Fener and Balat are among the most popular districts in Istanbul in recent years, and Fener Balat walking tour is the favorite weekend activity of Istanbulites. These old quarters promise a picturesque experience with their retro cafes and historical buildings.
The colorful houses in Fener and Balat have played a major role in the rise of the districts in recent years. However, it should be emphasized that these districts have a deep-rooted history and are not limited to houses painted in bright colors.
Fener and Balat were the places where non-Muslims lived in Ottoman Istanbul. While Fener was the Greek quarter, Balat was the Jewish quarter. For this reason, there are many historical churches and synagogues in this area.
You can visit most of the touristic places in Istanbul without taking a guided tour. However, it is not possible to grasp the history of Fener and Balat properly without a tour guide who knows the area well.
Fener Balat Walking Tour
There are mosques, churches and synagogues dating back to the Byzantine period on the Fener and Balat walking tour. Most of these are normally closed and open with special permission for guided tours.
As a local guide who has been doing private tours of the area since 2008, I can help you visit the churches, the hidden gems of Fener and Balat. On the other hand, since many bureaucratic procedures are required to enter the synagogues in Istanbul, I tell their history from the outside.
If you want to join a private guided Fener Balat tour with me, you can fill out the form on the CONTACT PAGE and get availability and price information. I have done this tour many times in English and you can also see reviews about this experience on my TripAdvisor page.
In the following lines, I have shared the Fener Balat walking tour route that I have been doing for many years. Of course, you can also visit these districts with a self-guided tour. Then these tips will help you optimize your experience.
1. Kadir Has University (Cibali)
Kadir Has University is essentially a 19th century tobacco factory. However, after a major restoration a few decades ago, it became one of the successful private universities in Istanbul.
Fener Balat tours usually start in the courtyard of this university. Easily accessible from touristic centers such as Sultanahmet and Taksim Square, the building can be easily recognized as an iconic structure.
There is a wonderful view of the Golden Horn from the elevated courtyard in front of Kadir Has University. Also, the Rezan Has Museum, adjacent to the university, is worth seeing if you have extra time.
2. Cibali Gate
Right next to Cibali Gate is the Cibali Police Station, which is the subject of a famous Turkish theater play. The building was pretty neglected when I took the photo. However, it is being restored as of 2022.
3. Gul Mosque
Gul Mosque is essentially an 11th century Byzantine church. The atmosphere of the church, which is dedicated to an Orthodox saint named St. Theodosia, takes you back to the Middle Ages.
There is a beautiful story that I tell about Saint Theodosia during the church visit. The essence of this story goes back to Byzantine Iconoclasm, the 8th century.
There is also a second story about why the church was renamed “Gul”, meaning rose, when it was converted into a mosque during the Ottoman period.
4. Church of St. Nicholas
Church of St. Nicholas is located on the main street stretching from Cibali to Balat. However, although it is a relatively large church, it has a plain entrance that cannot be noticed at first glance.
On the other hand, when you enter the courtyard of the Church of St Nicholas, you are caught in the impressive atmosphere of the building. In my opinion, this place is a hidden gem for those who want to discover the Christian past of Istanbul.
The door of the church is not normally open. However, experienced guides know the church staff and can arrange for you to visit with prior reservation. And it should be noted that the effort is well worth it.
When I enter this church on my tours, I give a general narrative about the history of Istanbul. Because the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman periods of Istanbul are separate layers and it is very difficult to understand the history of the city without knowing them.
5. Atolye Kafasi
Atolye Kafasi is a good stopover after the first hour of walking tours in Fener Balat. Atolye Kafasi, a cozy cafe that reflects the spirit of this district, is also very popular among locals.
Even though the cafe is very enjoyable, our reason for coming here is not just to have a drink. The place where the cafe is located is the courtyard of an old church and it is still possible to see some ruins inside the cafe.
6. The Red School
The Red School was actually a religious education institution where the children of the Greeks living in the area since the 16th century were educated. Although it serves as a standard high school today, its students are still the children of Orthodox families.
The Red School was rebuilt in the 19th century by one of the school’s alumni. The architect, named Konstantin Dimadis, decorated the building with red bricks imported from Marseille to refer to Byzantine architecture.
7. Church of St. George (Fener)
Church of St. George is the highlight of Fener Balat walking tour. Because the church houses icons and relics from the Byzantine period and is located in the heart of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.
The Church of Constantinople was accepted as one of the five episcopal views by Constantine the Great at the First Council of Nicaea. This system, also known as Pentarchy, formed the hierarchical structure of the Christian world for centuries.
From this point of view, the importance of St. George’s Church in Istanbul in the Orthodox world is the same as that of St. Peter’s Church in Rome in the Catholic world. Throughout history the two churches have had a great rivalry.
As a history buff tour guide, I have many stories to tell about this church. Of course, it is not possible to fit the history of this place in a few paragraphs. For this reason, if you are wondering, you can consider joining my private guided Fener Balat tour.
8. Yildirim Street
Yildirim Street is the street full of cafes that will welcome you after visiting the Church of Saint George. Local and foreign tourists flock to this street, especially on weekends.
You can find some of the famous cafes of Fener and Balat on Yildirim Street. It is a great pleasure to take a break in these retro-style cafes and watch the people passing by on the street.
9. Merdivenli Mektep Street
Merdivenli Mektep Street is one of the Instagram spots of Fener and Balat districts. You can see many people taking photos at any time of the day in this side street, which has colorful sidewalks and a cozy cafe.
Merdivenli Mektep Street is a way I use on my tours to get up to the level of the Red School on the hill. Because on the northwest side of the Red School, there was another school for the girls of the Greeks living in the Fener district.
10. Yuvakimyon Highschool
Yuvakimyon Highschool is located at the top of the hill, which you can reach via the stairs of the Merdivenli Mektep Street. Yuvakimyon was a girls’ high school where women of Greek origin were educated during the Ottoman Empire.
The Greek population in Istanbul has declined drastically since the Ottoman period. For this reason, this school was closed in the 1980s due to the shortage of students. The last students were transferred to the Red School.
Although Yuvakimyon Highschool seems like an abandoned building today, we should not forget that it trained many teachers in the past. The school was opened with the efforts of the Patriarch of the time, Joachim II.
11. Church of St. Mary of the Mongols
Church of St. Mary of the Mongols is the only Byzantine church of Constantinople that was not converted to a mosque. Since the fall of Constantinople, Saint Mary of the Mongols was always open to the Greek Orthodox people and has stood tall since it was completed in 1281, undergoing several renovations due to fires that ravaged Fener during the period between early 1600 and 1700.
12. Kiremit Street
Kiremit Street is definitely one of the most special spots of Fener and Balat walk. The 19th-century Greek houses here have been recently restored and decorated in pastel colours.
Istanbulites and tourists show great interest in this street. For this reason, you can see thousands of versions of photos taken in front of these houses on the Fener and Balat tags on Instagram.
13. Merdivenli Yokus Street
Merdivenli Yokus Street has the most familiar view for Istanbulites among the colorful houses of Fener and Balat. This seven-colored house lined up on a slope has become the symbol of these districts.
Fener and Balat are also frequently used as movie sets by local TV series. For this reason, the popularity of the streets whose names I have mentioned in the last two lines has increased in recent years.
14. Ahrida Synagogue (Balat)
Ahrida Synagogue is one of the oldest in the whole of Istanbul. The once thriving Jewish quarter of Balat was served by the great Ahrida Synagogue and it became one of the most important buildings in the entire neighborhood. Several renovations throughout the centuries have kept it true to its original architectural design.
The most distinctive feature of Ahrida Synagogue is the presence of a preaching chair in the shape of Noah’s Ark. Unfortunately, synagogues in Istanbul cannot be visited spontaneously without prior permission.
15. Leblebiciler Street
Leblebiciler Street hosts another Jewish temple called Yanbol Synagogue. Although the shops on this street have been modernized, the architectural elements on the upper floors still reflect their history.
There is also an old tavern (Agora Meyhanesi) on Leblebiciler Street, which has a nostalgic meaning for Istanbulites. There are now touristic shops on this street where the Jewish tradesmen of Ottoman Istanbul had traded in the past.
16. St. Stephen Church (Bulgarian)
St. Stephen Church is located on the Golden Horn shore. Built by the Bulgarian community of Istanbul during the Ottoman period, the church is noticeable even from afar with its splendor.
St. Stephen Church is also known as “the Iron Church” in the local language. The reason for this is that the church was built as an iron and steel construction.
Private Guided Fener and Balat Tour
Hello, I am Serhat Engul, I have been a licensed tour guide in Istanbul since 2004. If you would like to join a private guided Fener and Balat tour, you can contact me by filling out the form on the CONTACT page.
Traveling with a private tour guide makes it easy to find your way around the complex streets of Fener and Balat. You can also visit churches and historical structures that you wouldn’t normally see.
Istanbul is a city steeped in deep and rich history. It was initially founded by the Greeks as Byzantium in 660 BC, later becoming Constantinople under Roman rule in Year 330 AD then officially becoming Istanbul many years later in 1930. It was ruled by Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Ottomans and finally the Turkish Republic.
It goes without saying that Istanbul is one of the most diverse cities in the world. During the Ottoman era, only around two-thirds of its population was actually Muslims. The remaining one-third being a mix of different ethnic minorities such as the Greeks, Jews, and Armenians.
To really learn more about the minorities in the Istanbul and their unique traditions and culture, it’s important to take a closer look at individual neighborhoods such as Fener and Balat, two of the most iconic areas in Istanbul and an excellent location for a walking tour.
Written by Serhat Engul