For over 2,500 years, kings and commanders have confronted the challenge of the Bosphorus, building rudimentary bridges out of boats and floating jetties to increase the size of their empires. Mandrokles of Samos crossed on huge connecting floats in 512 B.C.; Persian Emperor Xerxes built a temporary bridge, as did Heraclius I of Byzantium, who crossed a chain of pontoons on horseback. Now that several bridges connect the shores of Europe and Asia, staying on the water has become more fashionable than actually crossing it. The shores are dotted with yalis, or classic waterfront mansions, built as early as the 18th century: yellow, pink, and blue wooden palaces perched along the waterfront. The surrounding neighborhoods (best visited by land) retain much of their characteristic village feel, in stark contrast to the restored homes inhabited by the likes of ex-Prime Minister Tansu Çillar.
Cruising up the straits is a bit easier these days than when Jason and the Argonauts sailed through in search of the Golden Fleece. A number of local tour companies organize daylong or half-day boat cruises up the Bosphorus on private boats, often with a stop at the Rumeli Fortress and visits to Beylerbeyi Sarayi. Unless you've gotten a guarantee that the tour will not wind up on one of the public ferries, skip the tour and hop on one of the less-pristine (but serviceable) city ferries and go the route yourself.
A one-way ticket on the Istanbul Deniz Otobüsleri ferry (IDO; tel. 0212/444-4436 toll-free in Istanbul; www.ido.com.tr) costs 13TL (round-trip is 20TL). The ferry makes stops at all of the main docks on both the European and Asian sides (10 each), giving passengers the option of jumping ship early. Sariyer is the most visited stop -- and therefore the most touristy, but the potential for a side trip to the Sadberk Hanim Museum, Büyükdere Piyasa Cad. 27-29, Sariyer (tel. 0212/242-3813; www.sadberkhanimmuzesi.org.tr; Thurs-Tues 10am-5pm; admission 7TL), continues to make this disembarkation point one of the most popular. The museum, located in an old Ottoman house overlooking a section of the Bosphorus that was an old dockyard, houses a limited but excellent collection of artifacts representative of the progression of civilizations in Anatolia. If you're already up here, then it's worth a look; otherwise, you'll get a more comprehensive presentation of the same themes at the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara.
A lesser-appreciated alternative (though still touristy) is to get off at Anadolu Kavagi instead, hike up the hill to the "Crusader's Castle" -- named for a carved cross decoration dating to the crusader invasion but actually a Byzantine structure used as a Genoese Palace in the 14th century -- and enjoy outstanding views of the European side and lunch at one of the many fish restaurants.
Avoid the crush and disembark at one of the lesser-visited (for now) villages such as Emirgan, Bebek, Kanlica, and Çengelköy; then either catch a direct ferry back or wait for the return of the ferry you started on (departs Anadolu Kavagi at 3pm year-round and at 5pm in summer as well).
The trip by sea from Eminönü (departures at 10:35am, winter only, and 1:35pm; the ferry makes a stop in Besiktas approx. 15 min. later) to the last stop at Anadolu Kavagi takes 2 hours (allow 6 hr. for the full round-trip excursion), with only two return departures leaving at 3 and 5pm. This schedule pretty much restricts the amount of jumping on and off you can realistically do in a day. If you're short on time, IDO now offers a nonstop Sunday excursion departing Eminönü at 2pm. The boat plies the Bosphorus all the way up to Çubuklu and Istinye, before turning around and making its way back to the Eminönü 2 hours later. Tickets cost 10TL. Alternatively, you can take an IDO commuter ferry from any of a number of wharfs around the city to the destination on the Bosphorus of your choice for 1.50TL.
Cruising Like a Sultan
A few years ago, an industrious young entrepreneur set a crew of expert craftsmen to replicating a traditional sultan's imperial caique, fake gild, velvet, and all. The result is a kitschy, and yes, delightfully touristy, ride up the Bosphorus the way the royals used to do it. Sultan Kayiklari (tel. 0212/268-0299; www.sultankayiklari.com) has expanded to three motorized boats (the oars are for show) and now operates three different tours. Instead of craning your neck over the side of a crowed clunker, a maximum of 30 passengers each get a front-row seat to the turning of the Ottoman centuries, sea spray and all.
Two of the three tours on offer (the third is a "Palace Tour" for groups) are quick excursions of up to an hour, no stops allowed. Choose between the tour of the Straits from Dolmabahçe to the Bosphorus Bridge and back (58TL) or of the Golden Horn (45TL). Boats depart from different docks and have differing schedules; reservations are required.
Swift Boated Through the Symplegades
According to mythology, Jason and his trusted band of Argonauts had one more hurdle to overcome before claiming the Golden Fleece for their own. At one point in their journey, the Argonauts had been warned by the blind seer, Phineus, that at the mouth of the Symplegades, described as a boiling caldron of black waves, was a sea of clashing rocks threatening to crush all who dared to enter. Indeed, the currents of the Bosphorus are so unforgivable that many a tanker has been grounded on the banks of Istanbul's straits.
According to lore, the first to navigate the treacherous waterway successfully was Jason and his mythical Argonauts (argo meaning "swift" in Greek) on their quest for the Golden Fleece. But Phineus's prophecy revealed how Jason and his crew could pass the smashing, grinding rocks called the Symplegades alive. Phineus told Jason to simply release a dove into the entrance to the straits and, as the rocks were reopening, to literally row for their lives. The Argonauts did as they were told, and with merely the loss of some dovetail feathers and the stern ornament, they managed to navigate the deathtrap alive. At that moment, the rocks froze in place and the Bosphorus was tamed forever (except for a few grounded oil tankers).
Bridge over Troubled Water -- In 1501 Sultan Beyazit II invited Leonardo da Vinci to construct a bridge across the Golden Horn at the mouth of the Bosphorus -- a technical feat deemed impossible until then. The master submitted a plan so revolutionary that it was deemed unbuildable. (Three years later, the sultan made the same proposal to Michelangelo, but Pope Julius II refused to let him go, and he politely declined.)
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.