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Istanbul, Turkey sits astride the Bosphorus Strait. This is the meeting of two continents. This is the body of water that separates Europe and Asia. One of the highlights of any trip to Istanbul is taking a Bosphorus cruise tour, which provides an overview of the top sites in the city.
The Bosphorus Straits are impressive. The strait (which is commonly misunderstood to be the Bosphorus River) is actually a natural sea channel connecting the Black Sea to the north with the Sea of Marmara to the south.
The Bosphorus is 31 km (19 miles) long. It is 3420 meters (2.1 miles) wide at the widest point, and 700 meters (765 yars, or 0.4 miles) wide at the narrowest point. These are actually the narrowest straits in the world that allow for major international transportation (i.e., large container ships).
About 20 percent of the population of Istanbul (15 million people), cross the strait every single day. The Bosphorus Strait is one of the busiest shipping channels in the world. Nearly 200 long-distance vessels travel through the straits each day, and thousands of smaller vessels cross the waters every day. Travelers can also cruise from Istanbul on several smaller cruise lines to explore the Mediterranean.
There are numerous Bosphorus cruise options and you have several choices to make:
- Day time or evening? The latter could include a Bosphorus dinner cruise.
- Complete straits or just the central district closest to Istanbul?
- Public ferry or private/dedicated tour of the Bosphorus in Istanbul?
- Do you want to get off the boat and explore, or just take in the Strait of Bosphorus from the boat?
Whichever you decide, one thing is for certain – from the hotel concierge to the guy on the street, everyone will do everything in their power to get you on a Bosphorus boat tour. That’s why you need to select the right boat for you.
For most visitors, the best option will be a non-stop sailing of the central district. Most sailings leave from the Galata Bridge area in the Golden Horn area, but some will leave from Kabatas, near many of the hotels in Taksim.
The two private companies in the game are the Turyol cruise line (several different options, including short cruise and the islands) and the Dentur cruise line (focusing on the long cruise and a hop-on/hop-off Bosphorus cruise). During our visit, we bought our tickets with the Turyol cruise line. The Bosphorus cruise price is similar between the two companies.
However, the most cost effective option is the cheap Bosphorus cruise option provided by the public Istanbul ferry, which is operated by a company called Şehir Hatları (sometimes spelled Sehir Hatlari on signs). They also offer a non-stop “short Bosphorus cruise” (2 hours) that focuses on the central district.
The “long Bosphorus cruise” (6-8 hours depending on the weather) is a whole-day event that includes a three-hour stop at a fishing village. While you technically get to the Black Sea, it is a long day which includes several hours of down time. For most visitors, focus on the “short cruise” by either day or night.
No matter what option you take – the Bosphorus ferry (i.e., the Sehir Hatlari cruise) or one with a private Bosphorus waterway company – your experience will be enhanced by a good guidebook to tell you what you’re looking at. For example, our Turyol cruise had an audio narration, but it was only in Turkish. We found the self-guided narrative in the Rick Steves’ Guidebook to be extremely helpful.
Regardless of which boat you take, they all follow the same general itinerary. The boat will hug the west bank (the European side of Istanbul) going north and then will return along the east bank (the Asian side of Istanbul) going south.
Along the way, you will go past the Dolmabahce Palace, which was home to the Ottoman Empire from 1856-1922 (after they abandoned the Topkapi Palace, which can be seen from anywhere on the Bosphorus in Istanbul).
You’ll see Istanbul’s football (soccer) stadium, called Vodafone Arena, where the masses go to root for the home team (called the Beşiktaş Jimnastik Kulübü, or simply the Besiktas football club). The cruise will cross under the Bosphorhus Bridge, built in 1973 and linking Europe to Asia for the first time.
The Bosphorus cruise will continue past the Rumeli Fortress, built in 1453. This fortress, along with its mate across the strait, gave the Ottomans the ability to completely control the Bosphorus Strait and all vessels that wanted to pass. No ship could slip past these fortresses.
At the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge, the cruise crosses the strait and returns south along the Asian side of the east bank. Here, homes encroach on the shore and even appear to be built one on top of the other – all competing for views of the water.
It’s hard to imagine what Istanbul would be without this majestic body of water. A Bosphorus cruise tour is arguably one of the highlights of any visit to Istanbul.