Mike MacEacheran | The rebirth of the Bosphorus, BBC Travel
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The rebirth of the Bosphorus, BBC Travel

Call it the Bosphorus bump: how to stay close enough to the Istanbul waterfront, yet avoid the dozens of promenading tourists, dog walkers and dedicated fishermen lining the sides of the Galata Bridge.

This is the scene every morning in central Istanbul when the city wakes to rekindle its daily love affair with the waterways that define not only Turkey’s largest city, but also the way its residents work and live. Without it, Istanbul would simply grind to a halt.

The Bosporus Straits is one of the world’s busiest waterways, with an average 50,000 vessels transiting between the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea each year. There are Russian submarines, shipping containers from Bulgaria, Romania, the Ukraine and Georgia, and fleets of Turkish naval vessels and some 5,500 oil and gas tankers. Then there are the thousands of passenger ferries that depart from Kabataş and Üsküdar ferry terminals and the scores of fishing boats, pleasure cruisers and luxury speedboats that cruise the 32km-long watery highway, navigating the treacherous currents from dusk until dawn. In effect, there’s little room to manoeuvre, but this makes it alluring and hypnotic, congested and dangerous – and in summer everyone wants a piece of it.

But 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 artificial channel to rival Suez or Panama that will split the European side of the city in two and return the waterway to its former glory. Indeed, in his own words he even described the scheme as both “crazy and magnificent”. He not only wants to ban commercial traffic, but his government wants to turn the Bosphorus into the world’s largest pleasure boating playground in time for the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Turkish Republic in 2023. As a sign of intent, ground was broken on the controversial 50km-long project back in May.

The concept of a gigantic man-made canal may raise eyebrows among Istanbul purists, but this is not the first time that such an earth-shattering project has been devised. In fact, the idea has been floated at least seven other times.

The first proposal was made by the greatest Ottoman Sultan of them all, Suleiman the Magnificent, who reigned from 1520 to 1568. His idea stemmed from the annual summer ritual, when wealthy pashas and the rich elite decamped to the waterfront to escape the oppressive heat that hung in the air over the city’s densely populated urban hills. They retreated to their yalıs – exquisite timber mansions with direct access to the shore. Now popular with ex-pats and Turkish doyens, the yalıs line up like pastel-coloured boathouses (apart from the odd-one that has been converted into a boutique hotel like Les Ottomans), and renting one out comes with a hefty price tag.

The migration to the Bosphorus is a tradition that continues today and, naturally, the best way to experience it 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. One such summer resident, Nobel Prize-winner Orhan Pamuk, chooses to slip into the turquoise sea from his private quay for a dip every morning. 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.

Stringed along the coast, 20-minutes north of Sultanahmet, these are three perfect pockets of suburbia where modern Istanbul life plays out. In Ortaköy, Istanbullus sip cocktails and snack on burgers and sushi in places like The House Cafe, 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 most exclusive address in the city. Those without a Ferrari or luxury yacht can slurp an Anatolian dondurma (ice cream) from Mado in the grounds of Bebek Park and watch locals fish to their hearts content 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, too, but only a rare few have managed to eke out a space between the yalıs and restaurants on the water. The best of these are the Four Seasons on the Bosphorus, the A’jia Hotel, and the Ciragan Palace Kempinski, a five-star phoenix raised from the shell of a former Ottoman mansion. At all three, it’s possible to spend all day watching the tugboats sail to and fro, without leaving the comfort of a pool lounger.

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

From the hotel’s Beşiktaş launch point, the varnished-wood powerboat glides past the Ottoman-era Dolmabahce Palace – built in 1865 when it 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 like 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.