I have the best commute in the world. I take a 15 minute stroll from my apartment to the harbor and get on a boat. In a city with 12-20 million people, depending on who’s counting, and only two bridges, the ferries are the best transportation option. But in addition to being practical (and passing a bridge of bumper-to-bumper traffic does drive home the practicality), regular boat rides are perhaps my favorite aspect of life in the city.
Public transportation gives you the chance to relax and enjoy the ride instead of dodging between lanes and fighting your way forward on Istanbul’s crowded highways, wincing as motorbikes speed through any possible spaces like they’re racing to thread a needle. Of course, at peak times most of Istanbul’s transport systems; buses, dolmuses and trams; are packed like sardine cans, which hardly makes for a pleasant journey. But only the most popular boats run out of seats, and that only happens during rush hour in winter, when the open air decks are unbearable.
The rest of the year, the open air decks are the best part. In a city of never-ending development, one of the few places people haven’t managed to build on is the Bosphorus, with the exception of Suada, a man-made island, which at least hasn’t started a trend. The result is that the clearest panorama of the city is from the middle of the strait. Depending on the route, you might be closer to Topkapı Palace, the Blue Mosque and the Aya Sophia or the fortresses on the northern end of the city. You’re sure to see the shadowy outlines of the Princes’ Islands, the imposing Haydarpaşa Train Station, and Galata Tower peaking out from the skyline. The most striking feature is the way the city sprawls in all directions as far as the eye can see.
Of course, it wouldn’t be Istanbul if tea wasn’t served, and it’s better quality and cheaper than many a çaybahçe (tea garden). There’s a range of other snacks, like grilled cheese (tost), Turkish bagels (simit) and my favorite, buttery stuffed rolls (poğaça) and a slew of prepackaged items. While impatiently waiting for the boat, a glum Turkish friend will often perk up, exclaiming “Hey, we can drink tea on the boat!”
The entrepreneurs that surround the ferry docks are another quintessential Istanbul experience. The sidewalks of Eminönü are lined with salesmen touting their wares from picnic blankets as soon as the sun begins to set. Whether you’re looking for a watch, purse or poster, they always provide a wide range of options. Disembarking in Üsküdar, you’ll be bombarded by men who thrust Calliou dolls, hot water bottles, wool socks and wind-up toys toward the passengers, who may need to make a last minute purchase. In the morning the ferry docks are lined with pastry sellers, catching hungry business people on their morning commutes. My personal favorite is the breakfast cart in Beşiktaş, which offers a buffet of the traditional Turkish breakfast food – olives, cucumbers, tomatoes, sausage, cheese – to be stuffed into rolls. On longer trips, the salesmen will board with a bag of goods and demonstrate their lemon juicers or whatever else you can imagine for the passengers.
A boat trip is daily chance to get off the beaten track and relax in true Istanbul style. Do a little shopping, have a snack, and look out over this beautiful city!