Walking Tour 1: Galata
Start: (Upper) Tünel Meydani
Finish: (Lower) Tünel Entrance
Time: 90 minutes (about 2km; about 1 1/3 miles)
Best Time: Any time in full daylight. To bask in the flurry of humanity, approach this tour during morning or evening rush hour. For those wishing to combine the tour with the performance of the Whirling Dervises at the Galata Mevlevihanesi, you'll have to start the tour at the end and work your way backward, in order to enjoy this walk in full daylight. Although it's pretty safe, you don't really want to be wandering around here at night.
Worst Time: Any day that it's raining (streets are slippery). Sunday will see Bankalar Sokagi (Voyvoda Caddesi) completely deserted.
A stroll through Galata will take you through one of Istanbul's historically most diverse neighborhoods. This hilly section was once the commercial hub of the Ottoman Empire, thanks to communities of enterprising immigrants from Europe and Armenia who had been granted permission to conduct business here in the 13th century. Although this neighborhood suffered decline and neglect throughout the 20th century, today it is enjoying a revitalization, as sidewalk cafes, art galleries, and small shops pull ever more foot traffic up and down these nostalgic streets.
To save those of you based in the Old City the effort of trekking up the steep streets that lead uphill to the Galata Tower, this walk begins at the entrance to Tünel at the end of Istiklal and works its way down to the Galata Bridge. For those holing up in Beyoglu or along the Bosphorus, simply make your way down to the Tünel end of Istiklal Caddesi to begin this tour. (For those ready, willing, and even eager to trek uphill, this tour can also be followed from finish to start.)
Begin in the Tünel station.
1. Metro Han
Our tour begins at the entrance to the world's third-oldest underground train (construction was completed in 1876; only New York's and London's are older). It's actually an underground funicular connecting "Upper Tünel" to the streets at the base of this steeply sloped hill surrounding "Lower Tünel." Locals just call them both Tünel, and you're left to work out which one they mean. With only one stop, this is the world's shortest line, facilitating the commute for more than a century's worth of daily commuters forced to haul themselves up and down the hill you are about to descend on foot.
Outside the entrance to Tünel is the terminus of the Nostalgic Tramway. Trolley cars replaced the horse-drawn carriage in Istanbul in 1869. Service connecting Tünel and Taksim was only added a few years later, as part of a much longer tramway line. All of Istanbul's tramways were decommissioned by the mid-1960s, but in 1990, the current system running the length of Istiklal Caddesi was inaugurated. It's practical, touristy, and truly charming: two cars ply the 1,640m (just over a mile) track 40 times per day for a total of 23,944km (14,878 miles) per year.
Opposite the entrance to Tünel on the other side of the tramway tracks is the entrance to the Tünel Pasaji, a neoclassical-style arcade enclosed by three separate buildings. The passageway is one of the more atmospheric spots in Beyoglu, even if the rare-book and antiques dealers have ceded to the trendier (and higher-grossing) cafes. Facing the entrance to Tünel, go right onto the continuation of Istiklal Cad., now named:
2. Galip Dede Caddesi
At one time, this street, which goes by its original name of Yüksek Kaldirim south of the Galata Tower, wound its way down the slopes of Galata all the way to the Golden Horn. Yüksek Kaldirim, meaning "High Sidewalk," was originally the main bustling thoroughfare of neighborhood Greeks, Armenians, French, Jewish, and Ottoman merchants and a thriving center for publishing and booksellers. The street is (steeply) sloped rather than stepped as it was a hundred years ago -- the characteristic cobblestones have been replaced with modern, evenly surfaced bricks, and hardware vendors are being replaced by smarter shops. Yet the essential nostalgia of the street can still be felt through the soul of now-soot-filled buildings standing vigil over a new guard of preoccupied pedestrians. Librairie de Pera, one of the oldest booksellers in Istanbul, is located at no. 22.
A few steps down Galip Dede Cad. on your left is the entrance to the 500-year-old:
3. Galata Mevlevihanesi
This was the first and most important dervis lodge in Istanbul. If you time your walking tour right, you can immerse yourself in the ritual sema, performed by the Lovers of Mevlana Foundation, in the extremely atmospheric octagonal wooden semahane, modestly embellished with calligraphy and exhibiting musical instruments, manuscripts, and other items related to the Mevlevi Order.
As you continue your descent, you will pass dusty shops, the occasional grocer, musical instrument stores, and a few newcomers, including an organic cosmetics store and a gag-gift shop called Disturbed People. Teutonia, at no. 85, is the German Club founded in 1847, which served as a Nazi propaganda center during World War II. Today, Teutonia houses a German cultural center with events organized by, among others, the Goethe Institute and the nearby German School.
Continue down Galip Dede Cad. to the junction of Yüksek Kaldirim, and an open plaza.
4. Galata Meydani
Galip Dede Caddesi spills out into the mouth of a small open plaza crowned by the medieval Galata Tower and encircled by an almost traffic-free street. The plaza is a brick-and-concrete living room to the neighborhood, where young boys kick around a football, old men contemplate life while seated on a park bench, stray dogs laze, and locals relax at the tea garden down the steps to the left of the tower.
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 they unceremoniously ignored. A short set of partial wraparound steps provides access to the elevator to the top of the tower; admission costs 8TL; but frankly, the city is so full of vantage points for stunning views that this one isn't a must-see.
Take a Break -- You can stop here for a respite at the enclosed rooftop restaurant of the Anemon Galata Hotel (at the base of the tower at Büyükhendek Cad. 11), which has a full menu of Turkish cuisine and a decent wine list, all with a front-and-center view of the upper stories of the tower -- so close you can even see the imperfections in the tooling. Or, for a more relaxed experience, a farther 5 minutes or so on you can also pop up to the Galata Konak rooftop cafe/patisserie for sweeping views of the rooftops and the sea. Stay tuned, below.
Keeping the Anemon Galata Hotel on your left, follow Büyük Hendek Cad. until you approach, on your left:
5. The Neve Shalom Synagogue
For some reason, Jews visiting Istanbul almost invariably want to see this site, though this is neither the most beautiful nor the only synagogue in town. Greater Istanbul is home to a total of 17 synagogues, many of them open to visitors willing to jump through advance-notice security hoops, and Neve Shalom is no exception. To visit, you will have to call in advance and fax over a copy of your passport. Built on the former site of a primary school in the late 1930s to accommodate a growing population of Jews, Neve Shalom's claim to "fame" is three terrorist bombings, on September 6, 1986; March 1, 1992; and November 15, 2003; the latter attack coordinated with attacks on another synagogue, and 5 days later, on the British Consulate and the HSBC Bank. Of the 27 people killed in the attack, all but six were congregants. Al Qaeda claimed responsibility soon after the bombings. By the way, Neve Shalom translates as "Oasis of Peace."
Backtrack to the Galata Tower and through the plaza and continue straight into the little alley-like Camekan Sok., a characteristic cobbled lane flanked by one or two pre-gentrified bars. Follow Camekan Sok. around to the right and down the sloping street to the next intersection with Bereketzade Camii and Haci Ali soks.
6. Beyoglu Hospital
Founded during the Crimean War by the British government to care for British seamen, this building was constructed in 1904 and designed by Percy Adams (the architect credited with the design of the Senate House at the University of London). The tower provided a clear sightline to incoming ships, allowing for hospital staff to get advance warning of any major illnesses on board. In 1924, just after the establishment of the Turkish Republic, the British handed the hospital over to the Red Crescent.
Take a Break -- Across the street from the hospital and diagonally opposite the little mosque is a small residential building at no. 2. Take the elevator to the top floor where you'll find the Galata Konak rooftop patisserie and cafe (Bereket Zade Mah. Haci Ali Sok. 2, Galata; tel. 0212/252-5346).
Exiting the patisserie, turn right. You are now following Haci Ali Sok. around and down yet another one of Galata's treacherous inclines. About 76m (250 ft.), about three-fourths of the way down the street and at the top of the brick staircase, is a white building with red trim:
7. The Camondo House
As a prominent 19th-century Jewish Galata banker, as well as a banker to the Ottoman government, Avram Camondo lived in this house. Camondo, who also held Venetian citizenship, was an exceptional philanthropist, and his gifts to Italian charities earned him the title of Count, bestowed upon him by King Victor Emanuel. In his own backyard (that is, in Constantinople), Camondo founded a school in the poorest section of the city. He also established a council to introduce reforms into the administration of the Jewish community, a move that provoked the conservative Jewish establishment to excommunicate him. He eventually died in Paris but was buried in the Camondo family plot in Hasköy (along the Golden Horn). His mansion is now the Galata Residence, a long-stay hotel. (I stayed in the annex above the outdoor staircase and purposely omitted it from this guide.) The ruins in front of the building are what's left of the neighborhood mikva, the ritual bath serving the Jewish community. The ruins are in a terrible state; it's now a playground and haven for a family of neighborhood cats.
Continue along Felek Sok. with the Camondo House/Galata Residence on your right. Near the end of the street on your left is the:
When built in 1894 for a working-class and tradesmen community of Ashkenazi Jews, this synagogue was called the Tofre Begadim or Tailor's Synagogue. In 1998, the Ashkenazim Cultural Association converted it into the Schneidertempel Art Center, a gallery for contemporary art exhibits, including Biennial exhibitions. The gallery is open to the public during runs of these art shows.
Turn left and go down the steep Bereketzade Medresesi Sok. (the continuation of Camekan Sok.). The Gaudí-esque staircase at the base of this street is the:
9. Camondo Staircase
Another one of the many structures in the neighborhood built by Avram Camondo, this staircase provided convenient passage for the banker as he made his way from his home to work on Bankalar Sokagi (Bank St.) at the base of the stairs.
Instead of going down the staircase (you'll return later in this tour), go to your right down Kart Çinar Sok. At the intersection with Galata Kulesi Sok. (also known as Kuledibi) is the back of:
10. Bereket Han
You are standing at the back entrance to probably the most historically significant building in all of Galata. Built in 1316 after the Great Fire of 1315, the Bereket Han occupies the site of the Podestà, or Palazzo del Comune -- essentially the town hall -- of the Genoese community. In the 19th century, the building underwent numerous modifications, including removal of a grand marble entry staircase and portions of the building facing the street -- to accommodate the Voyvoda Street (Bankalar Sok.) tramway. Yet some of the building's earliest elements are still visible: The original rear walls and sections of the side walls are part of the 1316 construction. You can see a small Genoese coat of arms above the rear entrance. Inside is another, though it is thought to be a copy of a preexisting emblem.
In the Genoese building across the street from Bereket Han is the Galata Dernegi, a cultural center. If it's open, go up the stairs to the loft beneath a hidden treasure -- a restored brick vaulted ceiling.
Back on the street, turn right and haul yourself up the steep incline. Just up the street on your left, in a little crook in the sidewalk, is the pink-and-purple doorway and entrance to the:
11. Church of SS. Peter and Paul
Knock on the door and the caretaker will let you in. Up the hill a few steps on your right is the Old English Jail, expertly converted from a consular place of incarceration to the clubby Galata House restaurant.
Retrace your steps and follow the street until it ramps down to Bankalar Sok., today better known as:
12. Voyvoda Caddesi
It's impossible to overstate the centrality of this street in the financial and mercantile activities conducted during the Ottoman Empire. In the waning years of the empire, which was plagued by a hemorrhaging of economic influence, the sultan turned to many a bank on Bankalar Sokagi for credit -- provided at crushing rates of interest. More on these banks and the buildings that housed them later.
Continue straight down Persembe Pazari Sok., and turn right onto narrow Galata Mahkemesi Sok., where you will soon see the tower of:
13. Arap Camii
This Gothic structure was most likely built as a Dominican church in the first half of the 14th century, incorporating (or including, no one is sure) a chapel dedicated to St. Paul. The church was taken over by a community of Moors who had been expelled from Spain in the 16th century. The building suffered from numerous fires; during the 1913-1919 restoration project, the original flooring was uncovered, revealing a number of Genoese tombstones (now in the Archaeology Museum).
Head back up Persembe Sok., back to Bankalar Sok., and turn right, where you'll see the beginning of a long parade of stately bank buildings.
14. Voyvoda Caddesi 43-45
These two structures predate (and survive) the building boom of the 1890s. Their modest, four-story construction, contrasted against the grandeur of the neighboring bank mansions, provides some insight into the early texture of the neighborhood.
Farther on along Voyvoda/Bankalar Sok. is the unmistakably grand:
15. Ottoman Bank
Built in 1890-1892 by architect Alexandre Vallauri, this is actually two buildings in one -- twin structures occupied by the Ottoman Bank and later by the Central Bank of the Republic of Turkey. In 1896, a group of nationalist Armenians stormed the building with bombs and a list of grievances against the Ottoman state. There's as unexpected (and free) exhibit chronicling the history of the Ottoman Bank, where you can venture into the various vaults containing crumbling bank notes and ledgers of financial transactions.
At this point, you see the Camondo Staircase. You can climb it, turn right, and then right again down the steps back down to Bankalar Sok., or you can simply continue straight along Bankalar Sok. toward:
16. Karaköy Square
Some impressive architectural jewels, like the Nordstern Han to your right and the neoclassical Ziraat Bank building opposite the square, command this open plaza, attesting to this section of the city as the center of commerce for not only an empire but for the entire Mediterranean. Turn right onto the square and meander past the simitçi (a vendor selling bagel-like sesame rings), the plumbing vendors, and the crush of humanity; then turn right again onto the busy Tersane Caddesi.
Take a right onto the tiny Perçemli Sok., and follow it all the way to the end, where you will find the:
17. Jewish Museum of Turkey (Zulfaris Museum)
This museum chronicles 500 years of Turkish Jewry. The elegant red-brick town house embellished by marble columns and an ornamental staircase dates to the early 19th century.
Head down to Tersane Cad., and at your right a few steps farther on you will arrive at the entrance to "Lower Tünel." This is the end of the tour, a convenient stop for those heading either back up to Tünel, or, via the tramway, to Taksim or the Old City.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.