Thanks to the absence of motorized vehicles, the islands have managed to retain their old-world charm. Horse-drawn carriages serve as local taxis, and bicycles share the meandering roads with domestic donkeys. As expected, Istanbullus inundate the islands in the summer, looking to enjoy the characteristic architecture of the many Victorian-style clapboard mansions along with a relaxing day at the beach.
Big Island, or Büyükada, is the largest of the five islands and the one most inundated during high season. There are several good beaches, diving facilities, pine forests, churches dating from the 16th through the 19th centuries, lovely neoclassical seaside residences, and the old orphanage, originally built in 1898 as a hotel. The crown of the island is the hilltop monastery of Ayayorgi (St. George), a 202m (663-ft.) elevation from which you can almost see all the way back to Istanbul. To get to the monastery, take a carriage to Luna Park and take the 30-minute uphill path to Ayayorgi Peak (via donkey from the bustle of the open square at the base of the hill, if you wish; about 15TL), where you can sip their homemade wine while enjoying the panorama at the monastery's simple restaurant on the hill. One of the highlights of any visit to Büyükada is to tour the island from the back of a phaeton, serenaded by the clip-clopping of your horse on the cobbled streets. To better appreciate what the islands have to offer, organize your excursion for a weekday, when the ferries are not packed like sardine cans and you can still get a glimpse of the sand beneath the blankets of the other sun worshipers. In the fall, a stroll along the deserted cobblestone lanes met by the occasional donkey cart or a friendly pack of hopeful stray dogs transports you countless years back in time.
Kinaliada was the site of a major human-rights infraction -- the Byzantines gouged out the eyes of and exiled Romanos Diogenes IV here for his defeat by the Selçuks in the Battle of Manzikert. The monastery built for the unfortunate general is still standing. The island was raided many times by pirates and later inhabited mainly by Armenians, but because of a harsh climate, it has attracted fewer people than the other islands. Electricity first came to the island in 1946, and it wasn't until the 1980s that the island received a water supply from the municipality. Kinaliada is also the only one of the Princes' Islands without the services of the 19th-century phaetons.
Burgazada is the second of the Princes' Islands, originally settled as a Greek fishing village. In the 1950s the island attracted the wealthy Jews of Istanbul, who restored existing mansions or built their own. The island is also the home of a famous Turkish writer, Sait Faik, whose home has been turned into a museum. Two swim clubs are near the ferry landing, but if it's beaches you're after, you'll be better off on one of the other islands.
Heybeliada is the island closest to Büyükada and similar in character in that the natural beauty attracts boatloads of weekenders in the summer. The waterside promenade ensures a steady stream of visitors looking to avoid the crowds over on Büyükada, but aside from a few eateries, you'll have to make this a day trip or book a room on Büyükada anyway.
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.