Istanbul, a city that stands at the crossroads of East and West, is a magical destination that offers an intoxicating blend of history, culture, and beauty. One neighborhood of Istanbul is Balat, a historic district that was once home to the city’s Jewish and Greek communities. The colorful houses, narrow streets, countless things to do and see, and vibrant cafes of Balat are a feast for the senses and offer a unique glimpse into the city’s past and present.
Why Balat and Fener are Special?
Balat has a rich history that dates back to the Byzantine era when it was an important trading center. During the Ottoman period, the district became home to the city’s Jewish community, who built magnificent synagogues and left an indelible mark on the area’s architecture and culture. Today, Balat is a fascinating mix of old and new, with crumbling Ottoman-era buildings standing side-by-side with trendy cafes and boutiques.
Explore the Vibrant Neighbourhoods with Local Guides!
Where Can You Find These Colorful Houses in Istanbul?
Colorful houses are one of the main attractions of the Balat neighborhood in Istanbul. The narrow streets and alleyways are lined with charming houses in shades of blue, green, pink, and yellow. Kiremit Street is one of the most famous streets in Balat, with its colorful houses becoming an Instagram sensation. If you’re looking for the best spots to take colorful photos, don’t miss out on Kiremit Street and the surrounding area.
Visiting these colorful houses is one of the top things to do in Balat and Fener. The vibrant hues of the houses are a feast for the eyes, and they provide a unique backdrop for photos that will make your Instagram followers jealous. Not only are the houses colorful and photogenic, but they also offer a glimpse into the history and culture of the neighborhood.
Fener (the Vatican of the Greeks)
Just a stone’s throw away from Balat lies Fener, a neighborhood that is often called the Vatican of the Greeks. This is because it is home to the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, the spiritual center of the Orthodox Church, as well as some of the city’s most magnificent churches and monasteries.
Balat (an old Jewish quarter)
Balat was once the heart of Istanbul’s Jewish community, and today it is still home to several synagogues and Jewish heritage sites. The neighborhood’s rich Jewish history is evident in its architecture, with many buildings featuring the Star of David or other Jewish symbols.
Despite its historical significance, Balat remained a relatively unknown neighborhood until recently when it began to attract a new generation of artists, entrepreneurs, and hipsters. Today, Balat is a hub of creativity and innovation, with a lively arts scene, excellent restaurants, and some of the city’s most charming streets.
How to Get to Balat in Istanbul?
Getting to Balat is easy, and there are several ways to get there depending on where you are coming from. If you are staying in the city center, the easiest way to get to Balat is by taking a taxi or using public transportation.
Things to Do in Balat & Fener and What to See
Fener Center and the Cafes Area: The Colorful Houses
One of the most charming things about Balat is its colorful houses, which line the narrow streets and alleyways of the neighborhood. The most famous street in Balat is Kiremit Street, which is lined with houses in shades of blue, green, pink, and yellow. The houses on this street have become something of an Instagram sensation, and it’s not hard to see why!
Fener Antik Mezat (Antiques Auction Place)
If you’re a fan of antiques, then you’ll love Fener Antik Mezat, an antiques auction house that is located in an old Ottoman-era building. Here, you can browse a wide range of antique furniture, ceramics, textiles, and more, and maybe even pick up a souvenir or two to take home.
Fener Greek High School for Boys (Red Castle – Red School)
The Fener Greek High School for Boys, also known as the Red Castle or Red School, is a stunning building that is one of the most iconic landmarks in the neighborhood. The school was founded in 1881 and has produced many famous alumni over the years, including several prime ministers and presidents.
The building itself is a sight to behold, with its bright red façade and elegant neoclassical architecture. Even if you’re not a history buff, you can’t help but be impressed by the grandeur of the Red School.
Bulgarian Orthodox Church (Iron Church, Aya Istefanos)
Another must-visit site in Balat is the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, also known as the Iron Church or Aya Istefanos. This unique building was constructed entirely out of cast iron in 1898 and shipped to Istanbul from Vienna.
Its distinctive style sets it apart from other churches in the city, and its interior is just as impressive as its exterior. The Iron Church is still an active place of worship, so be sure to dress appropriately if you plan on visiting.
Church of Our Lady of the Mongols (Bloody Church)
The Church of Our Lady of the Mongols is one of the oldest churches in Istanbul and is an important site for the Armenian Orthodox community.
It is also known as the Bloody Church due to its history of bloodshed during the Armenian Genocide. Despite its somber past, the church is a beautiful and peaceful place, with ornate frescoes and intricate stonework.
The Fener Greek Patriarchate & the St. George Church
The Fener Greek Patriarchate is the spiritual center of the Greek Orthodox Church and is located in the heart of the Fener neighborhood. The complex includes several buildings, including the St. George Church, which dates back to the 4th century.
The church is a stunning example of Byzantine architecture, with its elaborate mosaics and intricate stone carvings.
The Cibali Gate is one of the few remaining gates of the old city walls that once surrounded Istanbul. It was built in the 5th century and was an important entrance to the city for centuries. Today, the gate is a popular spot for tourists and locals alike, offering a glimpse into Istanbul’s rich history and a stunning view of the city.
Church of Saint Nicholas
The Church of Saint Nicholas is a charming and picturesque church located in the heart of Balat. It was built in the 19th century and is one of the few remaining examples of Ottoman-era architecture in the neighborhood.
The church is a popular spot for tourists and locals alike, offering a peaceful oasis in the midst of the bustling city.
Coffee and Antiques
After exploring the sights and sounds of Balat and Fener, take a break and relax with a cup of Turkish coffee at one of the many charming cafes in the area. Many of these cafes also double as antique shops, offering a unique and eclectic selection of vintage finds.
Whether you’re in the market for a one-of-a-kind souvenir or just looking to unwind, a visit to one of these cafes is a must.
If you’re a coffee enthusiast, you may also be interested in checking out some of the best places for Turkish coffee in Istanbul.
The Merdivenli (Stairs) Ramp and Historical Balat Houses
One of the most picturesque spots in Balat is the Merdivenli (Stairs) Ramp, which leads up to the historic Balat houses. These colorful houses date back to the Ottoman era and are a testament to Istanbul’s rich architectural heritage.
Walking up the ramp is like taking a trip back in time, with each step revealing a new and fascinating detail.
Balat Toy Museum
If you’re traveling with kids or are just a kid at heart, be sure to visit the Balat Toy Museum, a small but charming museum that showcases a collection of vintage toys from the 19th and 20th centuries. Here, you can marvel at antique dolls, model cars, board games, and other delightful artifacts that will take you on a nostalgic trip down memory lane.
The museum is housed in a restored Ottoman-era building and features several themed rooms that will transport you to different eras and cultures.
Enjoy Free Entry to the Balat Toy Museum and Guided Tours with Istanbul E-Pass
The Istanbul E-Pass is a valuable option for travelers, as it offers free entry and guided tours to the Istanbul Aquarium, along with 50+ other attractions, providing a convenient and cost-effective way to explore the city.
Kadir Has University
For those who are interested in exploring the local art scene, Kadir Has University is a must-visit destination. This prestigious university has a campus in Balat that includes several art galleries and exhibition spaces. Here, you can see the works of emerging and established artists from Turkey and around the world, attend lectures and workshops, and immerse yourself in the vibrant cultural scene of Istanbul.
If you want to learn more about the history and culture of Istanbul’s Jewish community, be sure to visit the Ahrida Synagogue. This historic synagogue is one of the oldest and most important in Istanbul, dating back to the 15th century.
It features an impressive interior with ornate decorations, stained-glass windows, and a Torah ark that is adorned with gold and silver. The synagogue is still in use today and holds regular services, but visitors are welcome to explore its rich history and admire its beautiful architecture.
Surp Hresdagabet Armenian Church
Another important religious landmark in Balat is the Surp Hresdagabet Armenian Church, which dates back to the 19th century. This stunning church features a unique blend of Armenian and Ottoman architectural styles and is known for its intricately carved stone facade and beautiful frescoes. It is still an active church and holds regular services, but visitors are welcome to admire its beauty and learn about its history.
As you wander through the narrow streets and alleys of Balat, you’ll come across many other historic churches and mosques that are worth exploring, including the Church of St Mary of the Mongols, the Church of Saint Stephen, and the Hazrat Jabir Mosque. Each of these landmarks has its own unique history and architectural style, and they provide a glimpse into the diverse religious and cultural heritage of Istanbul.
Where to Stay in Fener and Balat: the Best Hotels in Istanbul
Nestled in Fener, Istanbul, Troya Balat Hotel is a charming boutique hotel comprised of four combined historic buildings from the 1900s. Overlooking the Golden Horn, this 16-room hotel offers both sea and street views, with the Fener Greek Patriarchate just across the way. Retaining its period charm with wooden floors and ceilings and hand-drawn wall decorations, Troya Balat Hotel is a key structure of its region that beautifully encapsulates its historical essence.
Named after the Byzantine term for the Fener neighborhood, “Petrion”, this hotel carries a tale dating back to ancient Greece. The term referred to a steep seaside rock where a guiding fire was lit for sailors. Petrion Hotel pays homage to this history with modern, cool design elements and natural materials in its single and double rooms.
Experience Istanbul’s vibrant spirit at Elele Boutique Aparts, located in one of the city’s most historic and captivating UNESCO World Heritage districts. Choose from a variety of concept rooms that reflect different facets of Istanbul – from Ottoman times and oriental influences to Turkmenian style, mystic/sufi spirit, and contemporary Turkish design. Immerse yourself in the eclectic simplicity of these apartments, and feel right at home in the heart of Istanbul.
Where to Eat and Drink in Balat (Istanbul): Best Cafe and Restaurants
Balat has a thriving culinary scene that offers a range of dining options, from traditional Turkish cuisine to international fare.
Naftalin is a cozy cafe located in the heart of Balat that offers a warm and welcoming atmosphere. The cafe’s interior is decorated with vintage furniture and colorful ceramics, creating a charming and eclectic vibe. Here, you can enjoy a cup of Turkish coffee or tea while admiring the eclectic decor and chatting with the friendly staff. The cafe also serves a variety of tasty treats, including freshly baked pastries, sandwiches, and salads, making it the perfect spot for a quick bite or a leisurely lunch.
Cumbalı Kahve is one of the most beloved cafes in Balat. Here, you can enjoy traditional Turkish coffee along with freshly baked sweets and pastries. The cafe’s authentic decor will transport you on a journey through time. Take your coffee, sit in a comfortable chair, and savor the traditional atmosphere of Balat.
Old Balat Cafe & Kitchen
For a more substantial meal, head over to Old Balat Cafe & Kitchen, a popular restaurant that serves up delicious Ottoman-style cuisine. Here, you can feast on hearty dishes like lamb stew, stuffed eggplant, and meatballs, all made with fresh, locally-sourced ingredients. The restaurant has a cozy interior with rustic wooden tables and an open kitchen that adds to the lively atmosphere.
If you’re in the mood for something light and refreshing, Balat Pickleman is the place to be. This charming cafe specializes in pickled vegetables and offers a wide variety of tasty treats like pickled cucumbers, peppers, and carrots, as well as fresh salads and sandwiches. The cafe has a bright, colorful decor and a welcoming vibe that makes it the perfect spot for a quick bite or a leisurely lunch.
For a more upscale dining experience, head over to Perispri, a stylish restaurant that serves delicious Mediterranean cuisine with a contemporary twist. The restaurant is housed in a restored historical building and boasts a chic and sophisticated atmosphere, making it the perfect spot for a romantic dinner or special occasion.
The menu features a range of flavorful dishes made with fresh and high-quality ingredients, including grilled octopus, lamb shank, and sea bass. Don’t forget to try their signature cocktails, which are expertly crafted and add a special touch to your dining experience.
For a quick bite or a casual meal, head over to Forno, a cozy bakery and cafe that serves delicious baked goods, sandwiches, and coffee. The bakery is located in the heart of Balat and has a warm and welcoming atmosphere, making it the perfect spot to relax and enjoy a cup of coffee or tea.
Their freshly baked pastries and bread are a must-try, especially the simit, a traditional Turkish sesame-covered bread ring. The cafe also offers a variety of savory options, including fresh salads and sandwiches, which are perfect for a quick and satisfying meal.
Shopping in Balat in Istanbul
Balat is also a great destination for shoppers, with a range of boutiques and shops that offer unique souvenirs and gifts. The neighborhood is known for its antique shops, where you can find everything from vintage furniture to rare books and artwork. Don’t miss out on the Balat Antique Market, which is held every Sunday and offers a treasure trove of antiques and collectibles.
Overall, Balat and Fener are two of the most charming and unique neighborhoods in Istanbul, offering a glimpse into the city’s rich history and cultural diversity. Balat and Fener offer a plethora of things to do and see for those who want to explore Istanbul beyond its well-known attractions in Turkey.
From visiting the colorful houses and cafes in Balat to exploring the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate and the Bulgarian Orthodox Church in Fener, there is something for everyone. So if you’re looking for unique and off-the-beaten-path experiences in Istanbul, don’t miss out on the things to do in Balat and best things to do in Fener.