About a hundred years ago Fener and Balat were both wealthy neighborhoods, populated with a mix of Turkish, Jewish, and various Christian minority peoples. There were tons of churches, bath houses, grand school buildings, and beautiful homes lining the narrow streets along the shores of the Golden Horn. A few decades later, nationalism, the fall of the old empires, and massive social changes following World War I, made this once prosperous neighbourhood poor. Apparently, in the 80’s, Balat was known for brawling Marxists!
Today, however, money has begun to come back and many beautiful buildings are being restored, shops, new and old, are opening and abandoned buildings turned into boutique hotels as more and more people realize just how amazing this place is. Whether it’s for the ancient buildings, religious history, the classic streets, or great cafes, you really need to visit Istanbul’s best kept secret!
Greek Orthodox Patriarchate
Rum Ortodoks Patrikhanesi
Constantinople (the Greek name for Istanbul) was once the Byzantine capital and one of the most important centres for ancient Christianity. Over time the church of Constantinople became the foremost church of the Eastern Orthodox Christians and the seat of the Patriarch. While the patriarchate (the complex where the leaders of the Orthodox Church live, work, and hold services) has only been in its current location since the 17th century the history of the patriarchate in Istanbul traces itself back to shortly after the founding of the city itself. While the church is not very large it is incredibly ornate and well worth visiting.
Check out our in-depth review and guide to The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate!
Classic Istanbul Streets, Cafes, and Restaurants
Apart from the main sights, this is also a great place to catch a glimpse of true classic Istanbul life. Here the kids still play soccer in the streets and shopkeepers spend as much time drinking tea on the street corners as they do in their shops working.
As mentioned above, you can see the clear signs of money creeping back into these once rich streets; homes are being restored, fancy shops and boutique hotels are being opened, and, this is good news for all of us: hip cafes and restaurants are thriving alongside the traditional. Between the amazing old streets and great food and drink, this is one of the best places for chatting with friends, reading a book, or even writing one over a cup of coffee. Agatha Christie is said to have written Murder on the Orient Express while staying in Pera but we know Fener and Balat are better.
Note: While Fener has more of the new, western style cafes, Balat seems to have gone relatively unchanged with tea houses, börek shops, and stores aimed at locals.
Fener Greek Orthodox School
Fener Rum Ortodoks Okulu
Cost: No Entrance Fee
Looming high above Fener in brilliant red brick, is the Greek Orthodox School of Fener. While the current building was built in 1881 the school is the current embodiment of a school founded for the Greek speaking community just after the Ottoman conquest of the city in 1453.
Between its massive size, brilliant red colour, and neo-gothic design, the building looks completely out of place in the Ottoman capital. But if you think the outside is extravagant the inside is equally stunning. The domed tower in the back was used as an observatory and has an antique telescope in it. The only issue is that access to the inside of the school is highly restricted.
If you view the building from behind you’ll see the architect’s name, construction date, and some masonic symbols.
Church of St. Mary of the Mongols
Right next to the massive Greek Orthodox School of Fener is an odd red-colored church called the Church of St. Mary of the Mongols. It was named after the daughter of the Byzantine Emperor who married the Mongol ruler Abagu Khan, great grandson of Genghis Khan. When Abagu died she returned and founded this nunnery and church. In Turkish this church is known as Kanlı Kilisesi, or Bloody Church due to the massacre that took place here after the fall of the city to the Ottomans. But perhaps the most unique part of this historic church is that it’s the only Byzantine church not to have been seized by the Ottomans. Copies of the documents from the Sultan ensuring that the church should never be seized are displayed in the church.
Tahta Minare Mosque
Tahta Minare Camii
Tahta Minare means wooden minaret though the minaret hasn’t been made of wood for quite some time, perhaps centuries. The building itself is small, plain, and rather unimpressive. What makes this mosque interesting is the simple fact that, built in 1458 by Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror, it was one of the very first mosques built in Istanbul.
Tahta Minare Turkish Bath
Tahta Minare Hamamı
See full review for price breakdown
In any truly old neighborhood you should expect there to be a Turkish Bath or two. Just a couple of buildings over from the above mentioned Tahta Minare Mosque is its namesake hamam. While the mosque is ancient the hamam wasn’t built until the 1800’s.
If you’re thinking of visiting a Turkish Bath then make sure to check out our in-depth review of Tahta Minare Turkish Bath!
St Steven’s Bulgarian Orthodox Church
Sveti Stefan Bulgur Kilisesi
St. Steven’s Bulgarian Orthodox Church is not only beautiful but one of a kind. Around the turn of the century the first St. Steven’s church burnt down. The Bulgarian government held a design competition for the replacement church which was won by an Ottoman-Armenian architect who designed a building completely out of cast iron parts. The pieces, weighing 500 tons, were cast in Vienna and shipped to Istanbul. In other words, it’s a Bulgarian church, designed by an Armenian, made by Austrians, and assembled in Istanbul. While the idea of prefabricated, cast iron churches was popular at the time, St. Steven’s is believed to be the last fully iron church in the world.
This place is so good we decided to write a special guide just for St. Steven’s Bulgarian Orthodox Church
Fethiye Mosque and Museum
Fethiye Camii ve Müzesi
Müze Card accepted CURRENTLY CLOSED
While this church-turned-mosque-turned-museum isn’t actually in Fener or Balat it’s only a 10-minute walk up the hill from the centre of Balat so we thought we’d introduce it here. Once known as Pammakaristos Church, it was a 13th century Byzantine church and, for a time, the Patriarchate of the Greek Orthodox Church. The museum portion is small, but the mosaics are magnificent.
Check out our in-depth review of Fethiye Mosque and Museum !
How To Get There
As these are basically Istanbul’s best neighborhoods and surrounded by all sorts of amazing sights you should really walk here if you have the time, energy, and good weather. The walk from Eminönü to Fener and Balat is particularly great. Stay off the main road and get lost in the backstreets among the ancient walls and buildings and meander over to Fener.
If you’re planning on taking a bus your best bet is to catch anything that goes from Eminönü to Eyüp. These will pass by Fener and Balat along the Haliç or Golden Horn. The 33ES, 44B, 48E, 99, and 99A are just a few options that run from Eminönü. Getting off at the Fener bus stop you will be close to the Patriarchate (the south-east end of this area) and if you get off at the stop called Balat, you will be closest to Ahrida Synagogue and the classic streets of Balat.
If you’re coming from the Asian side of Istanbul there is a ferry route called Haliç, which runs from Üsküdar to a number of stations along the Haliç including Balat and Fener.
Taxis are a great and usually quick option to the patriarchate. Saying ‘Fener’ or ‘Patrikhane’ should be enough.
Where To Stay
As Fener and Balat are quite near the touristic centre of the city your accommodation options are really in the thousands. That being said, Fener and Balat are home to a number of new boutique hotels in nicely renovated historical buildings. Anything down here will have you close to the action and in what you now know is the coolest part of the city.
Have any tips or info to add? Spot any mistakes? We’d love to hear about it.