Istanbul, Turkey lies on two continents: Europe and Asia. Spanning two continents has its advantages and disadvantages. Getting from one to the other requires crossing the Bosphorus Strait by bridge, ferry, or tunnel.
Turkey, officially known as Türkiye since 2022, is not a member of the European Union nor a Schengen zone member. The Schengen area is made up of 27 European countries which allow for visa-free border crossings. If you do not hold a European passport, you may remain in a Schengen country for 90 days and then you must leave for another 90 days before re-entering any Schengen country. Türkiye is one country you can escape to in order to meet this requirement.
The Bosphorus, with its gently sloping banks lined with luxurious private mansions, palace parks and centuries-old groves, is the epitome of Istanbul.This 19-mile (30 kilometers) strait connects the Black Sea in the north to the Sea of Marmara in the south. Istanbul, with its urban sprawl encompassing Europe to the west and Asia to the east, has often been described as a city spanning two continents.
As of 2021, under 16 million people reside here; many work on one side and live on the other; thus a large proportion of its population is always moving around the city and often having to wait in cars, buses, trains, or ferries before crossing from one side to the other.
Navigating the city’s complex road map can be daunting at any time of day, and yet people manage to get places by using bridge, ferry, and tunnel which connect the two continents. On October 29th, 1973 – Türkiye’s 50th birthday – the only way to travel from Europe to Asia was via ferry. Prior to this date, ferries plied the waters of the Bosphorus beginning in 1837. Today, there are four bridges, 38 ferries, and a tunnel.
The Bosphorus Bridge
In 1973, the Bogazici Koprusu – or Bosphorus Bridge – was completed, making it the the fourth-longest suspension bridge span in the world, and the longest outside the United States. Today, it is the 40th longest suspension bridge in the world. It was renamed Martyrs Bridge after a failed 2016 coup attempt, though locals still refer to it affectionately as Bogazici Koprusu or The First Bridge.
The breathtaking 1,560-meter (5,118 feet) long steel suspension bridge provides drivers with a rare perspective over the swift-running waters of the Bosphorus, offering stunning views to Topkapi Palace and beyond to the Sea of Marmara in the distance.
At its inception, the bridge attracted walkers who sought a picturesque vantage point to admire the majestic white of 19th century Buyuk Mecediye Mosque located directly by the water’s edge in Ortakoy.
The Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge
On July 3, 1988, the second bridge spanning both continents opened its gates in honor of Fatih Sultan Mehmet, better known as Mehmet the Conqueror. He is remembered for riding into Constantinople in 1453 and establishing Ottoman rule over what had previously been Byzantine Empire territory.
This second bridge, commonly referred to as FSM Koprusu, is a gravity-anchored steel suspension bridge is 1,090 meters (3,576 feet) in length. This bridge spans the narrowest point of the Bosphorus strait, where Persian King Darius I is said to have constructed a floating bridge in 512 B.C.E.
The Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge
In 2016, a third suspension bridge across the Bosphorus opened near the Black Sea, named for Yavuz Sultan Selim – grandson of Mehmet the Conqueror who was known for his passion for transport. During his 16th century reign, Sultan Selim personally rebuilt both Ottoman fleet and Halic Tershanesi – Golden Horn shipyards – with his own hands.
On completion, the bridge set a number of records: it is the world’s widest suspension bridge at 58.8 meters (121.20 feet) wide, capable of supporting eight lanes of traffic and a double-track railway line; furthermore, it stands as fifth tallest bridge worldwide at over 322 meters (1056 feet) in height.
On clear days, this bridge built for trucks and long-distance traffic heading to central Anatolia (the Asian portion of Istanbul) offers drivers an unforgettable view of the Black Sea.
Canakkale 1915 Bridge
The 1915 Canakkale Bridge, short of 3.1 miles, holds the world record for being the world’s longest suspension bridge. This structure crosses the Bosphorus replacing a one-hour ferry crossing (which in reality can take up to five hours with waiting time) with a six-minute drive at 50 miles per hour limit. This road is less popular with locals due to its focus on speed instead of scenic beauty.
On March 18, 2022, Turkey commemorated their victory over the Allies in a fierce battle to gain control of this key waterway during World War I. The bridge opened its gates to belatedly mark this momentous occasion.
Despite the use of bridges to cross the Bosphorus, the ferries remain the most popular way to get from one side to the other. There are four ferry terminals on the European side of the river and three on the Asian side. The ferries also traverse up and down the strait for commuting. If you wish to cruise the strait for pleasure, select a tour ferry instead of the commuting ferry to avoid large crowds.
A popular activity of the locals is to purchase a simit—a round bread covered with sesame seeds—and feed the gulls as they travel. Ottoman sultans built their palaces alongside the strait and today, the best way to see these neoclassical-baroque facades is to take a ferry which cruises closely by. Other mansions, called Yali, which hug the shoreline have been turned into boutique hotels. Another visual point which you can see from the ferries is the Maidens’ Tower, a tiny bit of rock where two girls once lived.
In 1844, City Lines’ Ferries were established during the Ottoman Empire to traverse the Bosphorus. Today, there are 38 ferries which carry from 600 to 2100 passengers as well as cars. Depending on the size of the ferry, they take 20 to 95 minutes to cross the strait. If you haven’t taken a ferry from the European to the Asian side of the Bosphorus, you haven’t seen Istanbul.
It is also possible to cross to the other side by going under the Bosphorus. First conceived in 1860, this idea failed, was tried again in 1892, but again never came to fruition. Once more, the idea was proposed in 1997 and construction began in 2004 with a Turkish-Japanese consortium. The tunnel was completed in 2008, and a double set of railway tracks were laid in 2008.
However, the tunnel could not be used as archaeological artifacts from 8,000 years earlier were discovered. This caused a delay until 2013, but the tunnel became operational at that point. This tunnel, named Marmaray, allows for train travel every five to fifteen minutes, with 328 trips a day. The tunnel descends at its lowest point to 200 feet below sea level, making it the world’s deepest immersed tunnel.
A road tunnel was first proposed in 1891 but was never constructed. Again, a tunnel for cars was conceived in 1997 with the idea of spacing it away from the bridges to control the traffic. The proposed plan was for a double-decker roadway with two lanes on each deck. Special construction was determined with seismic considerations in mind.
This second tunnel, named the Eurasia Tunnel, opened in 2016. It is 3.4 miles long, allowing upwards of 120,000 cars and light vehicles per day to travel at 43 mph. This crossing should take 15 minutes under normal conditions.
If you are a traveler who needs to escape from a Schengen country, head to European Türkiye to wait out your time to return to a European Schengen country. But, if you are in European Türkiye, you should not miss the opportunity to travel to Asian Türkiye.
Whether you travel above, on, or below the Bospherous strait, you can today make a relatively quick trip spanning two continents. The bridges and tunnels were some of the hardest to construct, but their completion allows the joining of two worlds and two cultures no longer kept separate.
Fact: Istanbul is the only transcontinental city in the entire world
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