Given how much publicity about İstanbul highlights the fact that it’s the only city in the world with one foot in Europe and the other in Asia, it’s odd how few of its visitors ever actually make it to the Asian side of town. Yet, just a short distance apart from each other, Üsküdar and Kadıköy perfectly illustrate the great differences that coexist within İstanbul. Üsküdar is a conservative neighborhood full of historic mosques. Kadıköy, in contrast, is much livelier, with a delightful market and several gourmet restaurants.
Whichever of the two you opt to visit, just getting there will be half the fun. Before buying a jeton to pass through the turnstiles at the pier, grab a simit (sesame-seed-studded bread roll) to share with the seagulls that follow the boats. Then as you settle down with a glass of tea in hand to soak up the glorious scenery, you can reflect on the lucky locals for whom this “poor man’s cruise” provides one of the most beautiful commutes in the world.
Although Kadıköy is marginally the older of the two suburbs, it’s Üsküdar that is the more obviously packed with history. As your ferry nears the landing stage you will see, to the right, the curious little Kızkulesi (Maiden’s Tower), while right on the shore two of the three Üsküdar mosques designed by Mimar Sinan -- the big İskele (dock) Camii and much smaller Şemsi Paşa Camii -- offer a welcome.
Üsküdar was once the Chrysopolis (City of Gold) of the Byzantines before metamorphosing into the Scutari that was the main exit point for camel trains heading out from Constantinople to Anatolia; traces of these earlier settlements were turned up recently during the course of excavations for the Marmaray, a tunnel being built beneath the Bosporus that will emerge in Asia at Üsküdar. Now nearing completion, the project has been in progress for many years, hence the building work that still confronts visitors.
Stepping from the ferry, you will find yourself in front of the İskele Camii, designed in 1548 by Sinan for Mihrimah Sultan, one of the daughters of Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent. Back then it would have stood right on the watefront so that the sultan could step from his caique onto the steps leading up to it. Today, though, the busy coast road built on reclaimed land provides a far less pleasing approach, with the lovely early 18th-century fountain of Sultan Ahmed III stranded on a traffic island.
The mosque itself has been restored recently and is well worth a look, as is the Yeni Valide Camii (New Queen Mother’s Mosque), mere steps away across another busy road. Built in 1710 for the mother of Sultan Ahmed III, it was one of the last big complexes to go up in the city in the days when mosques formed the centerpieces in networks of social facilities, including schools and hospitals, known as külliyes.
If you leave the Yeni Valide Camii on the sea-facing side, you will emerge opposite the newly restored Cedid Valide İmareti (soup kitchen), with its twin domes and a very pretty corner fountain. From here the coast road winds round to the Şemsi Paşa Camii, also newly restored but with some work still ongoing. Designed by Sinan in 1580, it overlooks the point where the Bosphorus meets the Sea of Marmara and was nicknamed the Kuşkonmaz Camii (Birds Can’t Land Mosque) because the strength of the winds kept the seagulls at bay.
From the Şemsi Paşa Camii a waterside promenade works its way all the way along the coast to Haydarpaşa. On a sunny day there are few things that an Üsküdarlı enjoys more than strolling here with friends, pausing to snap up a packet of sunflower seeds to be eaten while perched on the seawall gazing out at Kızkulesi. This is one of those towers that seems to attract fantastical stories like a magnet. The best known sticks with safe generality. There was a king with a beautiful daughter. When a soothsayer suggested that she would die young he had her locked up in the tower for safety. Then a basket of fruit containing a poisonous snake was delivered to her. Cleopatra, Rapunzel, the echoes could hardly be louder.
Today you can take a boat ride out to the islet on which the tower stands to take a look around, although there’s precious little inside to justify the trip unless you’re planning to eat in the restaurant. Instead you might want to cut inland in search of the Rum Mehmet Paşa Camii, a pre-Sinan mosque (1471) that vaguely resembles a Byzantine church, and then the huge Ayazma Camii, the mosque whose dome and minaret dominate the skyline as you sail in from Eminönü.
The mosque’s name suggests that it must once have stood on the site of a holy spring (ayazma) of which there’s no longer any sign. Instead, it’s the mosque’s vast size that is most likely to impress you, especially since it sits in what is now a very workaday neighborhood. It was designed in 1760 for the mother of Sultan Mustafa III by Mehmet Tahir Ağa, the architect also responsible for the Laleli Camii, up the road from the Grand Bazaar and much more familiar to most visitors. Look on the facade of the mosque and on the surrounding walls for some of the elaborate birdhouses that formed important features in the design of his mosques.
For parents with young children, Üsküdar might not make the most obvious destination, but it’s perhaps worth noting that in Bakıcı Sokak behind the Yeni Valide Camii there is a small but colorful Kite Museum containing examples of kites made not just in Turkey but all over the world. It’s closed on Sundays.
Most people’s energies will probably be flagging by now, which is a shame since what is arguably the finest of all Üsküdar’s mosques lurks out of sight at the top of steep Eski Toptaşı Caddesi (Old Cannonball Street) in an area that sees very few foreign visitors. A favorite with “Strolling Through İstanbul” author John Freely, the Atik Valide Camii is yet another Sinan mosque, this time designed in 1583 for the wife of Sultan Selim II.
The mosque itself has an unexpectedly condensed design with none of the vast space beneath a central dome that distinguishes the İskele Camii. Its courtyard is, however, a pleasant place to rest your feet before embarking on an exploration of the huge complex of buildings -- caravanserai (inn), imaret (soup kitchen), medrese (seminary) and mektep (primary school) -- surrounding it. Until recently, most of these ancillary buildings had been allowed to fall into a shocking state of disrepair. Fortunately, restoration work is now under way. Once it’s completed, the Atik Valide might well come to be regarded as the Süleymaniye of the Asian side of the city.
You could be forgiven for scurrying straight back downhill to the ferry after visiting this spectacular mosque complex. However, even further uphill in a neighborhood that still contains some beautiful old wooden houses, you might be surprised to stumble upon the enormous 19th-century Armenian church of Surp Garabed (also known as Surp Haç), just around the corner from a more discreet Greek Orthodox church. Reminders of the more cosmopolitan past are still easy to find in Kadıköy; here in seemingly homogenous Turkish Muslim Üsküdar they come as a pleasant surprise.
On the way back to the ferry, you could pause to inspect the fine İznik tiles on the walls of the tiny early 17th-century Çinili Camii or to take a soak in its ancient hamam (Turkish bath). Then you could grab an early supper in Kanaat, a popular restaurant that has been serving diners from a location close to the harbor since 1933.
Valide-I Atik Külliyesi
Mihrimah Sultan İskele Camii
Şemsi Ahmet Paşa Camii