It is impossible to talk about the city without mentioning its longstanding symbol: the Galata Bridge. The image appears on everything from postcards and t-shirts to magazine titles and promotional posters. The walking path between the two ends of the bridge is among the most frequented sightseeing routes in the city, making the landmark one of the most photographed spots in the city.

The city’s hub

There is a certain symbolism in the bridge. Apart from the practical aspect of getting from one place to another, bridges stir superstitions such as the idea that passing under one will bring love or good luck. Karaköy Bridge—better known by its unofficial name Galata—has witnessed some of the most important events in Turkish history; personal joys and misfortunes, milestones of the city and heartbreaks that inspired great poets and singers. The bridge and its continuous metamorphoses reflect Istanbul’s history in a way that no other public space can.

Michael Pereira writes that Galata Bridge “cannot be considered beautiful, but it is lovable.” Unlike the Bosphorus bridges, which are off-limits to pedestrians, the city is reflected through the people on Galata Bridge: fishermen, tourists, street vendors, business owners, amateur photographers, and passers-by. As in every contemporary society, the population of Istanbul is a mixture of different views, opinions, preferences, and ideas, which might not necessarily meet halfway, but still cross paths everyday.

Bridge through time

The Golden Horn has always been an attractive spot for international trade ships. High shores on the north side (currently in the municipality of Beyoğlu) provided suitable conditions for docking. A growing number of retailers settling in Galata, as well as the booming shipyard industry further west, made it necessary to connect the new industrial areas with traditional marketplaces in the historical peninsula. Although several Ottoman rulers had plans to make connections across the water, no major construction took place until the first half of the nineteenth century. In 1836, Hayratiye Bridge between Azapkapı in the north and Unkapanı on the historic peninsula was completed, and more than a decade later Cisr-i Cedid, also known as New Bridge or the first Galata Bridge, was opened at the mouth of the Golden Horn.

Photo courtesy of Salt Online

As the number of bridges between the two shores of the Golden Horn grew, it became clear that the location of the downstream bridge was of great symbolic importance. First of all, the connection between two relevant trade areas—Galata and Eminönü—improved the flow of casual clientele on both sides. Later, construction of the Tünel in 1875 made areas further up from the Galata Tower more accessible, while the Grand Rue De Pera became an elegant retail hot spot and the city’s main promenade.

The most recognizable feature of the Galata Bridge—a lower level lined with cafes, restaurants, and shops—was introduced in 1878 in the third version of the bridge. The additions altered the meaning of the space. While people used to gather to defend their political views in demonstrations on top of the bridge, on the bottom level they discussed the same topics over a glass of rakı.

Although at that time the city’s main meeting point of political importance was established right next to Dolmabahçe Palace, it was the bridge connecting the two neighborhoods that made up the city’s new business district—Sirkeci and Galata—which eventually became Istanbul’s default center. The southern end of the bridge used to be a starting point for the horse-drawn trams of the Old City and a hub for many other means of transport, such as trains and boats.

Play the bridge

The meaningful act of crossing the Karaköy Bridge took its place in world history thanks to British officers, who used to spend their evenings playing cards in Pera’s coffee houses during the Crimean War. The game they favored, known as “cross the bridge,” gained popularity around the world under its shorter name, Bridge, and was even considered to become an Olympic discipline in 2002.

In the modern age

The need for modernization of the third bridge was visible long before construction started in 1910. Its wooden structure had become impractical. By-passers and horses used to get injured by its protruding old nails. Wooden handrails, not secure enough for pedestrians leaning over them, were at the same time a constant source of entertainment. Stories about people falling from the bridge into the water still circulate today.

There were political reasons for delays in construction. The most visually impressive designs, proposed by French architects, were rejected by Sultan Abdülhamit II for security reasons. Commercial spaces, which were to be moved from under the bridge to the quays, seemed liable to harbor rebels, who might attempt assassination or attack the ruler’s guards as he went by. The sultan settled on a German partner, who successfully completed the project in 1912.

For the next two years the new bridge was considered one of the luckiest spots in the city thanks to the Kismet booth selling Teyyare Piyangosu lottery tickets. One particularly big win made it the most popular lottery sales point in the city, with a status comparable to today’s Nimet Abla booth in Eminönü, which has a reputation for selling winning tickets. But the lucky streak did not last long for Kismet, which was forced to close in 1914 when the tramway opened on the bridge. The same place a few years later saw the last sultan of the Ottoman Empire receive a traffic ticket for overtaking a car on the wrong side of the road.

The fourth bridge served the city for decades, although not everyone was equally pleased with its service. In the 1930s, poet Nâzım Hikmet spoke about how late the bridge remained open for naval traffic, making it impossible for pedestrians and cars to pass. “If Istanbul is to start work at seven, the bridge cannot remain open until six thirty!” he proclaimed. Serving also as a connecting ferry port and a popular meeting place, it used to be crowded at all times.

From dramatic to peaceful

The 1950s and 60s were dramatic years. The bridge saw many events, such as oil tanker explosions on the Bosphorus and spectacular sea fires. In the 1970s, the bridge captured the attention of the media, being a popular cultural center and meeting point for artists. However, coverage of the bridge’s slowly slipping into the Golden Horn compared it to sinking Venice. The existing construction also contributed to a major pollution problem, as the pontoon bridge blocked the natural flow of water. Despite these issues, it took another decade for construction on the fifth bridge to begin. Pontoons were finally replaced by steel tube piles and the quality of water in the area improved. The bridge’s two incarnations stood side by side for a long time until on May 17, 1992 a fire rendered the old one unusable.

The city moved some of its parts upstream near Atatürk Bridge, where they used to serve as a venue for the Istanbul Design Week. According to Murat Güvenç, Head of the Centre of Urban Studies at Istanbul Şehir University, this turned out to be a very useful solution for the city, not only in terms of events, but also for practical reasons. “There is an advantage in a pontoon bridge because you can move it from one place to another,” he says. For example, when maintenance on the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge caused heavy traffic on the E5 highway and Haliç Bridge, the old bridge was moved and temporarily reconstructed to ease the traffic.

The current bridge was officially opened on June 17, 1992 by President Süleyman Demirel and Deputy Prime Minister Erdal Inönü, before its completion. It was opened to pedestrians after the fire destroyed its predecessor, and later accommodated car traffic and a tramline. Commercial spaces under the bridge were completed more than a decade later and currently serve thousands of visitors each day.

Galata Bridge no longer serves as the backdrop of a poetic city. Romanticism and nostalgia have been replaced by the reality and needs of a rapidly growing metropolis. Istanbul’s aspirations to become an international hub emphasize constructions over the Bosphorus, which metaphorically aim to bring Turkey and the rest of the world together. But on a local level, the Karaköy Bridge remains an important symbol of the city’s diversity. It is a necessary link in a divided city, and will remain indispensable, regardless of ever-changing perceptions and landscapes.

Sightseeing around Galata Bridge

  • The route: Since it’s one of the few bridges open to pedestrians, a walk is a must. Head there on the way down from Galata Tower following the “music street,” or the opposite direction–from Eminönü towards Karaköy.
  • A must-try food: The fish sandwich, commonly known as balık ekmek, in one of the buffets under the bridge.
  • Souvenir shopping: The Spice Bazaar at the Eminönü end of the bridge is the most obvious choice.
  • In need to rest: Hop on one of the ferries or motorboats leaving from both sides of the bridge, choosing between Bosphorus tours, connections to the Asian side, and ring routes around Golden Horn.
  • Perfect instagram frame: One with the fishermen.

Galata Bridge timeline

Photo courtesy of Salt Online
  • 1845 – Cisr-i Cedid – first bridge in the mouth of the Golden Horn
  • 1863 – Second Galata Bridge opens for pedestrians
  • 1875-78 – Construction of the third Galata Bridge
  • 1910-1912 – Construction of the fourth Galata Bridge
  • 1987 – Construction of the current fifth bridge begins
  • 1992 – Fire destroys the fourth bridge and the fifth bridge opens for pedestrians
  • 1994 – Completion of the fifth bridge