balat experience

Istanbul’s Essential Day Trips


The best days out from Istanbul, from pine-dotted islands and fairy-tale forests to the city's aquarium

Some of the best Istanbul adventures involve getting on the water, whether it’s a sunset cruise or private boat on the Bosphorus. Another option is to chart a course for Princes’ Islands, a tranquil archipelago that feels like another world. If Byzantine rulers once banished their enemies here, now they’re a popular day out, for scenic strolls and lunches by the sea. Terracotta-tiled monasteries look out on pine-covered hills, while handsome fin-de-siècle mansions edge quiet, cobbled lanes; with no cars allowed on the islands, they’re best explored by bike. Intrigued? Ferries run to the four larger islands, but the most relaxing way to travel is with Mandarin Oriental’s guided tour, with bespoke itineraries arranged on request.

And, back on the mainland, there are more adventures to be had, whether you’re exploring Belgrad Forest’s leafy glades, or watching hungry sharks circle their lunch at Istanbul’s Sea Life centre.

Stroll past fairytale mansions

The islands have long been a weekend retreat for Istanbul’s wealthy elite, dreaming of sea breezes and shady strolls below the pines. Scope out their summer houses on Buyükada, set behind leafy gardens and twisting wrought-iron gates. Wander past Italianate villas and ornate Ottoman piles, then head west to Yanaros mansion, where an exiled Leon Trotsky penned his History of the Russian Revolution. These days, it’s a ruin, open to the sky, which can still be glimpsed from the road, amid a tangle of trees.

Head for the hills

Sightseeing isn’t really the point of a trip to the islands, but there is one must-see on Buyükada: the hilltop, 18th-century church and monastery of Aya Yorgi (St George). It’s steep going, so leave your bikes at Lunapark square, then climb the path through the pines. Behind a simple, white-painted façade, it’s beautifully atmospheric, with its gilded icons, low-lit chandeliers and vaulted, star-spangled ceiling. Afterwards, take in the glittering sea views, or head to Yücetepe Kir Gazinosu for lunch on its perched, pine-edged terrace.

Memorable day trips on the mainland

Belgrad Forest & Atatürk arboretum

In the northwest of the city, the forest’s where locals head for a back-to-nature escape. It’s a 5,442-hectare swathe of woodland where deer and wild boar roam, spanning hiking trails, jogging routes and lakeside picnic spots. Atatürk Arboretum also falls within its bounds – at its loveliest in the autumn, when it’s painted with crimson and gold, but beautiful year-round. Paths wind past its lakes and rustling trees, but picnics are firmly vetoed; instead, lunch in neighbouring Bahçeköy, which is dotted with low-key cafés, for flaky, homemade börek or yoghurt-laced manti (dumplings).

Sea Life Istanbul

Some 40 minutes’ drive from the hotel is the Sea Life aquarium, whose residents run from tiny pigmy seahorses to cruising hammerhead sharks. Its zones include technicolour tropical reefs, rockpools and ‘turtle world’, while giant rays and sharks patrol an 83-metre walk-through tunnel. Small fry can get up close to starfish or head in search of Nemo, while talks and feeding sessions run in the afternoons. The centre also runs several conservation programmes, from breeding ray and seahorses to rescuing injured sea turtles, for release back into the wild.