You didn’t read that number wrong – Turkey is home to more than 500 islands sprawled out along its coast. Many are rugged and uninhabited but, on the assortment of populated ones, you’ll enjoy the same vibrant culture as Turkey’s mainland. What’s more, a great number of them are within easy reach, accessible by bridge or a short ferry ride.
Most Turkish islands are steeped in Greek and Turkish influences, so on any given day you’ll drift past Greek Orthodox churches, Ottoman mosques, and restaurants freely mixing both cuisines. While on the islands, you’ll also be privy to a unique island culture, complete with beaches, waterfront eateries and scenic promenades.
A list of 500+ islands to choose from can be a tad overwhelming, so we’ve whipped up a selection of the finest Turkish islands you’d be wise to visit.
Bozcaada – also known as ‘Tenedos’ – is a small island with a massive personality. It’s only 24-by-24 square kilometres, but that space is packed to the gills with activities, not to mention endless vineyards that help solidify the island’s reputation as being one of Turkey’s wine hotspots.
Over the years, the island has switched ruling hands, so its streets are laden with Greek and Turkish influences, think whitewashed buildings and towering mosques. Bozcaada is best enjoyed at a relaxing pace, wandering down cobbled streets and enjoying a glass of wine along the harbour, but there are also more tourist-orientated spots like a 15th-century castle and artisan markets to explore.
Cunda – also known as Alibey Island – radiates old-world charm, with red-roofed houses tucked into hillsides, colourful flowers draped between walkways and a crystalline stretch of coast begging for afternoon swims. It’s connected to Turkey’s town of Ayvalik by the main bridge, so getting in and out of the mainland is easy. The top attraction here is undoubtedly the beach, where you can either go for a swim, lounge on the shores or embark on a scuba excursion with a local centre.
Located just off the coast of Istanbul, Buyukada is the largest island of the Princes’ Island archipelago, and the most popular, for good reason. Private vehicles and taxis are strictly forbidden here, so you’ll have to see the sites as the locals do – on foot, by bike or horse-drawn carriage. The coastline and bordering hills are lined with awe-inspiring Ottoman-Victorian mansions, historic churches like the Hagia Yorgi – rumoured to grant the wishes of all who enter – and charming cafes.
Gokceada – whose official name was Imbros Island up until the 1970s – is the largest of Turkey’s many islands. It’s known for its spectacular natural beauty, which consists of rolling hills, untouched countrysides and a series of beaches. The island is also nearby to the country’s only underwater national park, the Gokceada Underwater Park, which you can explore with local scuba centres. On land, Gokceada is filled with tiny, historical villages whose restaurants and churches give a peek into traditional Turkish life.
If you’re looking for a Turkish island experience off the beaten tourist track, Burgazada, the third largest of the Prince Islands, should be at the top of your list. It isn’t packed with many holiday attractions outside of shaded cafes, beautiful churches along the coast and a waterfront made for strolling, but that’s just how its visitors and locals like it.
Heybeliada enjoys many of the same amenities as its larger and nearby counterpart, Buyukada, but with a more hidden gem feel. Its coast is lined with rocky shores, a waterfront promenade and some beautiful, historic architecture. Another thing it shares with Buyukada – no motor vehicles are allowed, so you’ll be confined to scenic bike rides and horse-drawn carriages. That said, it’s a great spot for quiet strolls, as it’s also home to pine forests and the Halki Theological School, whose peaceful grounds overlook the sea.
Where many of Turkey’s islands carry an untouched air, Avsa feels more like a traditional holiday destination. It’s mostly visited by Turkish holidaygoers, but everybody is welcome on these busy shores. Avsa only really has two populated towns, the main town and a smaller village, Araplar, with hills in between.
There are small, private bays dotted around the coast, as well as longer, more vibrant beaches – but be advised, the summers here are very hot. The island is also home to a local wine producer, Bortacina, whose vino is well-known in Turkey and available to sip in quaint, waterfront-facing restaurants.
Kekova is a small, hilly island whose coast is brimming with Mediterranean restaurants, boats debarking for scenic cruises and ruins leftover from the Byzantine and Lycian eras. But there’s much more brewing under the sea’s surface – literally. Just under the water is a sunken city from the 2nd century, whose craggy buildings can be seen below the waves from guided tours.