The rebirth of Istanbul’s Bosphorus

An ambitious plan looks to supersize the beloved and congested waterway, turning it into the world’s largest pleasure boating playground.

Every morning central Istanbul wakes to rekindle its daily love affair with the waterway. The scene includes dozens of promenading tourists, dog walkers and dedicated fishermen lining the sides of the Galata Bridge. The Bosphorus not only defines borders of Turkey’s largest city, but the way its residents work and live. Without it, everything would simply grind to a halt.

The Bosphorus Strait, which splits the European and Asian sides of Turkey, is one of the world’s busiest waterways, with around 50,000 vessels transiting between the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea each year. There are shipping containers from Bulgaria, Romania, the Ukraine and Georgia, Russian submarines, fleets of Turkish naval vessels and some 5,500 oil and gas tankers. Then there are the thousands of passenger ferries, fishing boats and luxury speedboats that cruise the 32km-long watery highway, navigating the treacherous currents from dusk until dawn. There is little room to manoeuvre, but this makes it alluring and hypnotic, congested and dangerous – and in summer everyone wants a piece of it.

However, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan’s ambitious project, Kanal Istanbul, could be set to change all that. His plan is to create a $10 billion, 50km-long artificial canal to rival Suez or Panama that will split the European side in two from Karacaköy to Selimpaş, and return the Bosphorus Strait to its former glory before the days of 20th-century congestion and shipping-lane traffic jams. Describing his scheme as both “crazy and magnificent”, Erdogan not only wants to ban commercial traffic but turn the Bosphorus into the world’s largest pleasure boating playground in time for the 100th anniversary of the Turkish Republic in 2023.

The concept of a gigantic man-made canal may raise eyebrows among Istanbul purists, but this is not the first time such an earth-shattering project has been devised. The idea was floated seven times during the Ottoman period, with the first proposal made by the greatest Ottoman sultan of them all, Suleiman the Magnificent, who reigned from 1520 to 1568. He wanted to create a second Black Sea-Marmara channel, an idea stemming from the annual summer ritual when wealthy pashas and the rich elite decamped to the waterfront to escape the oppressive heat that hung over the city’s densely populated hills. They retreated to their yalıs – exquisite timber mansions with direct access to the shore. Now popular with expats and the Turkish upper class , the yalıs line up like pastel-coloured boathouses, and renting one comes with a hefty price tag. While the Ottoman schemes were abandoned for various reasons, the project has never since been green-lit because of its sheer scale.

Before construction starts
The best way to experience Istanbul  is out on the water. Ferries regularly jettison off to the idyllic Princes’ Islands, where today’s elite hang out in their vast waterfront apartments and mansions. Then, of course, there are the hordes of day-trippers and tourists who choose from a multitude of cruise options to be whisked from the piers of the Galata Bridge to the fashionable northern suburbs of Ortaköy, Bebek and Emirgan.

Strung along the coast, 20-minutes north of the Sultanahmet neighbourhood, these three perfect pockets of suburbia are where modern Istanbul life plays out. In Ortaköy, Istanbullus sip cocktails and snack on burgers and sushi in places like the House Café, Banyan and Zuma, while in Bebek, Turkish footballers and TV soap stars hang out in Italian hotspot Lucca on Cevdet Paşa, the suburb’s perpetually jammed waterfront strip and the city’s most exclusive address. Those without a Ferrari or luxury yacht can slurp an Anatolian dondurma (ice cream) from Mado in Bebek Park and watch locals fish on the boats that bob in the harbour.

Thanks to Istanbul’s nascent tourist boom, nearly every international hotel brand has opened in the city, but only a few have managed to eke out a space between the waterfront yalıs and restaurants. The most luxurious of these are the Four Seasons on the Bosphorus, the A’jia Hotel, and the Çırağan Palace Kempinski, a five-star phoenix raised from the shell of a former Ottoman mansion. At all three, it is possible to spend the day watching tugboats sail to and fro, without leaving the comfort of a pool lounger.

Even if you are not staying in one of the elite hotels, take advantage of the unbeatable Bosphorus views with a laidback hotel restaurant lunch on the water. A more adventurous option, however, is to take the complimentary shuttle from Kabataş out to Sumahan on the Water, a raki distillery-turned-boutique hotel on the east shores of Çengelköy. With a glorious waterfront terrace, and some of the city’s finest modern seafood tapas at the in-house restaurant Tapasuma, the hotel is starting to change people’s perceptions of what has traditionally been known as “the other side”.

On the return journey from the hotel’s Beşiktaş launch point, the varnished-wood powerboat glides past the Ottoman-era Dolmabahçe Palace – built in 1865 when this was the city’s prime strip of real estate – and the waterfront Ortaköy mosque, arguably even more stunning than the Blue Mosque  in Sultanahmet. The boat then passes the open-air summer nightclubs Reina, Sortie and Supperclub; the seafood restaurants on Galatasaray Islet, including an outpost of the perennially popular 360 brand, 360 Suada Club; and under the Bosphorus Bridge, a titanic span of engineering and steel.

Ultimately, a small journey such as this is a snapshot of Istanbul in microcosm – but if the Turkish government can pull it off, perhaps the greatest days in the life of the Bosphorus are yet to come.