Balat and Fener district in Istanbul
Istanbul’s Balat and Fener districts are rich in history and are a part of UNESCO’s world heritage site list. Despite being ideal for culture vultures and history buffs, the Balat and Fener districts are often overlooked by tourists.
The districts’ neighbourhoods were previously home to Istanbul’s Jewish and Greek Orthodox communities. The area had fallen on hard time with old, dilapidated houses and churches following the departure of both ethnic groups.
Nowadays, the Balat and Fener districts have undergone a resurgence. New individuals have moved into the area bringing a youthful vibe. New businesses have opened up and continue to do so, bringing clientele to the neighbourhoods.
Balat and Fener are organised like small villages weaved together. The neighbourhoods have quaint cobblestone alleys that wind through a labyrinth of buildings. Old Ottoman houses have been restored along with beautiful old religious buildings. Balat and Fener provide visitors with a unique charm unlike any other part of Istanbul.
Balat District in Istanbul
Balat is the former Jewish section of Istanbul. It was established in 1492 after the Jewish population was persecuted by the Spanish Inquisition. The Sultan welcomed the Jewish people and even sent a fleet of ships to Spain to save them from the Inquisition. Balat still has active synagogues and the religious buildings can be visited with the Rabbi’s permission.
The district fell into ruin with the decline of the Ottoman Empire. Adding to the area’s decline was the development of the Golden Horn along with the founding of the State of Israel. The Jewish people who left Fener were replaced by Turkish people who migrated from the countryside to the district.
Today, Balat is one of Istanbul’s most charming neighbourhoods. Since the early 2000s, Balat has experienced regeneration and received a new lease on life. Courtesy of UNESCO, hundreds of old, historical buildings have been restored.
A new “bobo” community (people from Burkina Faso) has begun to settle in the area. It offers a striking contrast with the established population of Balat. Visitors can explore the local market every Tuesday to get authentic Turkish goods and produce. There is also the highly rated authentic Turkish restaurant, Agora Meyhanesi, located in the district. It serves up Turkish mezes, seafood, and Rakı. The restaurant has been open since 1890.
Like Fener, Balat is known for its beautiful religious buildings. The Yavuz Selim Mosque is one of the most extraordinary sites. Built in the 16th century, the imperial mosque is situated above the district and provides breath-taking hilltop views. The mosque was commissioned by Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent in honour of his father.
Fener was an important part of the city for Istanbul’s Greek Orthodox population. The district is a 30-minute walk from the Golden Horn to Eminonu. Fener thrived after Constantinople was captured by the Ottomans. At the time, the Sultan encouraged Greek Orthodox people to settle in the area and it became a prosperous part of Istanbul.
The district is home to a number of religious buildings. Places of worship such as the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople are fundamental to daily life for residents. Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople houses the Church of St. George and was established after the capture of Constantinople. The church is special for around 250 million Orthodox Christians who regard the building as a spiritual authority. It is for Orthodox Christians what the Vatican is for Catholics.
Overlooking the Golden Horn is the impressive Phanar Greek Orthodox College. The building looks over the entire neighbourhood, offering visitors the chance to take in great views on a visit. Founded in 1454, the college educated the children of well-off Greek and Bulgarian families of the Ottoman Empire. Today, the college, offers a full Turkish education curriculum, but continues to teach some Greek subjects.
If you are looking for authentic Turkish kofte, visit the laid-back Canak Mangalda Kofte restaurant. Although it is an unassuming restaurant, it serves up some of the best – if not the best – kofte in Istanbul. Locals also love the restaurant’s kuru fasulye (baked beans). Both dishes go well with manda yogurdu (yogurt made from water and buffalo milk) and pickled vegetables.
The Balat and Fener district has historical and cultural significance to Istanbul. With the area of the city being regenerated thanks to UNESCO and new businesses, you shouldn’t leave Istanbul without exploring the Balat and Fener district.
How to get to Balat and Fener district?
- To get to Balat district from Sultanahmet you should at first reach Eminönü pier, where to take a bus 99, 99A, 99Y or 48E. You shoud go by bus until Balat stop and then continue you trip by step.
- From Taksim you should take a bus 55T (the stop is near Taksim tunel) and get off at Balat bus stop.