One of the curiosities of Istanbul is that it is in both Europe and Asia. The two continents are separated by the Bosphorus, the waterway that connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara, and ultimately to the Mediterranean. The two halves of the city are very different, and a trip across the Bosphorus to Üsküdar makes an ideal day out from Istanbul.
In practice not many tourists seem to make their way to the Asian side of the city: my fellow passengers on the Saturday morning ferry had shopping bags rather than cameras. This makes it a great way to escape the crowds that throng the city centre. Üsküdar is a place where people live and work. For the few tourists who go there it is an opportunity to explore the mosques, bathe in a hamam or eat in a traditional café. And to buy spices at a bargain price.
The Mosques of Üsküdar
One reason to go to Üsküdar is the mosques – apparently more than 180 of them. The Çamlıca Masjid, which opened in 2019, is supposedly the largest mosque in Turkey. Others that are open to visitors include Mihrimah Sultan Camii (built in the 16th century) and the Yeni Valide Camii (built in 1703 for the mother of Sultan Ahmed III).
The one I chose to visit was the Çinili Camii (also known as the Tiled Mosque), a 20 minute uphill walk away from the town. It seemed to be shut when I arrived, but an elderly man standing by the door spotted me and beckoned me in. I stopped to take my shoes off and realised I didn’t have a headscarf with me, so I hastily put on my jacket and pulled the hood up! There were no other visitors so I had the place to myself.
Çinili Camii was built in 1640 for the wife of Sultan Ahmet I. It is small and the exterior isn’t much to look at but the interior is sumptuous. The walls are all covered with traditional blue Iznik tiles. You can climb a steep and narrow spiral staircase to reach the upper floor, giving a better view of the tiles. (I had a slight moment of panic when I realised I had no change for the offertory plate on the way out, but a handful of small euro notes proved perfectly acceptable.)
Close to the Mosque are the recently restored Çinili Hamami, traditional Turkish baths dating back to the 17th century.
Spices – and Lunch in a Lokanda
The aroma of the small covered market greeted me before I went inside, a rich mixture of fresh fruit and vegetables. There were piles of gleaming vine leaves, vegetables I couldn’t put a name to and, of course, stalls selling sticky Turkish cakes and pastries. Just outside the market were a couple of spice shops with long strings of chilli and hibiscus hanging outside. For anyone wanting to buy spices to take home this would have been a much better location than the overcrowded Spice Market in central Istanbul.
I stopped for lunch in a traditional lokanda, a basic café where I was pleased to note that there were no other tourists (although the dual language menu suggested this might not be the case in the high season). Although the staff spoke little or no English they were friendly and efficient. My choice of vegetable casserole appeared not to be available, but the waiter gestured that I should follow him to the cooking counter so that I could see what was on offer and choose for myself. A very nice meal of lentil soup, chicken and vegetables, followed by tel kedayif (a sort of soft fat baklava) and thick strong Turkish coffee.
Back at the waterfront I resisted the offer of a guided tour from an enthusiastic shoe-shine man and stood for a while watching the lines of fishermen who seem to crowd into every available space on both sides of the Bosporus.
Taking the Ferry to Üsküdar
Ferries depart from the Eminönü Dock approximately every 20 minutes. The journey to Üsküdar takes around 25 minutes.