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Full Steam Ahead
Brace yourself for an assault on the senses. One of the world’s most exhilarating urban landscapes greets you as you approach the gritty historic district of Eminönü at the entrance to the Golden Horn. Hills are crowned with mosques that cascade down to teeming bazaars on the shore below. This grandiose prospect belies the intimacy within, where city and village mingle.
All that most visitors know of the district is the Spice Bazaar and the ferry stations. Everyone goes there before rushing off by tram or coach to the Topkapı. Not a bad thing in itself.
Eminönü is the teeming area surrounding the Yeni Cami, the theatrical 1660s New Mosque that looks out over the Galata Bridge to the European city. Built by a sultan’s mother and admired by Wren and Vanbrugh, the mosque was the gateway to Old Stamboul and the Ottoman window on the world.
Dedicated shoppers get so absorbed that before they know it they have been drawn through swirling crowds to that other, far larger covered market at the top of the hill, the Grand Bazaar. Serious sightseers find their way to the exquisite Riistem Pasha Mosque, then climb to the Siileymaniye, Sinan’s grandest mosque and a lofty symbol of the Ottoman golden age.
In the dense triangle formed by Eminonii, the Süleymaniye and the Topkapı beats Istanbul’s historic commercial heart. Every district is distinct in mood and flavour, architecture and artefact. Classical Ottoman, Vienna Secession and Sixties Woolworth’s jostle with Anatolian bazaar, rue de Rivoli and Othello’s Venice.
Only when you know each bit by name, sound and smell can you grasp the story of this city and its people – but despair not. You can taste it all in one lengthy afternoon stroll. You will contend with uneven cobbles, jostling crowds and van drivers trying to squeeze through narrow alleys, but this is the unreconstructed working city, much more fun than touristy Sultanahmet, which is why the authorities have their eye on it, wanting to sanitise it, order it and maybe redevelop it.
Escape the hubbub
Whether you come by boat or tram, you alight on Eminonii’s quay into a vortex of commotion. Everything is exaggerated, from the over-lit beer saloons under the Galata Bridge and the forest of fishing rods lining it, to the constant ebb and flood tides of humanity, swept by smoke from grilling mackerel or old ferries (now sadly fewer in number).
However, our “stroll” need not be all maelstrom and challenge. There are plenty of places to linger, so don’t go rushing to tick off the sights. Some find a peaceful corner in the gloomy domed interior of the Yeni Cami, with its beautiful late Iznik tiles. Behind the mosque, in the gatehouse to the Spice Bazaar, Pandeli is a grand old institution that is not to be missed – for its atmosphere, its courtesy, the view through its grilles into the bazaar, and the magical deep-turquoise tiles on the staircase.
For a vista of mosques and bazaars, book a rooftop table at the kebab joint Hamdi. Also an institution in its way, it is one of the few places in the district open in the evening. The pistachio kebabs are particularly good.
An appealing place for icecold beer is humble Çapa, a cafe in villagey Küçükpazar, beyond the Riistem Pasha Mosque. Or in the lovely, diminutive Kadm Efendi Hamam1 over the road, abandon all earthly toils and lie on your back gazing at the dome.
At the top of the hill, where the Süleymaniye overlooks the Golden Horn, you can rest in the mosque’s precincts. The Darüzziyafe is a faintly official restaurant in the shady courtyard of the old soup kitchen.
Opposite the sultan’s tomb, the stewed-bean shop Kanaat offers a front-row seat from which to admire Sinan’s domes. Or picnic in the mosque gardens.