Visiting the Asian Side

kız kulesi 2

Istanbul is the only city in the world to be built on two continents. There is no doubt that the presence of the “Asian side” beyond the Bosphorus appeals powerfully to the European collective imagination.

Sometimes this prerogative may give rise to strange doubts and unrealistic expectations.

The strange doubts are condensed in the question that sometimes comes to us via e-mail and to which we hope to answer once and for all: No, you do not need a passport to go to the Asian side of Istanbul…

Unrealistic expectations can be, instead, glimpsed on the faces of groups of tourists that we happen to see every now and then getting off from the ferry at Üsküdar. The eyes and ears which have imagined to savour the East collide with chaotic traffic and the huge construction site of the Marmaray Tünel. Few minutes later some even get back on the same ferry to return to Sultanahmet, sadly bewildered and disappointed.

The reality of Istanbul is very complex; we will never be tired of reminding it. The city is a collection of many cities, the architectural landscape and the social context change quickly and radically, within a few feet and/or a few months. It is enough to just move a few meters from Taksim to Kasımpaşa or from Sultanahmet to Kadırga to bump into very different realities. It is thus not necessary to cross the Bosphorus to search for the more oriental, the more Muslim, the poorer and the truest part (?). These classifications are meaningless in Istanbul.

In the European as in the Asian side there are more conservative districts (Fatih and Ümraniye) and more modern ones (Beyoğlu and Kadıköy), areas full of history (Sultanahmet and Üsküdar) and areas voted to shopping (Nisantasi and Bağdat Caddesi), neighbourhoods with an interesting religious mixture (Fener /Balat and Kuzguncuk /Yeldeğirmeni) and pretty villages on the Bosphorus (Arnavutköy and Çengelköy).

Our advice is, therefore, to give a chance to the Asian side, without preconceptions and in a more informed manner.

For a long time we have received requests from people really curious about this part of the city. However, we were intimidated by the thought of how to enclose in a few hours its major points of interest, especially because we did not know what the latter were exactly, given that no printed travel guide speaks extensively of these zones (indeed they are often excluded even from the map).

For this reason, from March 2012 we have studied and put into practice an itinerary which includes the three most representative quarters of the Asian side of Istanbul (Kuzguncuk, Üsküdar and Kadıköy), providing within 5-6 hours a view as comprehensive as possible of the area, showing its historical, social and artistic complexity. The experience gained through the itinerary already existing, of Fatih, Fener and Balat, by now operative for two years and for which we keep receiving hundreds of positive comments and emails of gratitude, has pushed and motivated us to create this new tour, which offers a more complete and less stereotypical image of the beautiful city we live in.

Üsküdar is one of the oldest districts of the Ottoman Istanbul; a residential district from the start as it continues to be nowadays.

There are more than 180 mosques in the district. Some of them date back to before the Ottoman conquest, thus, among the oldest ones in Istanbul. The largest mosques are those of Mihrimah and Yeni Valide, while the most interesting are the smaller ones, Şemsi Pasha, Kaptan Paşa, Çinili.

The history of Üsküdar has its roots well back in time, long before the Ottoman conquest in the 14th century and also the founding of the city of Byzantium by Greek settlers in the 7th century B.C. During the excavations for the Bosphorus tunnel were in fact found many ruins of the ancient Chrysopolis.

Besides the historical importance of the mosques and the beauty of the district in itself, one must indubitably take a walk to Salacak and arrive in front of the Kız Kulesi, a legendary tower which stands on an islet situated where the Bosphorus and the Marmara Sea finally meet. The Kiz Kulesi with the historical peninsula as background delivers one of the most striking spectacles of Istanbul.

Not far from Üsküdar is Kuzguncuk, a neighbourhood inhabited since the early 16th century by the Jewish population, which later also welcomed Greeks and Armenians. Kuzguncuk is absolutely one of our favorite spots: it is basically a long and narrow valley, with both sides descending steeply to the Bosphorus. The placidity transmitted by its old wooden houses and the green of its plane trees makes this neighbourhood a really special place.

It is only here that one can see a mosque next to an Armenian church and a synagogue side by side with an Orthodox church. It is no exaggeration to take this small neighbourhood as a symbol of the tolerance and harmony present in the Istanbul of the Ottoman Empire. Kuzguncuk also still preserves the atmosphere of a fishing village, a place for the soul that has inspired and continues to inspire artists, poets, filmmakers, architects and dreamers.

Its points of interest are many: the synagogue of Beth Yakov, the Orthodox church of Ayios Panteleimon and the Armenian one of Surp Krikor Lusavoriç, not to mention the beautiful Fethi Paşa Park which offers fascinating views of the Bosphorus.

The last area that our Asian itinerary touches is Kadıköy, the ancient and famous Chalcedon, founded actually 20 years before Byzantium by Greek settlers from Megara. Kadıköy’s very ancient history remains in the background of what is now in effect one of the most modern and lively districts of Istanbul.

From the beginning of the 19th century that which in the Ottoman era was just a residential area for wealthy nobles turns, thanks to the construction of the Haydarpaşa Train Station, in a neighbourhood extremely diverse in terms of ethnic identities and social groups. At the beginning of the 20th century the population of the district was made up of Jews, Greeks, Armenians, Albanians, Bulgarians, Persians, Italians, Germans and French. It is in this district that the first modern “apartments” made of stone and marble were built in Istanbul.

A walk through the suburb of Yeldeğirmeni will hence bring us back to mind a period not long ago when German engineers and Italian stonemasons worked together, both as immigrants, in the cosmopolitan Istanbul of the early 20th century.

Kadıköy is a modern district, considerable in size and densely populated (more than half a million inhabitants), with a great variety of atmospheres and architectural styles. A longer tour would lead you up to Bagdat Caddesi, a 14 km boulevard along the Marmara Sea, dotted with malls and shops of the most famous international brands. If one substitutes the plane trees with palms, it would really seem to be in Los Angeles.

However, it is in the centre of Kadıköy that we recommend travelers to spend a few pleasant hours. The Central Market is one of the most interesting and picturesque of the city, is a very suitable place for a mini-culinary tour. Among the many kiosks there are countless specialties to try, which each retailer will let you taste with a smile on his face. Either lovers of savouries and sweets will be satisfied: in fact, it is here that they will find some of the most historic and famous pastry shops.

A trip to Istanbul without visiting the Asian side would definitely leave a sense of incompleteness; however, it could be even more disappointing if one will arrive on the Asian side with the wrong expectations. We, therefore, hope that this article has provided the traveler with a clearer picture of an area of the city so important, although so often overlooked by the printed travel guides.

If you are interested in making a guided tour with us of these neighbourhoods, please, do not hesitate to contact us via email or leave a comment below.

We started 5 years ago to make guided tours with italian groups and you can read hundreds of feedback on our italian version of the blog and on tripadvisor. Now we can do it also in english!


Visiting Fatih, Fener and Balat


Of the whole Istanbul, the areas of Fatih, Fener and Balat are certainly the richest in history, the most fascinating and characteristic. For these reasons they have been included in the UNESCO World Heritage List. Even so, less than 1% of the tourists in Istanbul visit these sites. How is that possible?

The reasons are many; however, the main culprit is surely the so-called “tourism industry”, which simplifies everything and conveys an artificial image of the city, in order to maximize its profits. A stereotyped image of the city is promoted and substitutes the more heterogeneous existing one and, unfortunately, it is only the former that is visited by almost all tourists.

Along our lines of thought, we are opposed to all this and we hope that people will have the curiosity and the desire to discover the real beauties of Istanbul.

Hence, it is our intention to introduce three neighbourhoods really central for the full understanding of the history and culture of this city. In these areas different communities and religions have converged and mingled in the course of time, bestowing us up to the present day with an extraordinary wealth of architecture, religious monuments, colours and gastronomic delicacies. The three districts are located within the old city walls, to the west of Eminönü, and overlook the Golden Horn. Unless accompanied by people who know the surroundings, these areas could be difficult to visit, not because they are dangerous, but just because they are totally off the tourist beaten track and it could be easy to lose one’s bearings through the maze of houses, consequently missing the monuments one is looking for.

Fatih is considered one of the most “conservative” districts of Istanbul, is the most observant area from a religious point of view, with at its centre the monumental complex of the Fatih Mosque. Walking through its streets, in the area of Malta Çarşı, the zone of the market, is an experience that cannot leave one blase’. Nowadays in Fatih are living mostly immigrants coming from the Eastern Anatolia region, so people here respect more the dictates of religion, but also preserve their extraordinary regional culinary traditions. It is in fact precisely for this reason that the district is now accepted as the gastronomic centre of the city. It is here, therefore, that one must come to experience the authentic flavours of Turkish cuisine: restaurants or small shops are specialized in kebabs, pide, sarma, köfte, all delicious and at very low prices. After lunch or a snack, you could then visit the beautiful Zeyrek Mosque, which was once the Byzantine Monastery of Christ Pantokrator, after Aya Sofia the second largest building of the Byzantine period still existing in Istanbul. The area of Zeyrek, with its Ottoman wooden houses 200 years old, is one of the most picturesque ones of the whole Istanbul. Leaving behind Fatih and heading towards Fener, one will pass through the Çarşamba neighbourhood. Here lies one of the most famous Byzantine churches of Istanbul, the Church of Theotokos Pammakaristos, now known as Fethiye Camii, since presently it is half mosque and half museum

Once entered in the quarter of Fener, the historic Greek neighbourhood, the roads will start to get narrower and labyrinthine, the slopes will get more steep, and the risk of losing the way higher and higher. It is on these centenarian cobblestones, among coloured Ottoman houses, some superbly restored, others irremediably ruined, that one can feel the history of Istanbul. Devout Byzantine priests, coarse Crusaders, proud Ottoman Paşas with their bevy of servants, Armenian traders, Jewish shopkeepers and gypsy fortune tellers have populated, over the centuries, often at the same time, these areas of the city, giving rise to the cultural wealth we can still admire today. Walking among houses of bizarre colours and shapes, among children playing soccer in the streets, one will arrive in front of Rum Lisesi, the Greek Orthodox College, the magnificent and peculiar red-brick building that dominates the hill of Fener. Climbing up a picturesque staircase one will then reach the top of the hill, where once the ancient walls of Constantinople ran, and it is precisely here that in the 13th century was built a church unknown to most, but of fundamental importance in the history of the city. This is the graceful Church of St. Mary of the Mongols, also known as the Red Church. Its history is so beautiful and charming that should deserve a book, but unfortunately there are no related publications and it almost seems forgotten by everyone.

Moreover, in the neighborhood of Fener is situated one of the most important locus for Christianity: the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. It is for the Orthodox believers the equivalent of St. Peter in Rome for the Catholics. The historic and symbolic importance of this place is huge. It is one of the five main centres of Christianity: in fact, in order of hierarchy, the Patriarchate of Constantinople is the second after Rome and precedes Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem. The visit of the Cathedral of St. George should therefore be a “must” for a tourist in Istanbul, although I think less than 1% of the tourists actually visit it, since probably ignoring even its existence.

On the banks of the Golden Horn, acting as a watershed between Fener and Balat, one finds the Sveti Stefan Kilisesi (the Bulgarian Church of St. Stephen), famous for being built entirely of iron and for its rich interior ornaments.

Balat is the historic Jewish Quarter: it had been so for a long time, during the Byzantine period as well as during the Ottoman period, this to demonstrate the atmosphere of inter-religious coexistence that has always characterized Istanbul. The Jews began to leave the area only after the strong earthquake of 1894, moving to the neighbourhood of Galata and, partly, emigrating to Israel. After 1960 the remaining wealthy Jewish minority of Balat moved to the district of Şişli and the result was a complete transformation of the neighbourhood. From an extremely rich area it quickly became a zone populated by immigrants of the lowest social classes. As a consequence, Balat had been greatly neglected until just lately when the neighbourhood has eventually been the focus of an ambitious redevelopment project sponsored by UNESCO. The fine line between grandeur and degradation in Balat produces a dazzling contrast. The area, where there are as many as three synagogues (including the beautiful Arhida Synagogue, still functioning and open to visitors prior contact with the rabbi), remains still nowadays a real gem. Arriving then at the top of Balat one will enter a park from where it is possible to enjoy a breathtaking view of the Golden Horn.

Continuing on foot and with the risk, always real, to get lost, one can afterwards reach the famous church of Holy Saviour in Chora, now known as Kariye Müzesi. Its magnificent mosaics and frescoes have nothing to envy to those of Aya Sofia, rather they are objectively much more beautiful. It is, without a doubt, one of the most important historical monuments of Istanbul, an extraordinary example of Byzantine stylistic perfection.

Exploring Fatih, Fener and Balat is challenging, but does indeed offer unique emotions, even to those who like us are by now accustomed to visit these places. We would like to remind that visiting these areas by oneself is not easy, often the names of the streets on the maps are incorrect or are not reported: one might end up walking around to no avail and thus wasting a lot of time. The percentage of people who speak English in these areas is close to zero and, therefore, it is impossible to ask for information. We have to admit that the first few times we also got lost, although we can ask information in Turkish!
If you are interested in making a guided tour with us of these neighbourhoods, please, do not hesitate to contact us via email or leave a comment below.

We started 5 years ago to make guided tours with italian groups and you can read hundreds of feedback on our italian version of the blog and on tripadvisorWe organize tours almost every day in english, italian and spanish.


Istanbul on a Cruise

Istanbul Cruise

The majority of tourists that decide to visit Istanbul arrive by airplane. However, it is also possible to reach İstanbul by car, train (passing through Greece) or by ferry.

Lately, more and more people are choosing to visit the Mediterranean with a cruise company, thanks to their very affordable prices.

Costa CruisesMSC Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Line, Celebrity Cruises, Princess Cruises, Aida Cruises, Carnival Vista and Holland America Line, in recent times, have developed and given increasing importance to the routes of the Eastern Mediterranean.

Depending on the offer available, but, generally, spending between 600 and 1000 euros per person, one can enjoy the experience of a 7 day cruise on a luxurious and beautiful ship (for example: MSC Poesia, Island Princess, Celebrity Reflection, Norwegian Spirit). These ships depart normally from Venice or from Rome and touch the coasts of southern Italy, Greece (Katakolon-Olympia, Athens or some beuatiful islands in the Aegean Sea), Izmir (Smyrna), Kusadasi, Dubrovnik in Croatia, Malta or Tunis, some of them will continue until the Black Sea touching Bulgarian and Romanian coasts.

Obviously, 7 days of cruise with all the meals included and various entertainments available on the ship represent an attractive and convenient option. Nonetheless, when the cruise ship stops in a city as enthralling to see as it is İstanbul, few are not driven by the desire to visit it!

Unfortunately, the time on hand to visit the city is very little, because usually the cruises dock at around 7.30 in the morning and depart the same day at around 17 in the afternoon. The cruise companies use this short time available as an excuse to sell off shore excursions, which are very expensive (at least 120 euros for 7 hours of tour) and, eventually, quite disappointing. In fact, first of all, an identification number is assigned to the excursionists, who are then taken in crammed coaches to few places of interest; for lunch time, they are led to a restaurant passed off as ‘typical’ (but that is not) and, finally, their visit will be ended in a carpet shop in the Gran Bazaar, where a commission on sold items had been already agreed between the shop owner and the tourist guide. In our opinion, these types of tours provide the visitor with a distorted image of the city, which cannot thus be truly appreciated. It is a vision of tourism to which we are strongly against.

It would be much better then, for whom is really interested in the city, to visit it autonomously. However, since the time available is indeed little, it is advisable to organise oneself in advance about the sights one may be keen to visit and the way to get there. So not to waste precious time!

This blog has been conceived precisely to give accurate information to whom has an interest to participate in the life of İstanbul in an intelligent manner, even if only for one day. It is full of tips that will allow you to organise an autonomous day excursion. On the other hand, if you yet prefer to be guided around the city by a knowledgeable inhabitant of Istanbul, we can study together a personalised visit of the city and accompany you. That will also give you the privilege to skip the long queues that are formed at the entrances of the famous monuments.

We are a licensed official tourism agency based in Istanbul. We started our career organizing guided tours in Italian with Italian groups and you can read hundreds of feedback on the italian version of our blog and also on Trip Advisor. Now we can do it also in English and we would like to provide the same quality service also to English speaking visitors.