferry termini at Eminönü and Karaköy are to be found on either side of it. From these two points they can find regular services across the Bosphorus to the Asian shore at Üsküdar or Kadıköy; hourly services out to the Princes’ Islands in the Sea of Marmara; and daily services up the Bosphorus as far as the Black Sea. A separate line runs up the Golden Horn as far as Eyüp, with departures from the small ferry station, Haliç, 200 metres west of Galata Bridge beyond the bus station on the south side of the Golden Horn.
Istanbul’s old ferries, built to a Scottish design, turn out not only to be atmospheric but efficient and regular too; and they do a fine line in glasses of tea, freshly squeezed orange juice and excellent cheese toasties. But perhaps the greatest discovery is the sheer number of attractions which happen to lie within reach of particular ferry stations: alight at Beşiktaş for the wonderful Naval Museum and the overblown splendor of the late Sultans’ Dolmabahçe Palace; at buzzy Karaköy for Istanbul Modern art gallery; at Ayvansaray for a 20-minute uphill walk to the outstanding Byzantine frescoes at the Kariye Cami (Chora Church); at Eyüp for the holy shrine of the Prophet’s standard bearer; at Haydarpaşa to touch the Asian shore and savour the Edwardian-era romance of the sadly fire-damaged Schloss-style station there, until recently the terminus for services to Aleppo and Tehran; at nearby Kadıköy for the foodie mecca that is Guneşlıbahce Sokak (and to eat at the divine Çıya); at Eminönu for the Spice Market and the magnificent Iznik tilework at the Rüstem Paşa Mosque; and at Hasköy for the fascinating collection of period industrial innovations at the hands-on and chıld-friendly Rahmi M Koç Museum.