12 Top-Rated Islands in Turkey
Author Jess Lee lives in Turkey and has been hopping along the coast, exploring the nation's islands, for over a decade.
Whether you're seeking a summer sun idyll, historic character, or some of the best coastal views in the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas, Turkey has an island that fits the bill.
Some islands are destinations within themselves and are major summer vacation hot spots. Others make for an interesting sightseeing diversion or day trip while on your travels.
Even the sprawling metropolis of Istanbul has an island group that's simply just a ferry ride away for those who need a quick and easygoing break from city-slicker life.
Choose the islands to add to your travel itinerary with our list of the best islands in Turkey.
Highlights: A fashionable summer getaway destination with bags of Aegean character and boutique hotel living
For Turkish city-siders looking for high-class, stylish beach vacations, this island, just south of the Dardanelles in the Aegean Sea, is a relaxed getaway heaven.
Once called by its Greek name of Tenedos, the island became part of the modern state of Turkey in 1923. Although the Greek community of Bozcaada were not included in the Turkish-Greek population exchange of the 1920s, inter-communal violence during the 1960s and 70s forced most of the island's Greek residents to emigrate, but its Ottoman Greek heritage is still visible in the preserved architecture of Bozcaada Town.
If you're interested in Classical mythology, according to the Aeneid, Tenedos is where the Greeks hid, pretending to have sailed for home, while tricking the Trojans into allowing the Trojan Horse inside Troy's walls.
Bozcaada is rimmed by sandy shores and has an interior filled with vine-covered fields. With a year-round population of just 3,000, the island only kicks into high gear during the June to September tourist season.
On weekends during summer, Turks flock here to lounge on Ayazma beach on the island's southern coast or head to windy Cayır Beach, on the northern shore, for water sports like windsurfing.
Off the beach, activities and things to do are limited, which is just how most Bozcaada visitors like it.
Strolling the lanes of the historic Greek quarter, or having a quick explore of Bozcaada's Byzantine-era castle in Bozcaada Town (the only center on the island) in the late afternoon is about as strenuous as it gets.
Accommodation is mostly boutique and high-end, and nearly all options close outside of summer. During summer, though, you should book as far in advance as possible, as options are limited, and Bozcaada is popular.
To get here, either take the car ferry from Geyikli (54 kilometers southwest of Çanakkale), which operates year-round, or the passenger-only hydrofoil ferry from Çanakkale, which sails in the summer months.
Highlights: Summer hub for windsurfers, bird-watching and nature focus in the spring, and Ottoman Greek heritage amid the hillside villages year-round
For a sense of laid-back, rural island life, it doesn't get much better than Gökçeada.
Sitting just west off the coast of the Gallipoli Peninsula in the Aegean Sea, Gökçeada only springs into life during peak summer. Outside of high season, it is one of the best places to visit for island fans interested in nature and quiet beach breaks.
Like Bozcaada, Gökçeada originally had a predominantly Ottoman Greek population and was first known by its Greek name of Imbros. Persecution of the island's Greek inhabitants in the 1960s caused most of Gökçeada's Greek population to leave, and today the stone-cut architecture and cobblestone lanes of the empty, falling-into-ruin villages that speckle the hilly island interior are reminders of the island's tumultuous modern history and Greek heritage.
Visitors in summer spend much of their time here lazing on the south coast's beaches of Aydıncık and Kapıkaya. Windsurfers generally head to Aydıncık beach. Winter and spring visitors are usually here to spot the pink flamingoes overwintering at the island's salt lake, while for the more active, exploring the island's interior and its villages by mountain bike is popular.
Accommodation is scattered across the island. It's mostly intimate family-run boutique hotels and pensions, with a couple of bigger hotels thrown in.
There are regular car ferries year-round connecting Kabatepe on the Gallipoli Peninsula with the island and a passenger-only ferry twice weekly from Çanakkale.
Highlights: Old town strolls amid alleys of heritage buildings, and an Aegean fusion dining scene
Also called Alibey Island, Cunda sits just offshore from the North Aegean Coast town of Ayvalık and is easily accessed from the mainland by a causeway.
Cunda's Ottoman Greek residents were included in the Turkish-Greek population exchange of the 1920s, part of the peace treaty between the two nations. While they were forcibly moved to Greece, ethnic Muslims from Crete were forced to move here.
The island's historic old town contains many remnants of Ottoman Greek architecture and is prime aimless strolling territory. The finest building in town is the Greek Orthodox Church of the Archangels, which is now used as a museum.
Many people make the short hop to the island from Ayvalık simply for the great dining-out scene. Plenty of the atmospheric cafés and restaurants (mostly clustered around the old town harbor) specialize in Aegean-style eating, blending elements of both traditional Cretan and Turkish fare.
Much of the island's western side is taken up by the protected Ayvalık Adaları Nature Park, where a trail leads through pine forest to the ruins of a Greek Orthodox monastery. The western coastline is home to the island's main beaches, which are popular swimming stops with boat tours from Ayvalık, as well as people staying on the island itself.
Because of the proximity to Ayvalık, Cunda is often a day-trip destination, though it does have a range of small hotels, pensions, and a few boutique hotels.
Orchis Otel is set inside a traditional stone-cut house, only 50 meters from Ayvalık harbor and the ferries to Cunda. Rooms mix modern boutique hotel style with traditional touches and have preserved the house's original architecture for oodles of old-world charm.
Heading to Cunda, frequent ferries shuttle directly between Ayvalık harbor and Cunda harbor, which fronts the old town. Alternatively, you can hop on one of the frequent minibuses that zip between Ayvalık and Cunda via the causeway, heading to either the beaches or Cunda harbor.
4. Heybeliada (Princes' Islands)
Highlights: Hop on the ferry from Istanbul to sample Marmara Sea island life — one of the most popular day trips from the city
If you're staying in Istanbul and need a quick breather from big city life, do what the locals do and hop on a ferry to the Princes' Islands.
Sitting in the Sea of Marmara, Heybeliada is the second biggest island of this group. During weekends from May to October, it can seem like half the city has decamped here for the day, so try to time your visit for a weekday if you can.
No cars are allowed on the island, so this is a good opportunity for exploring on foot or by bike (plenty of bike rental is available). One of the main things to do for tourists is simply to wander the lanes lined with imposing wooden villas, up to lookout points with panoramic views across the sea.
Regular ferries travel between central Istanbul and Heybeliada. Although there are a handful of accommodation options on the island, the vast amount of visitors are day trippers.
5. Kızkalesi Island
Highlights: Take a boat trip out to this island to explore its Byzantine castle
On Turkey's southern Mediterranean shore, the settlement of Kızkalesi is a beach town popular with local tourists. Just offshore from the beach, is the teeny island from where the town takes its name.
Kızkalesi Island holds the remains of a Byzantine castle (the name in English means "Maiden's Castle"), with its well-preserved ramparts and towers still jutting grandly up from the rocky shore.
To explore the castle — though the interior is in ruins, and the most impressive feature is the fortified walls themselves — regular boat trips putter to the island and back from the beach.
As the island is only about 300 meters from the shore, it's also possible to swim to the castle and back.
6. Gemiler Island
Highlights: Hike up to Byzantine church ruins, then dive into the deep blue water just off-shore at this Mediterranean summer hot-spot
Also called St. Nicholas Island, Gemiler is a popular stop on boat day-trip excursions from the beach resort of Ölüdeniz, as well as multi-day yacht tours heading along the coast from Fethiye.
The ruins of five Byzantine-era churches sit in the rocky island hills, along with tombs and remnants of other religious-complex buildings. More history-minded travelers disembark to hike up to the ruins, though most visitors are happy to just view them from the sea.
The island's English nickname stems from the fact that it is believed by some historians that Gemiler may have been the location of the original tomb of St. Nicholas (aka Santa Claus), who was born in Patara and later became Bishop of Myra (modern-day Demre).
To get to the island without taking a group tour, head to stony Gemiler Beach, on the shore directly opposite the island, where small motorboats do return island trips, and kayaks can be hired.
7. Büyükada (Princes' Islands)
Highlights: Admire the coastal views and the late-Ottoman heritage architecture on this popular day-trip destination from Istanbul
Büyükada is the largest island in the Princes' Islands group and the most popular island escape from Istanbul.
Its prettiness can be marred by the sheer number of day trippers in mid-summer, so don't expect a peaceful island idyll. Come midweek between May and September or, better yet, in spring or fall for the best experience.
There are several beaches along the shore, but the real charm of Büyükada is found by strolling car-free lanes lined with grand 19th-century villas, and heading up the hill to the Monastery of St. George for the views across the Marmara Sea back to Istanbul.
Leon Trotsky spent his first four years of exile from the USSR on Büyükada, and in the Byzantine era, a convent here provided a convenient place to send several empresses into exile. To discover more about Büyükada (and the rest of the island group's history) don't miss visiting the Museum of the Princes' Islands while here.
Ferries regularly ply the route between Istanbul and Büyükada. There are several hotels, some in the island's restored timber villas, and staying overnight is a good way to experience the island after the day trippers have departed.
The top stay on the island is at the Ada Palas. Voted one of the most romantic hotels in Turkey, this finely restored timber villa has rooms fitted out in regal 19th-century style and hosts one of the most popular restaurants on the island.
8. Akdamar Island
Highlight: Admire the artistry of one of Turkey's most renowned religious buildings after a scenic boat trip across Lake Van
The Church of the Holy Cross on Akdamar Island is Lake Van's most famous sight.
Sitting three kilometers off the lake's mountainous southern shore, the island was once home to a bigger religious complex, all built in the 10th century by King Gagik Artzruni during his reign over the Armenian Kingdom of Vaspurkan.
Inside the church, you can see fragments of frescoes that are not particularly well preserved, but the highlight here is the church's façade. The exterior walls are covered in intricate and astonishingly preserved stone relief carvings depicting a range of Old Testament stories. The church's facade is considered to be one of the most important surviving examples of Armenian artwork.
The island is accessed by tourist boats, which operate round trips from Akdamar Harbor, near the village of Gevaş on the lake's south shore (45 kilometers west from Van).
Boats only leave when full, so it can be a good idea to take a tour from Van to guarantee more passengers and shorten your waiting time. During winter and early spring, when Van's tourism grinds to a halt, tourist boat sailings are practically non-existent, and you'll most likely have to hire one of the boats privately.
9. Pigeon Island
Highlight: Take a stroll around the fortifications of this harbor-front island
Built to guard the port during the Byzantine era, Kuşadası Castle sits on Pigeon Island (Güvercin Adası) just offshore from the resort town of Kuşadası.
Today, it's the most prominent landmark along the waterfront and one of the few historical places to visit in a town that's normally associated with cruises and package deal sand-and-sun holidays.
The castle you see today dates mostly from the Ottoman era, when its fortifications were extended and restored as the port thrived as an important link in Mediterranean trade.
The island is accessed by a causeway from the shore. On the island, a footpath traces the path of the castle's walls, while the interior has been turned into a park with information boards scattered along footpaths offering detailed descriptions of endemic flora and fauna in the Kuşadası area.
It's a great place for a sunset stroll, admiring the ramparts and the coastal views.
10. Kekova Island
Highlight: Kayak the clear, turquoise waters around this island to see its sunken ruins
People head to Kekova Island not for the island itself, but for what lies in the water along its shore.
Boat and sea kayaking trips come here to view the submerged remnants of ancient Dolchiste (referred to today as simply "the sunken city") destroyed by an earthquake in the 2nd century.
The entire surrounding area is fascinating to explore and one of Turkey's most astonishingly beautiful sections of coastline.
Partially sunken tombs speckle the harbor waters of the village of Kaleköy, directly opposite the island. While Kaleköy itself is topped by a fortress and scattered with the ruins of ancient Simena.
Most people arrive on tours arranged in Kaş, (33 kilometers to the west) but there is also a handful of boutique hotels and pensions in both Kaleköy and the nearby harbor village of Üçağız (four kilometers west) if you're looking for a rural retreat.
Highlight: View one of the Bosphorus' most famous tiny islands while on a cruise
One of Istanbul's most recognizable landmarks, Kızkulesi (Maiden's Tower) is a small tower that sits on an islet where the Bosphorus Strait meets the Sea of Marmara.
The current building dates from the 18th century, but a tower was first built here during the Byzantine era and was used as part of Constantinople's defenses to guard the city's waterways. Today, the tower contains a café-restaurant on-site, which is worth a visit simply to enjoy the tower's iconic city views.
Boats leave from the shore just opposite the island in Üsküdar on Istanbul's Asian side. You can admire views of the tower itself from the cafés that surround the boat ticket office.
12. Day Trip to the Greek Island of Kastellorizo (Meis)
Highlights: Day trip to Greece to soak up Greek island heritage, hike the hills, or boat along the coast
Although a Greek island (called by its Greek name Kastellorizo outside of Turkey), most visitors to Meis are day trippers from Turkey due to the island's position just offshore from the resort town of Kaş.
The island's pastel-washed village, hugging the harbor, is a photogenic delight, but most people disembarking from the ferry are here to take a boat trip to see and swim within the blue cave on the island's coast.
For something more active, there are also hiking trails across the island's hilly interior, with stunning views and some old church ruins along the way.
Daily return-trip ferries leave for Meis from Kaş harbor, year-round. Don't forget that you need to bring your passport along when you buy your ticket.
Kaş has a huge amount of accommodation, ranging from family-run pensions to stylish boutique hotel options. The Hotel Sonne is a friendly mid-range option, just a short stroll from the harbor, with panoramic views of the Mediterranean to Meis from its terrace, modern rooms with balconies, and one of the best breakfasts in town.
Best Time to Visit Turkey's Islands
The best time to visit the islands off Turkey's Aegean and Mediterranean coastline are, in general, the months of June, July, August, and September. These are the months when ferry schedules have the most sailings, so transport to the islands, which can only be accessed by boat, is the easiest.
Ferry schedules tend to begin adding more sailings in mid-May and tapering out in mid-October. If you're traveling outside of these months, you'll find far fewer transport options and will need to plan accordingly.
For sightseeing-only islands such as Akdamar Island (on Lake Van in Turkey's east) and Gemiler Island (off Turkey's Mediterranean Coast), there are no public boat transport options at all during winter.
On some popular summer break destination islands, many businesses also shut up shop outside of the tourism season of May, June, July, August, and September; traveling earlier and later in the year will mean far fewer choices of accommodation and dining.