Teaching can be a heavy load sometimes. But working at Üsküdar American Academy (UAA) helps lighten that load.
When UAA staff need to get away and give their heads a shake, few things clear the mind better than a stroll through the neighborhoods of Üsküdar or a walk along the Üsküdar Bosphorus promenade.
Just a 10-minute walk from UAA, Üsküdar Çarşısı is a bustling town center with innumerable sights and sounds and historical gems to keep one occupied into the night.
Üsküdar was founded by Greek colonists in the 7th century BC, a few decades before Byzantium was founded on the opposite shore. Ever since then, its long history and rich cultural heritage have inspired artists ranging from the legendary Turkish singer, Barış Manço, to the Brooklyn Funk Essentials, whose 1998 hit album “In The Buzzbag” (named after a Turkish red wine) got its stimulus from the band funking up a classical Turkish song and renaming it “Freeway to Üsküdar.”
There are few better places in the city to people-watch regular Turks than sitting around the Üsküdar square or having a tea by the Mimar Sinan Çarşısı, a 16th-century hamam which has been refitted to function as a shopping complex.
From the Mimar Sinan Çarşısı, you can follow your nose to the Fish Market (Balık Pazarı) where you’ll find a wide array of not only fish, but also countless culinary surprises including Turkish lokum, pide and kokoreç. For a true Üsküdar experience, walk from the fish bazaar to Kanaat restaurant, which opened its doors for business in 1933, and enjoy just about anything on their menu.
Üsküdar is also home to many antique shops, which more resemble museums than they do junk stores. One can waste hours trawling through the troves of treasures left from the estates of Turks who lived when Turkey was still called the Ottoman Empire and Sultans still reigned over Üsküdar. The jewels found in these stores are often worlds away from pieces found in most Western “antique stores.”
If your idea of recharging your batteries and clearing you head is more peace and quiet than hustle bustle, all you need is to grab yourself some gummy Turkish ice cream, walk three minutes past the çarşı to the seaside, and find yourself a bench to sit on and open your book.
Many expats describe a feeling of “excitement” when they head to the shores of the Bosphorus, and some of the most spectacular views in the city can be seen from one of the many benches next to the Şemsi Paşa Mosque. The beautiful 16th century mosque was designed by the Ottoman architect Sinan, known by many as the “Michelangelo of the East,” who oversaw hundreds masterpieces throughout the empire, from Cairo to Sarajevo. Although the Şemsi Paşa Mosque is far from the size of many of Sinan’s other masterpieces, its design beauty and the way Sinan organically blended the small structure into the shoreline scenery make this mosque particularly special (and, without a doubt, it has one of the cleanest restrooms you’ll ever come across in any public building anywhere in the country).
Next to the mosque are half a dozen tea gardens that serve tea in the famous Turkish tulip-shaped glasses. A number of the cafes serve shisha pipes (or nargile as the Turks call it).
If you’re not in the mood for a tea or for ravaging your lungs smoking the nargile pipe, take a leisurely walk along the boardwalk towards the Maiden’s Tower (Kız Kulesi). Filizler Köftecisi, right across from the tower, is a great place to enjoy the view and have some of the best meatballs in the city.
As you continue along the boardwalk you’ll likely come across more Turks sitting along the water’s edge drinking a beer and pecking away at sunflower seeds: It’s a truly wonderful way to clear the mind and watch ships passing through the Bosphorus, one of the most heavily traversed commercial waterways in the world.
If you prefer a less crowded, more village-like experience, one of the most magical neighborhoods in Istanbul (and in fact the whole world) is just a 15- to 20-minute walk from UAA: Kuzguncuk. It’s a neighborhood that harks back to the times when Constantinople truly was one of the world’s great cosmopolitan cities.
The neighborhood, or mahalle in Turkish, is steeped in the history and culture that makes Istanbul the greatest city in the world.
The multi-cultural nature of the neighborhood greets the visitor as soon as you enter the main street of Kuzguncuk: Its centerpiece is the Hagios Georgios Rum Ortodoks Kilisesi, one of the dozen or so still-functioning Greek Orthodox Churches in the city church, which is located on the main street, İcadiye Caddesi. Fifty meters away is the Bet Yaakov Synagogue. Adjacent to that is a mosque and around the corner is an Armenian Catholic Church. Several other churches and synagogues lie among the many leafy winding cobblestone streets lined with beautiful old wooden houses painted in bright colors.
Exploring these streets you’ll find some of the cutest art galleries in Istanbul as well as a number of wonderful restaurants and cafes, where hours can be wasted sipping tea and chatting with friends or reading a book. Should you be in the mood to buy your kid an old Dukes of Hazards lunchbox or Star Wars action figure, or perhaps you want to buy your significant other a vintage bag, Vertigo Eskici is a gem of a second hand store on Perihan Abla Sokak.
For lovers of döner kebab, Metet Döner, which is considered by many to be the best dönerci in Istanbul, is a must when in Kuzguncuk. The meat, he says, is hand-made every morning and includes a combination of the finest selection of beef and lamb, hand-picked from the butcher every morning.
The Ismet Baba fish restaurant is one of the hallmarks of Istanbul. Established in 1951, its walls are adorned of the many Turkish singers, actors, tycoons and politicians who have frequented it over the years. Sitting on the shore of the Bosphorus, the restaurant has a neighborhood feel to it that evokes the aura of days gone by.
There are indeed many places that can be visited within half an hour’s walk of UAA. As it is in one of the most centrally located transit hubs in Istanbul, you are just a 15-minute boat ride from the European side of the city and a 15-minute bus ride to Kadiköy, the “Taksim of the Asian side,” from which you are a five-minute walk from Moda, arguably the city’s most peaceful and “Westernized” neighborhood.