Taking a tour of the Bosphorus is a must-do activity in Istanbul. I took a public tour with Şehir Hatları about halfway through my time in Istanbul, loved it, and thought I knew the Bosphorus, until I took a private tour with Zoe Yacht last week and it opened up a whole new side of the city to me.
There are many companies that offer tours of the Bosphorus, and an almost overwhelming range of prices, vessel sizes, and durations. Most tourists—Turks and foreigners alike— opt for a two- or six-hour tour (“short” and “full” tours, respectively) with Istanbul’s public Şehir Hatları fleet. These are the same style ships that run between the European and Asian sides of Istanbul countless times a day, though the tour ships are a bit bigger. Tours with Şehir Hatları leave Eminönü at regular intervals, and are a classic and inexpensive way to enjoy the Bosphorus.
While Şehir Hatları tours offer an authentic experience at a great price point, they have their downsides. Though the ships are large, the decks get crowded easily, making it difficult to see all that the Bosphorus has to offer. The top deck, the largest outdoor area on the ship, is only partially covered, so it’s hard to stay protected from the sun and keep a good vantage point. And while it’s fun sailing with a big group of people, the Şehir Hatları ferries offer little privacy, which can be wearing by the end of a long tour.
On the other end of the spectrum are private ships, which can be chartered for a wide range of prices and distances. Many private ships dock in quiet areas like Kuruçeşme, Bebek, and Ortaköy, which are a world away from the hustle and bustle of Eminönü and Sultanahmet. Many private ships can comfortably fit twelve or more people, though romantics often charter ships for two.
Zoe Yacht is an excellent option for those looking to book a private tour of the Bosphorus. A friend and I took a tour on Zoe Yacht recently, and the ship was amazingly comfortable, with plenty of space for a dozen people in its upper, outside, and inside seating areas, and all of the seating areas offer coverage from the sun. Zoe Yacht’s captain is an experienced fisherman on the Bosphorus, which gives him a special knowledge of the strait’s currents and rocks, allowing him to guide the ship with ease along the shores of Istanbul and between the Bosphorus’ tanker traffic.
For those looking to drink and/or dine during their cruise, you have a couple different options with Zoe Yacht. The crew can provide food and beverages (they’re partners with Arşipel Balık Lokantası), you can bring your own, or they can drop you off at one of the restaurants (like Lacivert) or clubs (Reina, Sortie, Anjelique, etc.) along the Bosphorus at the end of your tour.
Zoe Yacht’s standard tour package is a two-hour tour of the Bosphorus, focused on the area between Kabataş and the second bridge (the ship turns around at Emirgan Park). Due to the smaller size of the vessel, Zoe Yacht’s captain is able to bring you much closer to the shoreline than the larger, public tour boats ever could. This is especially nice around the second bridge, where you can admire the beautiful homes and gardens that line the Asian side.
If you’d like to try something different, Zoe Yacht can take you up to the Black Sea or down around the Prince’s Islands. Another popular option is their sunset tour of the Golden Horn, which is especially popular for couples and those looking to propose. Zoe Yacht runs all day, so if you’d rather go in the morning, afternoon, or at night, you’re more than welcome to do so.
One of the benefits of taking a private tour is that boarding and leaving the ship is far less stressful than with a large, public ferry. Zoe Yacht, like some other private ships, is primarily based out of the serene port at Kuruçeşme. Depending on where you’re staying, Zoe Yacht may even be able to pick you up from your hotel!
On paper, it may seem that private tours are prohibitively more expensive than public ferries. However, the two offer such wildly difference experiences that it seems funny to consider them the same thing. The public options, like Şehir Hatları, are classic Istanbul experiences that, like much of the city, gain some of their charm from crowds of people on their decks. Private tours, like that offered by Zoe Yacht, offer a serenity that is unparalleled in Istanbul.
It is certainly worthwhile to do both a public and a private tour, though visitors rarely have time for both. If you have to choose between the two, you might want to ask yourself what is more your scene: the excitement of Istiklal Caddesi and the Grand Bazaar, or the calm streets of Moda and Cihangir. If you prefer the former, you might want to opt for a public tour. Otherwise, give Zoe Yacht a call and discuss a private charter!