If you enjoy going off the beaten path, then you should head to Fener and Balat (Istanbul) and get lost in their historical, colorful, and narrow streets.
If you travel to Istanbul and, like me, you’re the kind of traveler who likes to walk, go off the beaten path and stay away from the crowds of tourists; then you should definitely include Balat and Fener in your Istanbul itinerary.
Balat, the historical Jewish quarter, and the neighboring Fener, the ancient Greek neighborhood, are perfect areas to experience a bit of the local Istanbul lifestyle while getting lost in their historical, colorful, and narrow streets. Let’s get to know these areas of Istanbul better!
Fener and Balat, Istanbul
Located in the district of Fatih, along with the South side of the Golden Horn, walking around the neighborhoods of Balat and Fener is certainly a journey to the past. Back in the day, both neighborhoods were a melting pot of Jews, Greeks, Armenians, and Turks.
However, that multiethnic character of Balat and Fener was lost during the mid-20th century when a large portion of the Jewish community left after the birth of Israel and most of the Greek families fled after the Cyprus dispute of the 60s and 70s. After that, the area has been forgotten, becoming certainly one of Istanbul’s poorest ones.
From 2003, following a renovation programme for Balat and Fener instituted by the European Union, the area started flourishing again with cool cafes, vintage shops, and artisan workshops. Both Balat and Fener were also included in the UNESCO World Heritage List.
The best way to discover Balat and Fener is by simply getting lost and wandering around their narrow and hilly streets. Among historic wooden houses of bizarre colors and shapes, synagogues, churches and mosques dating from Byzantine and Ottoman times, there are plenty of little secrets to be discovered.
One of the buildings which will surely catch your eye is the imposing castle-like structure of Phanar Greek Orthodox College (aka the Red Castle or the Red School), which was built back in 1454 with red brick brought from France. The magnificent building dominates the hill of Fener and is still in use today as a high school for the Greek minority.
Another important place not to be missed in Fener is the Church of St. George, a seat of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople since 1600. Even though the church is relatively small and humble, it means as much to the Orthodox believers as much as St. Peter in Rome for the Catholics.
But, besides history, what struck me most from Balat and Fener are the small bites of reality. During your walk, you will see lots of stray cats resting quietly, kids playing soccer, locals drinking tea and laundry hanging from house to house… Lots of photo opportunities at every corner!
Even though the area is still relatively quiet and not many tourists venture here, it is clear that it’s only a matter of time until Balat and Fener become trendy. Go now before it gets too crowded!
From Eminönü you can walk along the beautiful Golden Horn coast (around 20-30 minutes) or take any of these buses: 33ES, 35D, 36CE, 41Y, 44B, 48E, 55T, 99, 99A, 99Y, 399B and 399C. You can get off at Fener bus stop and start exploring its backstreets!