Exploring the Bosphorus Strait and the Heart of Istanbul

‍The Bosphorus Strait, also called the Istanbul Strait, or Bosporus Strait, has captivated empires, artists, and travellers for centuries. Alongside the naval traffic, this narrow, winding waterway of north western Turkey meanders through the heart of Istanbul, dividing the city into two continents – Europe and Asia. The Bosporus Strait is the only natural strait that connects two continents and separates the Black Sea, the Sea of Marmara, and the Dardanelles straits.

The strategic location has made the waterway a focal point for empires, trade, and culture throughout history, and the Bosphorus Strait shores line with magnificent palaces, ancient fortresses, and charming fishing villages. As the sun sets over the busy waterway, the strait comes alive with the twinkling lights of Istanbul. Let's journey through the enchanting world of the Bosporus Strait by getting to know about the history, geographical facts, and finally, our tips for exploring, and getting to know the Bosphorus for yourself.

Bosphorus strait Istanbul

All About the Bosphorus Strait in Istanbul

Historical Significance of the Bosphorus Strait

The Bosphorus Strait's history is intrinsically linked to Istanbul. Known as Byzantium in ancient times, the city sat at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, making it a coveted prize for the Romans, Byzantines, and Ottomans. The strait played crucial roles in these empires, serving as a natural barrier, Black Sea gateway and symbol of power.

The first recorded mention dates from the ancient Greeks in the 7th century BC. They established colonies on the European shore. The strait's name derives from the Greek myth of Io, whom Zeus transformed into a cow, leading her to swim across the waters, creating the Bosphorus.

During Ottoman rule, the Bosphorus Strait became a vital transportation and commercial hub, linking the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. In addition, they built many Ottoman palaces, mansions, and other fortifications. Another significant development was trade and commerce. The strait attracted merchants worldwide who came to Istanbul to trade spices, silk, and other luxury items.

These days, the strait's enduring importance is as a Maritime Special Area under the International Maritime Organization, highlighting its significance for global trade and maritime navigation. But, it also happens to be a major tourism hub, and for those looking to buy property in Istanbul, a great start into getting to know the city.

Historical Timeline and Major Events

  • 7th century BCE: The area around the Bosphorus Strait is inhabited by the Thracian tribes, who established small settlements along the coast.
  • 4th century BCE: The Greek city of Byzantium is founded.
  • 330 CE: The Roman Emperor Constantine I establishes the city of Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul) on the site of Byzantium, forming the Roman Empire's new capital.
  • 5th century: The Byzantine Empire builds several fortresses along the Bosphorus Strait to defend against attacks from the north.
  • 1453: The Ottoman Empire conquers Constantinople and establishes Istanbul as the new capital.
  • 1853-1856: The Crimean War breaks out, with several significant battles occurring in and around the Bosphorus Strait.
  • 1914-1918: World War I started, and the Bosphorus Strait became crucial for the Ottoman Empire. After they lost, the Bosphorus Strait was filled with foreign warships of European powers.
  • 1923: The modern Republic of Turkey is founded. But the international commission assumed control after the Turkish War of Independence because it was an international shipping lane. Finally, in 1936, control of the strait was handed back to Turkey.
  • The 1950s-1970s: The Bosphorus Strait became increasingly congested with shipping traffic, leading to concerns about environmental pollution.
  • 2013 to 2016: Construction on the Eurasia Tunnel, the first undersea tunnel, began, and the tunnel opened to the public three years later.

Geographical Facts About the Bosphorus

The Bosphorus Strait boasts unique combinations of natural beauty and geological features. Stretching for 32 kilometres (20 miles) between the Marmara Sea and Black Sea, the strait ranges from a minimum width of 700 metres (2,300 feet) to a maximum width of 3.5 kilometres (2.2 miles). The depth varies from 36 metres (118 feet) to over 120 metres (394 feet).

The Bosphorus was formed millions of years ago when the shifting of the Earth's plates created this narrow passage between two continents. This geological event also led to the strait's rapid current flows in opposite directions at different depths, making navigation challenging for commercial and naval vessels. The currents are further influenced by the unique hydrological conditions of the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara.

Istanbul waterway

Suspension Bridges of the Bosphorus

Altogether there are three suspension bridges over the Bosphorus Strait. The three bridges stand out as iconic landmarks, and serve as essential transportation infrastructure.

  • The Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge, constructed in 1988, is named after the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II, who conquered Constantinople (Istanbul) in 1453.
  • The 1,510 metres Bosphorus Bridge, also called the 15 July Martyrs Bridge, was constructed in 1973 and was the first to span the Bosphorus Strait.
  • The Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge is a cable-stayed bridge completed in 2016 and named after Ottoman Sultan Selim I, who ruled from 1512 to 1520. The height of the bridge's two pillars is 322 metres (1,056 feet), making them the tallest bridge towers in the world. More about bridges in Istanbul.

The Famous Eurasia Tunnel

The 5.4-kilometre Eurasia Tunnel between the European and Asian shores of Istanbul, underneath the Bosphorus Strait consists of two separate tubes, one for each direction of traffic, and can accommodate 100,000 motor vehicles daily. The tunnel opened to the public in December 2016 and is the first undersea tunnel to connect two continents.

Construction of the Eurasia Tunnel that alleviates traffic congestion and motor vehicles on bridges of Istanbul required the excavation of more tunnels beneath the seabed, as well as access roads and other infrastructure. The project was funded through public-private partnerships, with the Turkish government and a private consortium providing the necessary financing. Such is the success; since the tunnel opened, there is talk of a second tunnel. Two tunnels will drastically reduce traffic above ground.

The Northern Entrance

The northern entrance is where the strait widens out into the Black Sea. This entrance is marked by the Anadolu Feneri Lighthouse, one of the world's oldest lighthouses that have guided ships through the strait for centuries. Another notable landmark is the 15th-century Rumeli Hisari fortress, built by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II.

Southern Entrance

The southern entrance is near the Marmara Sea coast, where the strait narrows significantly before entering the Sea of Marmara. This entrance is marked by the Maiden's Tower (Kiz Kulesi) just off the coast. Athenian general Alcibiades built Maiden's Tower in the 5th century BCE. Over the centuries, the tower served different purposes, but these days is an iconic landmark and tourist spot. There are also several other important landmarks, including Selimiye Barracks and Haydarpasa Port.

The Bosphorus then enters Marmara Sea which connects to the Aegean Sea via the Dardanelles Strait and the Black Sea via the Bosphorus Strait. Covering approximately 11,350 square kilometres at a maximum depth of around 1,370 metres, the Marmara Sea is home to much marine life, including fish, dolphins, and sea turtles. However, like the Mediterranean and black sea ports, the Marmara Sea faces several environmental challenges, including pollution and overfishing. More about the Marmara Sea.

The Montreux Convention and Political Importance

The Montreux Convention, signed in 1936 in the Swiss city of Montreux, established regulations for commercial and military vessels through the Bosporus Strait, Sea of Marmara, and the Dardanelles. Turkey, Bulgaria, France, Germany, Greece, Romania, the United Kingdom and Soviet Union signed the treaty. The Montreux Convention shaped the geopolitical landscape and evoked several disputes. In particular, there has been an ongoing debate on military power in the Black Sea region. Some countries argue that the treaty gives Turkey too much control over military vessels. Nonetheless, the Montreux Convention remains in effect today.

The Oil Industry

Regarding oil transportation, the Bosphorus Strait is an essential route for crude oil and petroleum products from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean and beyond. However, the passage of oil tankers through the narrow and crowded strait causes concern, as accidents or spills could have catastrophic environmental and economic consequences. To address these concerns, the Turkish government imposed certain restrictions on the passage of oil tankers through the Bosphorus Strait. Additionally, the Turkish government wants to construct a canal like the Panama Canal to allow for the safe and efficient transit of oil tankers and other large vessels.

Best Time to Explore the Bosphorus Strait of Istanbul

Each season offers unique charms and experiences, so the best time to visit depends on the preferences and activities you wish to enjoy.

  • Spring is delightful, with the strait's shores bursting into life with colourful blooms and lush greenery. The mild weather sees average temperatures between 10°C (50°F) to 20°C (68°F).
  • Summer is peak tourism season in Istanbul. The Bosporus Strait is particularly enchanting during this time. Average temperatures range from 20°C (68°F) to 30°C (86°F), making this ideal for swimming, sunbathing, and water-based activities like kayaking and sailing.
  • Autumn showcases kaleidoscopes of colours as leaves change from green to gold. The mild and comfortable weather sees average temperatures of 15°C (59°F) to 25°C (77°F).
  • Winter brings magical atmospheres, with the strait's waters taking on moody vibes under crisp skies. The winter months are the least crowded, offering serene experiences for those who brave chilly temperatures.


Visiting the European and Asian sides of the Bosphorus Strait

The European side is the western side of the strait. The European side is home to many vital neighbourhoods and landmarks of Istanbul, including Bohemian Karakoy. Besiktas district, at the northern end, is home to Yildiz Palace. Whereas Ortakoy is famous for the mosque on the water's edge.

The Asian side is the eastern side and home to many neighbourhoods, including the ferry port of Uskudar, trendy Kadikoy, Beylerbey with the palace of the same name, and Cegelkoy. Here are vital landmarks of both sides.

  • Dolmabahce Palace: Set on the European shore, the 19th-century Dolmabahce Palace perfectly reflects the Ottoman architecture and testifies to the empire's wealth and power.
  • Perched overlooking the narrowest point of the Bosporus Strait, Rumeli Fortress played a crucial role in conquering Constantinople and the Ottoman Empire.
  • On the European shore, the 19th-century Ortakoy Mosque is renowned for delicate carvings, soaring minarets, and picturesque waterfront location.

Public Ferries, Cruises and Boat Tours

Public ferries are an affordable and convenient way to explore with regular services. For example, some ferries offer popular 1.5-hour tours, passing iconic landmarks like Dolmabahce Palace, and Rumeli Fortress. The ferries also offer hop-on, hop-off services to disembark at various stops and explore attractions at your own pace.

For more intimate and personalised experiences, book private boat tours, which offer flexibility to customise itineraries. Meanwhile, dinner cruises on the Bosporus strait typically include gourmet meals and live entertainment, allowing you to soak up the romantic atmosphere and create unforgettable memories.

Culinary Delights and Cultural Influences

The Bosphorus Strait has shaped Istanbul's cultural identity, influencing art, literature, and music. Countless artists and writers have symbolised the city's timeless elegance through the Bosphorus, promoting cultural exchanges and diverse communities.

The Bosporus Strait is also a culinary paradise reflecting Istanbul's rich cultural heritage. Local fishing spots are renowned for fresh and delicious seafood, with the strait's waters providing bountiful catches for local fishermen. Popular seafood dishes include grilled octopus, fried calamari, and stuffed mussels.

Arnavutkoy on the European shore is a great place to sample meze, with lively street cafes and restaurants offering wide selections of small plates. Besides, ideal places to enjoy Turkish coffee include quaint cafes in the Bebek neighbourhood.

Buying Property on the Bosphorus Strait

Yali mansions along the European and Asian shores are Turkey's most expensive real estate sectors. The term "yali" comes from the Turkish word for "shore" or "waterfront," and these mansions were initially built as summer homes for the wealthy Ottoman aristocracy during the 18th and 19th centuries. These days, they sell for millions of dollars, often attract buyers like Saudi royalty, actors and famous film stars. If you are after a Bosphorus property though, there are many more modestly priced homes in neighbourhoods, just off the shoreline. In some places, the elevated land status means the property owners wake up to amazing Bosphorus views.

Also About Istanbul

The Golden Horn: Sitting just off the Bosphorus, the Golden Horn has been important throughout Istanbul's history. Many of Istanbul's most important landmarks are located here, and the waterway connects the two European sides of Istanbul. Alongside the Bosphorus strait, learning about the Golden Horn is a great way to get to know about Istanbul. Today, the Golden Horn is home to many cafes, restaurants, and parks. The area is also famous for lively nightlife and adore by tourists and local alike.

Bosphorus Villages: Of course, there are grand mansions, castles and palaces on the shores of the Bosphorus. But don’t neglect the small little villages. This is where you can experience true Istanbul culture, from the food, mosques, and backstreet cafes. This article recommends the best villages to visit when you explore the Bosphorus strait of Istanbul.

Istanbul ferry


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