If a city speaks of defeat, destruction, deprivation, melancholy and poverty, the Bosphorus sings of life, pleasure, and happiness. Istanbul draws its strength from the Bosphorus. But in earlier times no one gave it much importance: they saw the Bosphorus as a waterway, a beauty spot, and for the last two hundred years, a fine location for summer palaces.
Orhan Pamuk, Istanbul: Memories of a City, 2005
I cannot think of any other city in the world where you can visit two continents in one day.
There are places in the world where you countries converge (usually at major waterfalls) and you can visit up to three countries in a day. But there are few places in the world where commuters live on one continent and commute to work on another. The commuter route has to be one of the most memorable in the world with ferries plying the waters of the Bosphorus at all times of the day. And to experience another facet of Istanbul you really must get out onto the water. The views of the minaret dotted skyline are just as impressive as you have been led to believe.
But the best place to observe the Bosphorus is the Galata Bridge which crosses the 'Golden Horn'. Roads sweep in from Beyoglu and Pera and the bridge is crossed from end to end by a silent tram. But the bridge is alive with people. From one end to the other are fishermen, rows and rows of them dangling their rods into the grey water. From here Sultanhammet was visible in all its glory with a bulbous mosque at the end of the Galata Bridge. It looked like a great grey sentinel with minarets reaching into the sky. If you use the staircases in the middle of the bridge you can descend to a lower level walkway. This walkway is full to the brim with seafood restaurants where you can dine overlooking the Bosphorus on one of the forty types of fish found in the vicinity. Or grab a grilled fish sandwich for 2 Turkish lira.
At the far end of the bridge is Emininou where the ferries dock. It's a transport terminus with bus and tram stops and a busy taxi rank. But most are making a dash for the ferries . From here you can cross the Bosphorus to Uskudar, Scutari and Kabatas which is close to the Dolmabache Palace. I opted for a morning jaunt to Uskudar on a creaking rusting ferry. I rather like Bosphorus ferries - they really do look like they need a dab of paint which is rather endearing and the whole journey cost less then 1.5 Turkish lira.
As you pull away and into mid channel both sides of the 'Golden Horn' come into sight. The Sultanhammet side was just an ants nest broke by minarets of the mosques and the woods of the Topkapi palace. The whole of Sultanhammet was once covered by a gigantic seawall built to survive sieges. It wasn't that hard to envisage in your minds eye the defences of medieval Constantinople. Was Emininou where the Byzantines fled in their boats as the Ottomans sacked the city in 1453? Was Galata really where they stretched a "great chain" across the Horn so Mehmet had to wriggle his warships uphill to avoid it?
And then thirty minutes later you are docking at Uskudar. There is nothing to say you have reached Asia, no plaque or sign. Uskudar is too busy being a transport terminal with rushing crowds, choking buses and communal ramadan restaurants. There is a sea walk heading south from the terminal with pleasant views across the water to Europe. The Dolmabache Palace looked particularly spectacular from this side of the Bosphorus. But you can get as far as Leanders Tower which stands on a tiny island out in the Bosphorus. Also known as Maidens Tower it was built in Byzantine times although the tower is a Victorian invention. It was also featured in the James Bond flick The World is Not Enough and is possibly the best thing about that dreadful film.
But it's a nice walk along the esplanade/sea wall and on the ferry back the views of Istanbul just get better and better. Once you have returned to Emininou I would recommend the sea restaurants on the Galata Bridge. Some are very reasonable value and I was able to partake in calamari with garlic rice for only 15 lira. Delicious!