11 Top-Rated Day Trips from Istanbul
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Need to escape from the big city for a day? There are plenty of historical sights within day tripping distance of Istanbul. The most popular trips are to the World War I battlefield sites of the Gallipoli Peninsula and to the world famous archaeological site of Troy. As long as you're willing to fly there and back, you can even get to Ephesus in one day. For less travel time, and a more relaxing day, head to a nearer sight such as the tranquil Princes Islands or the popular Black Sea beach resort of Sile; both are tempting downtime diversions in any Istanbul itinerary. Find the best places to visit with our list of the top day trips from Istanbul.
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1. Gallipoli War Cemeteries
For many Istanbul visitors, the number one day trip is the gorgeous Gallipoli Peninsula, but the main objective is usually not to admire Gallipoli's verdant shoreline scenery. Instead, most who arrive are here to pay their respects to the fallen of World War I. Scattered across the rugged coast of this thin finger of land are the cemeteries of both Turkish and Allied forces, who fought against each other in the bloody battles of 1915's Gallipoli campaign.
The battlefields and memorials here are now part of the Gallipoli Historical National Park, which honors both sides of the war. In total, over the course of the nine-month campaign, there were more than half a million casualties here, including just over 130,000 deaths, with 86,700 lives lost on the Turkish side and 36,000 deaths for the Allied forces.
For Turkish visitors, Gallipoli holds deep significance, as it was here that a young commanding officer named Mustafa Kemal (who would later become known as Ataturk - founder of the modern Turkish Republic) first made his name.
For foreign visitors from Australia and New Zealand, Gallipoli is also a point of pilgrimage, as soldiers from these countries (known as ANZACS) were deployed in great numbers and suffered heavy casualties here. The main sites are at Anzac Cove (where the Allies first landed on 25 April, 1915) home to the Anzac Commemorative Site; at Lone Pine, which holds a mammoth cemetery for ANZAC soldiers; Chunuk Bair (where the New Zealand memorial is situated); and 57 Alay, commemorating Mustafa Kemal's Ottoman 57th Regiment, which suffered brutal losses trying to stem the ANZAC advance.
A great way to experience the site is on the Istanbul to Gallipoli group day tour, which includes transport from Istanbul and guided tours of the Anzac Cove cemeteries and other battlefield sites of the Gallipoli Peninsula, plus lunch. To spend more time in the area, the two-day Gallipoli and Troy tour includes transport from Istanbul, overnight accommodation in Çanakkale, guided tours of both the Gallipoli Peninsula battlefield sites and Troy, plus some meals.
The nearest center to the Gallipoli Peninsula battlefields and to the famed archaeological site of Troy, Çanakkale is a thriving seaside town with a youthful modern buzz. Most visitors only stay long enough in town to have a look at the Trojan horse monument — a movie prop relic from the 2004 movie Troy — that takes center stage in the town square. However, if you're looking to experience a Turkish town just as energetic as Istanbul but much more approachable in size, it's worthwhile spending a little more time here.
For history buffs, Çanakkale's waterfront is home to the Dardanelles Straits Naval Museum, which holds a small but interesting collection of war relics and artifacts from both the Gallipoli battles and the earlier Ottoman era. While travelers more interested in contemporary life will find the town's café scene, often packed with university students, a great stop off on the way to either the somber battlefields or onwards to Troy.
Few archaeological sites are as mythologized as Troy. The ruins here are (supposedly) the site of the famed Trojan War from Homer's Iliad, which pitted the Greeks against the city of Troy. Heinrich Schliemann first declared this spot Troy in the 1870s, and although archaeological debate rages on, the site is significant for many factors beyond the Greek legend. This is a multi-layered site of various trading cities that dates from the early Bronze Age right up to the Byzantine period. As a consequence, it has huge importance for archaeological understanding on the contact between the ancient Mediterranean civilizations and it was awarded UNESCO World Heritage status in 1998.
The site can be difficult to navigate due to the number of ruins from different eras here (investing in the audio-guide is a good idea to make sense of what you're seeing). The main highlights, though, are Troy VIII's outer walls and nearby fortifications of Troy VI, the ruins of the fortified town of Troy VI and its Greco-Roman Temple of Athena, and Troy II's megarons.
Whether the ruins are the place where Paris brought Helen, thus beginning the mighty war where Odysseus and Achilles made their names, is probably moot, as Troy is a fascinating site for anyone with a love of history. If you're short on time and don't want to base yourself in Çanakkale to visit Troy and other sights in the area, this Troy day-tour from Istanbul includes transport from Istanbul, entrance, and a guided tour of Troy plus lunch.
4. Princes' Islands
One of Istanbul locals' favorite escapes from the city, the Princes' Islands sit in the northeast corner of the Sea of Marmara offering serenely beautiful scenery just half an hour's ferry ride away from the city's bustle. Jumping on the ferry for a day trip to the islands allows travelers to soak up the gorgeous coastal scenery along the way. Princes' Islands consists of nine islands, but two of them are the most popular stops for day trippers.
Heybeliada Island has plenty of opportunities for swimming and sunbathing, which are among the most popular things to do for visitors, but it is also home to the lovely Merit Halki Palace, now converted into a hotel, and the Hagia Triada Monastery, built in 1844. Büyükada Island has the Monastery of St. George and the Museum of the Princes' Islands. There are no cars on the islands, and horse-drawn carriages offer the main form of transport.
For Princes' Island touring in style, this private yacht tour from Istanbul to Princes' Island gives you your own boat for the day for cruising to Heybeliada Island, where you can then disembark to explore before heading back on the boat to a secluded bay for swimming.
5. Bosphorus Cruise
If you want to escape the city bustle but not stray too far from town, getting out on the Bosphorus for the day is a scenic city break. The Bosphorus slices the city in half, separating Europe from Asia, and is a vital thoroughfare for the city. Both full- and half-day cruise trips are hugely popular with Istanbul tourists and also allow you to see the city's famous skyline view of minarets and palaces from its best vantage point. Full-day trips travel all the way up the strait to the cute-as-a-button village of Anadolu Kavagi, looked over by the craggy fortifications of a Byzantine castle.
6. Golden Horn
One of the finest natural harbors in the world, the Golden Horn is a seven-kilometer-long curving inlet, opening up from the Bosphorus by Istanbul's Galata Bridge. In the medieval era, the Golden Horn could be closed to shipping by a chain across its mouth.
A ferry ride from central Istanbul to the sights here makes an excellent day out from the city. Disembark from the ferry at Hasköy to visit the ornate 18th-century pavilion of Aynalikavak Kasri and then carry on to the northern end of the Golden Horn to the pilgrimage center of Eyüp. Here, you'll see the Türbe of Eyüp (tomb of the Prophet Muhammad's standard-bearer, who was killed in the first Arab siege of Constantinople in AD 678), while just opposite is the Eyüp Mosque, built in 1459, where Ottoman sultans were inaugurated. The cemetery on the hill above is full of ornate tombstones and has magnificent views over the water.
If you have very little time and don't mind an exceptionally early morning and long day out (think 15 hours), then a day trip to Ephesus from Istanbul is doable. There will be little time to look at the many other sights in and around Selçuk, but you'll be able to fit in a decent tour of the Ephesus remains. To do this, you'll need to fly from Istanbul to Izmir and then take the train south to Selçuk, which sits next to the ruins.
Due to the logistics involved, many visitors planning to do this decide to take a tour. The Ephesus day trip from Istanbul is a small-group tour and includes round-trip flights from Istanbul, bus transport onward to Ephesus, entrance and a guided tour of the ruins, a visit to St. Mary's House (Meryamana), and lunch.
Backed by the tall peaks of Turkey's Uludag (Grand Mountain), Bursa is a modern industrial city with a fascinating historic core. This was the Ottoman Empire's first capital, from where they cast their eyes to Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul) and decided to conquer the Byzantine city. Although Bursa is quite spread out, most of the historical sites are within easy walking distance from each other, right in the central district.
The mammoth Ulu Camii (grand mosque) is the city's focal point, built by Seljuk Sultan Beyazit I with 20 domes on its roof. Bursa Citadel only has scattered remnants to see but is also the site of the tombs of Sultans Osman and Orhan, founders of the Ottoman Empire. Bursa's prettiest mosque is the Yesil Camii, with intricate tile work and calligraphy on show, while opposite the mosque is the Yesil Tomb, with a tile-covered mihrab (prayer niche). The medrese (Islamic school of learning) nearby is now the Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum, which is well worth a look for travelers interested in Ottoman art and design.
A Bursa day trip can be easily done from Istanbul. This private Bursa day tour includes all transport (ferry plus minivan); a guided tour of the central city's glut of Ottoman architecture, including entrance to the Yesil Camii; lunch; and a trip up Bursa's cable-car for views over town.
9. Sile and Agva
On Turkey's Black Sea Coast, Sile is primarily a fishing village, but its gorgeous sweep of white sand causes it to turn into a resort during summer, when locals from Istanbul flock here for a day at the beach. Although the beach is the main drawcard and makes a welcome escape from the hot and busy city streets in the height of August, Sile also has some other highlights for those who don't want to flop out in the sun. There's a small castle just offshore, built by the Genoese in the 14th century, and a lighthouse that dates from the Ottoman era. Nearby is the resort town of Agva, surrounded by astonishingly peaceful and pretty coastal scenery, which provides more sunbathing options.
Best known for its oil-wrestling festival, which takes place annually in either June or July, Edirne is liberally peppered with Ottoman buildings, thanks to its role as the empire's second capital. The Selimiye Mosque is the grandest structure in town, built by the renowned Ottoman architect Sinan (who also built Istanbul's Süleymaniye Mosque). The interior dome, even wider than the dome of the Aya Sofya, is stupendously impressive. The exterior courtyard here is host to the Edirne Turkish and Islamic Art Museum, with an excellent display of ceramics, clothing, and woodwork from the Ottoman era. While just behind the mosque is the Edirne Archaeological Museum, which holds some interesting exhibits of Thracian steles.
Other mosques here are worth a look, including the rather beautiful Sultan Beyazit II Mosque, the Üç Serefeli Mosque (with its four different minarets), and the aptly named Old Mosque (Edirne's oldest mosque building). The real joy of a trip here, though, is wandering the old town streets that were once the medieval heart of the city. Here, you'll find a wealth of Ottoman traditional wooden houses, many gracefully dilapidated and brimming with old-world ambience.
11. Kilitbahir Fortress
This mammoth fortress, sitting above the peaceful fishing village of Kilitbahir, sits overlooking the Dardanelles Strait, opposite the town of Çanakkale. First built by Mehmet the Conqueror in the mid-15th century, Kilitbahir was a strategic defense post (its name translates as "lock of the sea") from where the Ottomans controlled this vital waterway. The interior tower was built by Suleyman the Magnificent in the 16th century. Walking along its sturdy fortifications gives you a good idea of the sheer size of this structure and also allows for excellent panoramic views across the strait.