Istanbul is unquestionably one of the most incredible cities anywhere in the world. When you arrive, you know you've a list of hundreds of things to see and do and not even close to enough time to see it all. But of course, hundreds of other tourists are doing exactly the same thing, and sometimes all you actually want is just to get away from the crowds and get a feel for the "real" city.
Well, Istanbul's Üsküdar district represents an excellent opportunity to get away from the historic peninsula while still settling firmly in the heart of the city's history as well as getting a feel for how locals pass their everyday lives. Let's get started!
Step One: Getting There!
First, getting there and back is maybe the best part of the entire journey. The commute in Istanbul is surely one of the most pleasant there is, so head to the nearest ferry terminal near you (likely Eminönü, Karaköy or Beşiktaş) and grab the first ferry, swiping your Istanbul Card as you pass through (the Istanbul card is valid for all forms of public transportation in the city).
Once on the ferry, get a sesame bread called "simit" and a Turkish tea and sip your way to Üsküdar, admiring the surroundings of the Bosphorus along with all the locals who do the same literally every day of the week.
First Stop: Mihrimah Sultan Mosque
Mimar Sinan is widely believed to be the greatest of all the Ottoman architects, and the beauty of the city is largely due to his influence. This is the mosque that he designed specifically for the love of his life, the daughter of Suleiman the Magnificent, Mihrimah Sultan. He designed it when he was at the peak of his powers, and its glory right on the Bosphorus shows – the perfect start to our tour through Üsküdar.
Next Stop: Yeni Valide Mosque
Cross the street to the mosque you see there and you'll be immediately struck by a difference of architectural styles (it was built 150 years after Mimar Sinan's death). This mosque was built to honor a mother rather than a daughter, specifically commissioned by Sultan Ahmed III in honor of his mother, Emetullah Râbi'a Gülnûş Sultan, whose tomb is also there. The intricate metal work and marble work are reminiscent of later Ottoman period, though the mosque makes a nice contrast with Mihrimah as it was in part based on a different mosque designed by Mimar Sinan (namely the Rüstem Pasha Mosque in Eminönü).
The mosque is an entire complex and you can visit the tomb of Emetullah Râbi'a Gülnûş Sultan as well as wander the grounds.
Next Stop: Sultan Mehmed II's Courthouse
A recently restored courthouse just up the road from Yeni Valide is a wonderful visit. The courthouse has been turned into a small school, but visitors are encouraged to stop in and if classes aren't actually in session they can head to the top of the building to see where Mehmed II made his rulings.
One representative story that took place in this specific courthouse involved a palace the sultan ordered to be built. The architect made an error in his measurements and some of the columns were too short, so the sultan ordered his hand to be cut off. The architect appealed to a judge, who found in favor of the architect and therefore ruled that the sultan's hand should be cut off in compensation! The architect was willing to forego such extremes and the palace was completed amicably and lawfully.
Next Stop: Mimar Sinan Bazaar
As with the courthouse being turned into a school, one of the brilliant things you see in Üsküdar is the way that historic buildings have been restored and are being used to this very day, even if for something completely different than their usual purpose. Mimar Sinan built a hamam on this site, but now it's used as a small little shopping center selling clothing and shawls, though the roofing and tiles are still identical to the original hamam! It's a quick walk through and makes for a much more pleasant shopping experience than the typical mall you might find elsewhere!
Next Stop: Üsküdar Fish Market
Head back through the Üsküdar fish market, where you'll see all varieties of fish on display, all freshly caught. The market is huge, and has plenty of restaurants where you can eat the wares being sold, or head right next door to any one of many places selling baklava or other local goods, similar to a normal bazaar. The prices are cheap and the quality is second to none!
Finally: Back Home
Before heading back, you may want to stop off for a bite to eat at one of the historic eateries that you'll find all over Üsküdar, or there are even one or two historic hamams (built by Mimar Sinan) still in use, if you'd like a truly authentic hamam experience. This is a truly authentic spot, where you'll be able to meet locals and see how hamams are still used today. After you're done, head back to the pier and take the ferry boat back home, again with a simit and a Turkish tea. If you don't feel like eating the "simit", buy it anyway and throw bits and pieces to the seagulls as they pass, we promise they'll thank you later!