Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque and Grand Bazaar are at the top of the list of tourists visiting Istanbul. For this reason, the eastern side of the Historic Peninsula is frequently visited. However, there was a lively life on the west side of the Old City in both the Byzantine and Ottoman periods. I recommend you to take a Fener and Balat walking tour to follow the traces of this colorful life.
I’m Serhat Engul, I have been a professional tour guide in Istanbul for about 17 years. As someone who makes history tours, I introduce three districts of Istanbul. The first of these is of course Sultanahmet, where Hagia Sophia is located. However, there are two other places that complement Istanbul’s history. One of them is Beyoglu, the second is Fener and Balat districts.
In this article, I would like to give information about the things to do in Cibali, Fener and Balat neighborhoods. In addition, I will also have suggestions about cafes and restaurants where you can taste local food and drinks.
If you want to take a guided walking tour in Fener and Balat neighborhoods, you can contact the licensed tour guide Serhat Engul. To contact me, you can use the links I will give in the lines below or you can directly use the contact page of this site.
Don’t Forget to Compare Titles with Maps!
I shared the things to do on the Fener Balat tour in numbered titles to make it easy. However, it may still be confusing to those who are going for the first time. Don’t forget to take a look at the maps at the end of the article to fully understand what to do in Fener Balat areas of Istanbul.
How to Get to Fener and Balat
In order to get to Fener and Balat (From Taksim) after arriving at the historical peninsula via Ataturk Bridge, a turn to the right (Eyup direction) is needed. This is also the same path if you come from Eminonu (from Sultanahmet) side.
Again via Eyup direction, the road by the seaside should be followed. As you come closer to Fener-Balat, Kadir Has University will be the first landmark to welcome you. This building used to be a tobacco factory in Ottoman era and it is quite easy to notice it as it’s a huge building.
Kadir Has University is the meeting point for the majority of Cibali Fener Balat walking tour. Cibali and Fener-Balat neighborhoods are interwoven and it’s really easy to visit all of them by walking.
History of Fener and Balat Neighborhoods
Fener Balat are two cute neighborhoods where you can still feel a neighborhood culture. However, what really makes them interesting is the history and demographic features of these neighborhoods.
Following the conquest of Istanbul by the Ottoman Empire in 1453, the structure of the city changed totally. Constantinople already used to be a colorful port city and it became a more cosmopolite one due to the intense immigration of the Turks and the communities from the east.
While the new structure of the city was taking its shape, the citizens of Greek origin began to settle in Fener neighborhood. Balat neighborhood which is next to Fener became the home of Jewish citizens.
1. History of Fener (Greek) Neighborhood
Fener district of Istanbul is known as Phanar by Greeks. The importance of Fener neighborhood in history increased after the Greek Patriarchate moved here.
The actual name of the “Byzantine Empire” was the Eastern Roman Empire. As it was the heir of the famous Roman Empire’s in ancient times, the people of the Byzantine Empire were known as ‘’Rum’’ by the Turks, which meant Roman.
Due to their high command of European languages, in addition to being employed as interpreters in the palace, the Greek citizens were also active in trade and various crafts as well.
The Greeks were the members of the Orthodox sect of Christianity and they practiced their belief freely under the guidance of Greek Orthodox Patriarchate.
2. History of Balat (Jewish) Neighborhood
Istanbul’s Balat neighborhood has a very colorful history. Balat was a district where Jews from three different origins lived together. These were Romaniote, Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews.
After the fall of the Kingdom of Granada, the Andalusians in the south of Spain were forced to leave their home. In addition to the Muslims, the Catholic rulers Isabel and Ferdinand announced they didn’t want Jews in Spain, either.
The Ottoman Empire opened her arms to these people who had nowhere to go. The Spanish Jews (Sephardi Jews) that were brought to Istanbul via the Ottoman ships that Sultan Bayezid II sent to Spain, settled in at Balat neighborhood and they mingled with the Jewish residents that were already there.
Therefore, the west side of the Ancient Istanbul became a cultural mosaic. The Turks lived at Cibali neighborhood, while the Greeks were at Fener and the Jews were settled in Balat. Synagogues, mosques, and churches were together in the same area.
Cibali Fener Balat Walking Tour Guide
Due to their cultural importance that I’ve summarized above, Cibali, Fener, and Balat neighborhoods must definitely be visited. However, such neighborhoods that are so rich in terms of culture and history should be visited under the guidance of an experienced and knowledgeable tour guide.
This is mainly because every street and even every building has its own story and a private guide with a nice presentation will make your visit more enjoyable and meaningful. If you would like to organize a guided Cibali, Fener and Balat walking tour, you can review my references on the ABOUT page and contact me on the CONTACT page.
Things to Do in Cibali, Istanbul
Cibali is the starting point of Fener and Balat walking tours. In the following five titles, we will talk about things to do in the Cibali, starting with Kadir Has University.
1. Kadir Has University
Fener-Balat tours start in front of Kadir Has University. Cibali Tobacco Factory, the symbol of Cibali neighborhood is today’s Kadir Has University.
The history of this building dates back to 19th century and it changed the sociological structure of the neighborhood during the time it was a tobacco factory and it turned the neighborhood into a workers’ neighborhood.
It evolved into a university in the modern days and once again it made an impact on the fate of the neighborhood, making it the center of cultural activities. This building has played an important role in increasing the popularity of Fener Balat neighborhoods in recent years.
2. Cibali Gate
After a walk once passing by the university, Cibali Police Station, which became the subject of a famous Turkish play “Cibali Karakolu”, and the Cibali Gate can be seen.
3. Gul Mosque
The Church of Hagia Theodosia was built in the name of St. Theodosia who was martyred during the Byzantine Iconoclasm. It was believed that this church would heal the people in the Byzantine era. The Church, which was converted into a mosque during the Ottoman period, was named Gul Mosque.
The structure attracts attention thanks to its red colored bricks from outside and the interior of the building is a great place to take some amazing photos.
4. Ayakapi Street
Let’s continue discovering the city walls of Constantinople and its gates that made the access to the city possible. By a short walk from the previous gate, Ayakapi Street (and Gate) and Nev-i Café, which was a police station back in days, can be seen.
Police stations that functioned as checkpoints next to the gates that would open to the city are still standing today.
5. Atolye Kafasi
When you pass through Ayakapi Gate, you will see wall painting of Turkish actors and actresses on the wall. Atolye Kafasi is managed by a very skilled family in wood craftsmanship. They bring carpenter craftsmanship and café together, thus creating an amazing concept.
You can see tons of different carpenter crafts and feel like in another world. And outside the café, you can find the figures of Turkish movie actors and actresses painted by street artists, which is a great source for cool Instagram posts.
Things to Do in Fener, Istanbul
An amazing cultural treasure is hidden in Fener neighborhood. For this reason, Fener district is the core of Cibali, Fener and Balat walking tours. The places in headings 6 through 12 will include things to do in Fener.
6. Konstantin Marashli School
If you go to Greek Orthodox Patriarchate via Dr. Sadik Ahmet Street, you can come across Konstantin Marashli School whose image can be seen below.
This structure seems to be one of those at Ephesus Ancient City, but indeed it’s a school built by a Greek ship owner with the money donated to Fener neighborhood. However, it doesn’t serve as a school anymore since it doesn’t have any students.
7. Greek Orthodox Patriarchate
Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople was the strongest leader of Christianity when the Byzantine Empire was at its strongest times, so much so that, the Patriarch had a bigger authority than the Pope and he would crown emperors and he would be deeply respected.
Greek Orthodox Patriarchate’s influence weakened over time as the Byzantine Empire lost its former power and the Crusade soldiers invaded Constantinople during the 4th Crusade (Sack of Constantinople). Although the city was taken back in 1261 by the Byzantines, the Patriarchate has never become as strong as its old days.
Nevertheless, considering today’s Orthodox world, the level of influence of the Patriarch can be realized in the old days. It’s mainly due to the reason that the vast majority of Christians in Eastern Europe, Russia, and the Middle East are Orthodox Christians.
Sultan Mehmed II, converted the Hagia Sophia, the flower of the Patriarchate, into a mosque, however, he didn’t end the patriarchate’s existence. On the contrary, with a decree he wrote, he guaranteed its safety and the security and made sure it functioned as before.
8. Church of St. George
The Patriarchal Church of St. George is a small and beautiful church in the courtyard of the Fener Greek Orthodox Patriarchate. The wood carved and gold foiled altar in the center of the church is spectacular.
If you visit the church while a ceremony is performed, you will have a chance to observe a really different and interesting religious ceremony. The hymns that sound like a mournful requiem are worth listening.
9. Phanar Greek Orthodox College
Phanar Greek Orthodox College is a faculty of theology founded to train ecclesiastics. However, it’s a high school with special status, but no formal religious education is provided at the school anymore. This building was built by architect Dimadis in 1881 and it definitely has unique architectural features.
This is the very structure that’s frequently shared on Instagram with Fener and Balat tags. This building is so popular as it’s so majestic that it reminds visitors of Hagia Sophia and the sight of such a structure is a thrilling experience for the visitors.
Most people mistake this school with the Patriarchate Complex as they discover an amazing building. It’s common to come across such mistakes on social media posts.
10. Dimitrie Cantemir House
Dimitri Kantemir grew up in a house in Fener neighborhood and as a non-Muslim in the Ottoman bureaucracy, he reached the highest level possible and became the governor of Ottoman Empire’s vassal, Moldova.
He was an intellectual who could speak multiple languages and had a big interest in poetry, philosophy, music, and science.
He composed a lot of Turkish music and he saved old works from being lost by notating them. The mansion he lived in the past is at Merdivenli Mektep Street in Fener neighborhood.
11. Church of St. Mary of the Mongols
This Church of St. Mary of the Mongols is the only church that has survived to date since the conquest of Istanbul. Although it’s community is not as big as before, it’s still active. A decree written by Sultan Mehmed II can be seen inside the church.
As the firman ordered, the church have never been converted into a mosque and it belongs to the community of the Greek Orthodox.
12. Kiremit Street
The same way the houses at Balat are famous, the houses at Fener’s Kiremit Street are equally famous.
After visiting the Church of Saint Mary of the Mongols, you should definitely walk down from Usturumca Street and enjoy the spectacular show that the beautiful houses that are lined up right on the start of the ramp.
Things To Do in Balat, Istanbul
Balat is a word derived from Palation which means “Palace”. It’s named so due to the fact that the Emperors of the Byzantine Empire would reach the “Palace of Blachernae” via the sea and entered the palace via this gate.
As Balat used to be the settlement area for the Jews, there are a lot of synagogues in the neighborhood. The last three headings of our article will be on things to do in Balat.
13. Merdivenli Yokus Street
Merdivenli Yokus Street where most of the photos during Fener Balat walking tour is taken. This is where Balat’s famous colorful houses are located. These houses can be found on side alleys of Balat although they are a little complicated.
14. Ahrida Synagogue
Ahrida Synagogue is seen as the most important synagogue in Balat neighborhood. It was built by the Jews that migrated from Macedonia. Unfortunately, the entrance to the synagogue is subject to permit.
The inside of the synagogue is decorated with invaluable furniture and the sermon platform to address the community resembles the forepart of Noah’s Ark, therefore the story of this myth is kept alive.
15. Bulgarian St. Stephen Church
The Bulgarian community, influenced by the nationalistic movement after the French Revolution, wanted to break free from the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate and they built their own church.
However, as the land allocated for the church was a filled land, the main skeleton of the Bulgarian St. Stephen Church was made of steel so that it wouldn’t slide to Golden Horn and be lasting.
Istanbul Cibali, Fener, Balat Maps
I prepared a map for the walking tour route in Cibali, Fener and Balat districts. These primitive maps made on Paint are not great, but I hope they will make it easier for you to find your way.
1. Istanbul Cibali Neighborhood Map
The map of Cibali neighborhood starts with Kadir Has University, which is the beginning of Fener Balat walking tours. By following the places on the map, you can come up to Ayakapi Street in the 5th heading.
You can access the full resolution map of Cibali from this link.
2. Istanbul Fener Neighborhood Map
The map of Fener Neighborhood begins with the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, the most important stop of Fener Balat walking tours. The place marked as “Fener-Balat Colorful Houses” on the map is Kiremit Street in title 12. Thanks to this map, you can visit the places between the 6th and 12th titles of the article.
You can access the full resolution map of Fener from this link.
3. Istanbul Balat Neighborhood Map
The map of Balat neighborhood starts with the “Balat Colorful Houses” point. This refers to the Stepped Yokus Street in chapter 13. By following this map, you can complete the Fener Balat walking tour.
You can access the full resolution map of Balat from this link.
Istanbul Fener and Balat Walking Tour by Serhat Engul