The neighborhood of Galata, located on a steep hump of land north of the Golden Horn and historic peninsula, actually sits on the earliest foundations of the city, dating, as far as present-day archaeologists can tell, to Greek and Roman times. At one time, it was covered in gardens and vineyards; indeed the ancient Greeks called the district "Sykai," meaning "place of fig gardens," and later, the hilly expanse became known as "peran en Skai," or "fig gardens on the other shore." Or just plain Pera. There is also speculation that the name Galata comes from the Italian word for descent (calata), an appropriate description of the steep and staired streets that slope down the hill from Beyoglu to the Golden Horn. The district developed into its present form in the 13th century, when Eastern Roman Emperor Michael VIII Palaeologus granted the Genoese permission to settle here. The district became a magnet for merchants from all over Europe: Italians, Germans, Armenians, Jews, and Austrians, all re-creating their own micro-universe. The Genoese remained neutral during the Ottoman siege, so when Mehmet the Conqueror took over the city, although he installed his own Ottoman administration and assumed control of all commercial affairs, the Sultan granted them, along with the other minority communities, substantial commercial privileges. The ensuing commercial prosperity of the district fed trade throughout the Mediterranean and acted as a magnet for foreigners and ethnic minorities who established the district as centers of business, shipping, and banking. Serving the center of the financial district was a row of stately financial institutions lining both sides of what is now alternately called Bankalar Sokagi (Bank St.) and Voyvoda Caddesi. Bankers wishing to settle near their places of business constructed dignified residences for themselves and their families, and serving the community was a full complement of schools, churches, and synagogues. As Galata prospered, the population burst its boundaries to incorporate the neighborhoods northward (and eventually up to and along the Grand Rue de Pera or Istiklal Caddesi). A stroll up and down the steep cobbled streets will reveal schools, private residences, churches, synagogues, and Ottoman-era warehouses. (There are also the ruins of a mikva or Jewish bathhouse in dire need of restoration opposite the former private mansion of the Camondo banking family, now the Galata Residence.)
The decline of Galata and its subsequent revitalization are both relatively recent phenomena. With the turn-of-the-20th-century flight of the wealthy merchant class to Istanbul's tonier neighborhoods, Galata deteriorated into a magnet for poor rural migrant families and a location of no fewer than three thriving brothels. In the 1990s, the nation's trend of historic preservation arrived in Galata with an ambitious architectural revitalization project that created an inviting public square and a couple of charming and characteristic outdoor tea gardens at the base of the Galata Tower. In the past 4 or 5 years, the trend has caught fire, as local real estate gets snapped up by artists, expats, and private developers and turned into galleries, cafes, hotels, and private homes. At last look, the plaza surrounding the tower and the storied Galip Dede Caddesi had been repaved and a restoration project was underway at the north corner opposite the tower. But the streets leading down to the Golden Horn, while hosting the odd new tea shop or guesthouse, maintain the grit that has settled on the district since its heyday. For a do-it-yourself walking tour, pick up a copy of John Freely's Galata, available at the Galata House restaurant and local bookstores.
The origins of Galata Tower date back to the 5th or 6th century A.D., but the tower that stands today is a 14th-century reconstruction by the Genoese, built in appreciation of Michael VIII Palaeologus, who granted special permission to allow them to settle the area of Galata. One condition of the agreement was that the Genoese were prohibited from putting up any defensive walls, a ban that they unceremoniously ignored.
The Galata Tower has been used as a jail, a dormitory, a site for rappelling competitions, and a launching pad in the 17th century when Hezarfen Ahmet Çelebi attached wings to his arms and glided all the way to Üsküdar. The tower rises 135m (450 ft.) above sea level and stands 60m (200 ft.) high, with walls that are more than 3.5m (12 ft.) thick. From the summit of the tower, you can see the Golden Horn, the Bosphorus, and the Marmara Sea, a view infinitely more splendid in the evenings when the city takes on a spectacularly romantic glow. But frankly, you can get equally spectacular views from restaurant terraces all over the city, so although the tower is used as a restaurant and nightclub for a traditional Turkish folkloric show (tel. 0212/293-8180), at 80€ a pop (they'll take 70€ if you pay in cash), I'd pass (and indeed I have).