Fener and Balat were districts where distinguished Greek and Jewish families lived during the Ottoman period. These districts, which lost their importance in the 20th century, are now popular again with their colorful houses and boutique cafes.
One of the triggers for Fener and Balat to rise again and open to tourism was the restoration of the old tobacco factory from the Ottoman Empire. Located in Cibali as Kadir Has University, this iconic building is also the starting point of Cibali, Fener and Balat walking tours.
As a professional tourist guide operating in Istanbul, I take great pleasure in performing the Fener Balat walking tour. Because there are hidden gems on this walking route that are outside of Istanbul’s tourist route and surprise travelers.
In this article, I would like to summarize what I know about Fener and Balat districts. I would also like to add that as a licensed tour guide in Istanbul, I organize private Fener Balat walking tours that focus on the history of these districts.
Things to Do in Fener and Balat 2023
Things to do in Fener and Balat include visiting centuries-old churches and synagogues. In addition, you can take pictures of the streets with colorful houses and enjoy Turkish coffee in wonderful boutique cafes.
Social media highlights the colorful houses of Fener and Balat a little too much. Thanks to the tips in this article, you can get off the classical tourist route and discover the cosmopolitan structure of these districts that has been formed over the centuries.
1. Kadir Has University
Kadir Has University was essentially a tobacco factory built during the Ottoman period. It was located here as the shores of the Golden Horn became an industrial area in the last period of the Ottoman Empire.
The factory, which continued to function in the Republican era, was rented by the “Has Family” for a long term and restored in the 1990s. After a successful restoration, the building won the Europa Nostra award.
It was this university that started the domino effect in opening Fener and Balat districts to tourism in recent years. The dynamism and cultural activities brought by the school made these districts popular again.
I usually start my private guided Fener and Balat walking tours from the courtyard of this university. The school’s courtyard, which has a wonderful view of the Golden Horn, is an ideal place to give preliminary information.
2. Cibali Gate
Cibali Gate is a part of the city walls that have existed since Roman Empire era. During the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) period, there were dozens of gates opening from the walls to Constantinople. This door was one of them.
Tourists visiting Istanbul focus on Sultanahmet, the royal district of the Historical Peninsula (former Constantinople). However, there are many hidden treasures in the Historical Peninsula, especially on the shores of the Golden Horn.
3. Gul Mosque
Gul Mosque is actually a church built during the Byzantine Empire era. The name of the building, which is thought to have been built in the 11th century, was the Church of Saint Theodosia.
Today, you can visit the interior of this mosque and see the traces of late Byzantine church architecture. The building, which has a Greek cross plan, also has upper floor galleries just like Hagia Sophia.
Church of Saint Theodosia was converted into a mosque after the conquest, that is, at the end of the 15th century. I tell the story of this building to my guests in detail on my private guided Fener Balat tours.
4. Church of Saint Nicholas
Church of Saint Nicholas is one of the most impressive structures of this area. Although the church is on a busy street, the entrance door is rather modest and is not noticed at first glance.
Known locally as the Church of St. Nicholas, this building can be entered with special permission. I definitely show this place to my guests by making a reservation in advance on my tours.
There is also a very peaceful and mystical atmosphere inside. This provides me with the appropriate environment to give general information about the history of Istanbul to the guests at the very beginning of the tour.
5. Atolye Cafe
Atolye Cafe is actually an old carpenter’s workshop. The name of this place, called “Atolye Kafasi”, has a humorous meaning in Turkish, but when translated into English, it gives a meaning like “Workshop Mood”.
This cafe is a great place to take a break from the Fener Balat walk, which is full of history. However, this is not its only feature because the cafe is actually located in the courtyard of a church ruin dating back to the Byzantine period.
6. The Red School (Fener)
The Red School was a religious educational institution that trained clergy for the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. A student named Konstantin Dimadis, who graduated from the school, rebuilt the structure in the 1800s.
The school with its neo-Gothic architectural style is a real gem. Unfortunately, millions of tourists visiting Istanbul are not even aware of the existence of such a beautiful structure.
During Fener Balat walking tours, I follow a special route to see this school from the most photographic point of view. The red bricks of the school reminiscent of Byzantine architecture and its magnificent castle-like appearance excite my guests.
7. Church of Saint George
Church of Saint George is a jewel in the center of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Fener. This small but magnificent church is also the honorary center of the Eastern Christians.
There are relics of important archbishops and patriarchs who served as clergy in the Byzantine period in the Church of Saint George. The building also houses Byzantine icons from the 11th and 13th century.
Although the Church of Saint George was rebuilt later, it is one of the most important places to visit to grasp the Byzantine heritage in Istanbul. For this reason, it forms the basis of my Byzantine Istanbul themed tours as well.
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 period.
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 Saint Mary of the Mongols is one of the most interesting stops of Fener Balat walking tour. Although this is a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary, its story is based on Maria, a Byzantine princess.
The stories associated with this church are quite interesting and I tell them on my tours. However, I can briefly say that the name of the church comes from a Byzantine princess who was a bride to the Mongolian khan.
12. Kiremit Street
Kiremit Street has colorful houses that cause many people to come to visit Fener and Balat. I can say that the pastel colored houses here are one of the two most famous instagram spots of the districts.
Green, orange, blue and yellow houses lined up side by side on Kiremit Street can be a wonderful background for your Istanbul photos. You can see thousands of pictures of these colorful houses by reviewing the Fener and Balat tags on Instagram.
13. Merdivenli Yokus Street
Merdivenli Yokus Street has colorful houses like the previous Kiremit Street. However, it is possible to say that these seven 19th century houses, located on a cobblestone slope, are even more popular.
You can easily reach Merdivenli Yokus Street from Kiremit Street by going around the back roads. When you reach here, it means that you have arrived in Balat, which used to be a Jewish quarter.
14. Ahrida Synagogue
Ahrida Synagogue stands out as the most important historical structure of Balat. Ahrida Synagogue is one of the three largest synagogues in Istanbul and was built by Ashkenazi Jews who immigrated here from Ohrid (Macedonia).
The red entrance door of Ahrida Synagogue opens to the most lively street of Balat district. Unfortunately, like other synagogues in Istanbul, it is not possible to visit Ahrida 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 deep-rooted history.
There is a 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. Church of Saint Stephen
Church of Saint Stephen is a place of worship built for the Bulgarian community in the last years of the Ottoman Empire. Built of iron and steel, this church is known locally as the “Iron Church”.
The Church of Saint Stephen has been recently restored and is in very good condition. It fascinates its visitors with its interior decoration and icon wall. This church is also the last stop on our list of things to do in Fener and Balat.
I first designed this walking route for Fener and Balat districts in 2008 to guide my photography club. I wanted it to be a walk where we can see the historical buildings of these districts in their most picturesque form.
At that time, I was not a full-time tour guide and did not think that one day the Fener Balat walk would be an important part of my job. Today, I organize private guided walking tours in Fener Balat.
If you want to go a little off the tourist route and visit Fener Balat districts with a guide when you come to Istanbul, you can contact me by filling out the form on the CONTACT page.
Written by Serhat Engul
Lilianne Efthimiades says
Please can you advise if you are available for 4 adults on either 11/7 or 12/7/2022.
Serhat Engül says
Dear Lilianne Efthimiades, thank you for reaching out. Your private guided tour requests have also reached my email address. I will answer them in detail via email today.