Take a ferry in Istanbul some time. They’re special places.
The ferries which cross the Bosphorus have not changed in many years; in fact, when a recent upgrade plan for some of the boats asked customers to vote for a new design, they instead voted to re-use the old design. Outdoor decks at the front and back, gigantic interior rooms with glorious views and rows after rows of benches. A little kiosk sells snacks. Two men stand at the entryway, when the boats are at dock, selling traditional bread. A waiter roves the ship with a tray full of glasses of tea.
The view is one of sea gulls bounding up and down in the air alongside, aiming for the breadcrumbs which accommodating tourists and/or kindly locals continually toss overboard. The Bosphorus–neither sea nor river but instead the world’s narrowest strait–is an appealing blue, even in the poor April weather. Worth pointing out: on this humble ferry, you are traveling between two continents. In some ways, you are also traveling between time periods, because Eminönü, on Europe, is the historical district of Istanbul, home of the Hagia Sophia, the Sultanahmet (Blue) Mosque, and Topkapı Palace.
On the Anatolian side (Turks don’t say “the Asian side,” though signs on the two bridges over the Bosphorus do say “Welcome to Asia”), the street hawkers sell bouquets of flowers for one lira ($0.66). These are for commuters returning home, to spruce up the flat or surprise the spouse. On the European side, the vendors are fishermen selling fantastic-looking fish sandwiches: freshly-caught fish sizzle on the grill, with buns, lettuce and also-grilling onions on standby. The price is four lira ($2.62).
The ferries became our main means of transport to and from Europe after a few days. Driving in Istanbul is an absolutely dire experience: my aunt and I once made 20 kilometers in excellent time before spending the last kilometer in traffic so unmoving that it took us 55 extra minutes to make the 1km. (That’s 0.65 miles per hour, folks.) My aunt apparently doesn’t use the ferry all that much, which makes a bit of sense–its main European stops are in touristy areas–but for sheer atmosphere, it’s the only way to travel.
There are also ferries which simply cruise up and down the Bosphorus, for no other reason than to pass an hour or two out enjoying the water. A few private yachts are making their way about, too, and if you want you can rent one for your wedding. On a fine summer’s day, one could have the ceremony out on the deck and then move indoors for a fine-dining meal. I wouldn’t object.
How many cities are as big on boat transport as Istanbul? Venice, obviously, but that’s very different. Liverpool relies fairly heavily on ferries, as do Sydney, Halifax, and Seattle. But I bet none of them have roving tea salesmen, or indeed roving salesmen of all stripes–one afternoon, a guy came into our deck and demonstrated a line of vegetable peelers.
Take a ferry sometime. Try to do it in Istanbul, of course. They’re a communal experience, with much more of a group atmosphere than an Underground car or a bus. They’re relaxing, a nice break from all the bustle of before and after (and in Istanbul, there is a lot of bustle). And, sometimes, you get to see the sun set on another century.