Eminönü is a district of Istanbul in Turkey. This is the heart of the walled city of Constantine, the focus of a history of incredible richness. Eminönü covers the point on which the Byzantine capital was built. The Galata Bridge crosses the Golden Horn into Eminönü and the mouth of the Bosphorus opens into the Marmara Sea. And up on the hill stands Topkapı Palace, the Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet Camii) and Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya). Thus Eminönü is the main tourist destination in Istanbul.
The Golden Horn was a natural port, particularly the Eminönü/Sirkeci shore, which being on a peninsula was also eminently defensible. It was for this port that Istanbul was built, and from here that Istanbul grew, with the oldest neighbourhoods being the port districts along the Golden Horn. In time the Byzantine port was also occupied by merchants from Genoa and Pisa, who eventually acquired their own wharfs and waterfront districts.
The Golden Horn was still a thriving port in Ottoman times, occupied by importers, warehousemen, sailors and traders of every description, the centre of trade in the city, a labryinth of narrow streets wokshops and markets leading uphill to Topkapi Palace, the Ottoman capital.
The district's name, Eminönü, also reflects its' place in history. Translated from Turkish to English it roughly means 'in front of justice'. Emin meaning 'justice', önü meaning 'in front of'. The name most probably came from the Ottoman courts and customs houses on the docks.
The nature of the place did of course change in the industrial age; the Galata Bridge was built across the Golden Horn; steamships came, then electricity, then the railway and the Istanbul terminal of the Orient Express was naturally sited at Sirkeci Station. The sea walls still surrounded the city, and the sea gates of the port of Eminönü were the point of entry for goods, and for people.
Following the huge railway station, other grand stone buildings followed in the late Ottoman period, commercial buildings, the central post office among others. And in the early days of the Turkish Republic, Eminönü was renovated extensively; the big square was opened up in front of Yeni Cami (by clearing out the tollbooths at the end of the Galata Bridge); The Spice bazaar was restored; the fish market was cleared off the shore of the Golden Horn and a road opened up to the new bridge at Unkapani.
By the 1950s, the area was continuously clogged up with traffic, which was eased somewhat by the construction of the large coast road around the point and all the way out to Istanbul airport.
Although the government has moved to Ankara and Istanbul has expanded rapidly to becoming the enormous city we have today with the centre of the business world now in huge shiny buildings elsewhere in the city, Eminönü is still buzzing. It still has the busiest ferry crossings for the Bosphorus and for the Marmara Sea, still has the only car ferry across the Bosphorus and still has the only mainline railway terminus (where trains can be caught to Eastern Thrace (Trakya) and Europe)and people flood into the area on boats, buses, or the light metro from Aksaray.
During the daytime the area is packed with trades people and their customers, a horde of shoppers and the many tourists too. Add to this a number of key government buildings including the governor's office and the main campus of Istanbul University in Beyazit. At night it is very, very quiet. There is some housing in Eminönü but most of the buildings are offices, shops and workshops, and if you do happen to be there in the evening the contrast with the daytime is eery and somewhat menacing. In the daytime there are 2,000,000 people in Eminönü, but the district has only 30,000 residents. The people that do live in Eminönü are working class and conservative.
Things to see
Eminönü has many historical mosques and buildings, many of Istanbul's best-known landmarks. Recent development has improved Eminönü greatly and many of its winding streets which can at first seem imposing have been developed and improved, while Eminönü has started to repair the many mosques.
Sultanahmet - which contains Topkapi Palace, Aya Sofia, the Blue Mosque and Aya Irini among about a thousand other incredible pieces of architecture; Süleymaniye - the huge mosque complex of Suleyman the Magnificent; Yeni Cami (The new mosque) - the mosque that dominates the waterfront by the Galata Bridge; there is a wide open space in front where people feed the pigeons. The Grand Bazaar - as much to look at as to shop in. The Spice Bazaar - another Ottoman caravanserai, not as huge as the Grand Bazzar but right on the water, next to Yeni Camii;
Shopping in Eminönü
The area is heaving with shoppers especially at weekends people come from all over the city, looking for discount clothing, or plastic accessories, staionery and cheap toys in the streets behind the Spice Bazaar. You will not find the classy boutiques of the big shopping centres, the clientele in Eminönü is much more traditional and working class. The narrow climbing street called Mahmutpasa for example is the place where those of a conservative nature come to buy a coat or a headscarf, or to kit their boys out in the costume they wear on circumcision day.
Eminönü is crawling with thousands of people hawking goods on handcarts, makeshift stalls or a blanket laid out in the street, as well as the millions of little shops and workshops in the streets, bazaars and the big stone fortresses from the Ottoman era called Han in Turkish. Every inch is retail space, even the underpasses taking people from the ferries are lined with shops, kebab grillers and boys selling cigarettes. Predictably there is a fair amount of purse-snatching and pickpocketing in the crowds. And the narrow streets are hard to keep clean.
There are so many businesses packed into such a small area that a single street or even a single building can be the epicentre of a particular trade, and turning a corner will take you into a totally different atmosphere. Here you are surrounded by stall after stall of denim jeams, and across one block you are submerged in the scent of coffee and spices. The variety is breathtaking and Eminönü takes some exploring.
Some well known sub-districts (semt) include:
Sirkeci - the waterfront by the railway station where all the ferries dock. The streets behind the docks are the places to buy electronic goods, photographic equipment, bicycles, and all kinds of stationery. All of things in their real or fake versions.
Sultanhamam behind the spice bazaar, the area of toys, beads and plastic jewelry that takes you up to the previously mentioned Mahmutpasa.
Tahtakale along the Golden Horn from the Spice Bazaar, come here for all kinds of kitchen equipment, garden tools, and electricals such as telephones. If your car radio is stolen come to Tahtakale and buy it back again!!
Cagaloglu -Istanbul's Fleet Street - a maze of printers, booksellers and traditionally newspapers;
Divan Yolu, the relatively calm, tree-lined, tram-way avenue from Sultanahmet to the university, including the Roman column called Çemberlitas.
Beyazit -the home of Istanbul University and the far end of the Grand Bazaar; The Grand Bazaar - In the bazaar itself you will find gold, jewelry, carpets, antiques, and souvenirs. In the streets around you will more of the same plus all kind of clothing, leather goods.
Mercan - below the bazaar, the place to buy any kind of bag or briefcase, Lâleli - buzzing with hotels, bars and people from former Soviet Republics buying discount clothing; Kumkapi - the fish market, and restaurants about as numerous as the fish themselves.
Eating in Eminönü
In the daytime the choice of food is incredible, and in particular the area is covered with 'lokanta' serving soups, stews and hot vegetable dishes at lunchtime. You will find these in all the bazaars and shopping streets, for example the street called Hocapasa near Sirkeci station has a great variety. Eminönü offers any number of fast foods and snacks including döner, lahmacun and the grilled mackerel sandwiches on the waterfront by the ferry docks. These used to be sold from boats, this is now banned but you can still find mackerel grillers in the area.
In Sirkeci, across the road from the railway station, Konyali is one of Istanbul's oldest eateries, well-known for its pastries.
Behind the Spice Bazaar is Haci Muhittin, one of the oldest sweet-makers, famous for Turkish Delight and many other traditional sweets from Ottoman times, even drinks made of tamarind.
The köfte restaurants of Sultanhamet are famous throughout Istanbul.
Much of the district is closed down in the evening although you will still find food in the following places:
up in Sultanahmet, where there are so many hotel guests;
in the fish restaurants of Kumkapi;
and in one or two other well-known spots such as Hamdi Restaurant near Yeni Cami or the Balikci Sabahattin fish restaurant in Cankurtaran.