Galata is located at the northern side of the Golden Horn, towards Taksim Square. Until the 19th century Galata was surrounded by walls constructed by the Genoese. These walls started at Azapkapi near the Golden Horn. The Galata Tower was the northernmost observation tower and the walls go down to Tophane from this point.
Its name was "Sykai" (Fig field) during the Byzantine period. It was also called "Peran en Sykais" in Greek, which means "fig field of the other side". Its name "Pera" which was used by the Levantines came from this origin. The origin of Galata was either "galaktos" (milk) in Greek or "calata" (stairway) in Italian.
Galata is on the European side of Istanbul both geographically and culturally. It was established as a western, Latin and Catholic colony right next to Constantinople, capital of the Eastern Orthodox Byzantine Empire. Its governments changed hands between Venetians and Genoese, but it always remained Latin and Catholic. This did not change after the conquest of Istanbul. However, Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror made this a residential area for Greeks and Jews. Even though this made Galata a non-Latin place, it was still a non-Muslim area next to the capital of Islam.
Therefore, "the other side" does not only mean the other side of Golden Horn, but it also means other side culturally. Sometimes the people of Galata sided with the enemies of the city. The first time Galata betrayed the locals was when the Latin Crusades occupied Constantinople in 1204. Galata helped the Latins during this occupation, and Istanbul was pillaged by Latins. That incident was one of the reasons of the decline of the Byzantine Empire.
Galata was not faithful to the Ottoman Empire either. Galata was an important center to govern the "capitulations" which caused the decline of the Ottoman Empire. The Empire had a large debt from Galata's bankers since the beginning of the 19th century and that economically pillaged the Empire. Also Greek bankers of Galata supported Greece in its independence from the Ottomans.
Galata has been a very active business center since its establishment. It was also a night-life center with its taverns which attracted the Muslim population too. But Galata lived its golden years during the second half of the 19th century. Foreigners and minorities gained some new rights with sultan Abdulmecid's political reforms of 1839 in addition to the capitulations.This quickly created wealth and enhancement for Galata.
In 1860 the area inside the Genoese walls was not large enough for Galata. So, the walls were destroyed and Galata was enlarged and Istiklal Street (of today) and "Grand Rue de Pera", called by Levantines, became a luxury district. First, there were foreign embassies and churches. Then, big houses, luxury apartments, shopping centers, and entertainment and art centers were built on Istiklal Street. Residential houses followed this. The people called this area "Beyoglu" which was an enlarged Galata called Pera by Levantines.
In a short period the infrastructure problems of the new district were solved. Streets were covered by rocks, sewage systems were enlarged, electricity, water, and natural gas networks were laid down, and trams pulled by horses were put into service for public transportation. Most important of all, the second oldest metro of the world was opened at Tunel in Galata.
Galata was a finance center with its bankers and stock exchange. Its harbor was one of the busiest harbors of Europe. The Grand Rue de Pera or Cadde-i Kebir became a shopping center second only to the Grand Bazaar. The imported European goods were bought not only by Levantines but also by western sympathizers. It was also an entertainment center with its cafes, theaters, bars, opera houses, restaurants, and pastry shops. Ottomans liked the way of living in Pera so much. So, Galata became a kind of school for Ottoman politicians who sympathized with the western way of life. Because the Ottoman people were learning how to eat, drink, dress, entertain, and talk like westerners from the Levantines and Europeans in Beyoglu.
Galata was a cosmopolis. Mainly French, but also almost all other European languages were spoken there. Italians, Germans, French, British, Armenians, Greeks, Jews, Hungarians, Poles, and Russians had their own communities. Each community had its own places of worship, not only based on its religion but also based on its different sects. Therefore, many churches and synagogues of different groups were located close to each other.
Despite the fact that the existence of many Muslim people and places in Galata like the Mevlevi Convent, Arab Mosque, Asmali Mosque and Aga Mosque, these were hardly enough to change the Galata's Western characteristics.
There were also many foreign education centers in Galata; French, British, Italians, Germans, and Austrians opened high schools in Galata. The rich and noble muslim families, along with the Levantines and minorities, sent their children to those schools. Most of the Ottoman and Turkish scholars were educated in those schools.
Galata was always different. It did not even share the same faith with other districts of Istanbul. While Istanbul was in poverty and political chaos during the Balkan War in 1912-1913, Galata was experiencing its golden age. The spoils of World War I flowed to Galata. Beyoglu was revived by the arrival of White Russians who escaped from the October Revolution of Russia. Its entertainment life was always good. This place was the primary entertainment center for the foreign forces while Istanbul was under occupation. But after the war, during the first years of the Republic, the gorgeous Pera of Levantines slowly declined.
In the late 80's and 90's Galata district became an important cultural center again for the local people and foreigners. There are beautiful old houses and buildings, cafeterias, restaurants, local markets and colorful atmosphere. Today Galata is known as the district of Jews and foreigners who live in Istanbul.
Galata Tower is the most impressive monument from the old tissue of the district, there is a great view of the city from the top.
Pera Palas Hotel, once used by the travelers of the Orient Express, is also in the Galata district. The room where Agatha Christie stayed is the most popular room for the guests. Atatürk also stayed for some time in this historic hotel, today his room is a kind of small museum. There are also many other special category hotels in Galata neighborhood today.