FENER and BALAT (Private Guided Tour) Istanbul [2023]

Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque are at the top of the list of tourists visiting Istanbul. For this reason, the eastern side of the Old City 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 suggest you book a Fener and Balat walking tour with a private guide to trace this period.

I’m Serhat Engul and I have been a private 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 Fener and Balat neighborhoods. Although these two districts stand out with their colorful houses, they also contain other magnificent hidden treasures.

If you want to take a guided walking tour in Fener and Balat areas, you can contact the licensed tour guide Serhat Engul. In order to inquire about price and availability simply fill out the form on the CONTACT page of the site.

History of Fener and Balat Districts

Fener and Balat are two cute districts where you can still feel the traditional 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) District

Fener and Balat Walking Tour

The history of Fener district dates back to the Byzantine period. However, Fener actually gained importance when the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople moved here at the end of the 16th century.

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) District

Old Houses in Balat

The history of the Balat district, which was the Jewish Quarter of Istanbul, is also very colorful. Balat was an area 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 area and they mingled with the Jewish residents that were already there.

Therefore, the west side of the Old 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.

Fener & Balat Private Guided Tour (2023)

Private Guided Tour of Fener and Balat Districts in Istanbul

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 a knowledgeable tour guide.

This is mainly because every street and even every building has its own story and a private guided tour with a nice presentation will make your visit more enjoyable and meaningful. 

If you would like to organize a private guided Cibali, Fener and Balat walking tour in 2023, you can review my references on the ABOUT page and contact me on the CONTACT page.

If you wish, let’s go deeper into the things to do in Fener Balat walk. Of course, you can do the tour yourself by following this route. However, it should be noted that you cannot enter some churches and mosques without personal contact with the staff.

1. Kadir Has University

Kadir Has University in Cibali

Kadir Has University was a tobacco factory during the Ottoman period. The courtyard of the university is also the starting point for Fener and Balat tours.

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 and Balat districts in recent years.

2. Cibali Gate

Old Roman Walls in Istanbul

Cibali Gate can be seen walking west from the courtyard of the university. This gate has been part of the walls surrounding the city since Roman times.

The strongest of the walls surrounding Constantinople were the land walls rising in the west, called the Theodosian Walls. The weakest walls were on the Golden Horn coast.

The city walls in this vicinity were low as an attack from the Golden Horn was not expected. There was a giant chain at the entrance of the Golden Horn and it did not let the enemy ships in.

3. Gul Mosque

Former Byzantine Churches in Istanbul

Gul Mosque is essentially a Byzantine church converted into a mosque at the end of the 15th century. This church was previously known as the Hagia Theodosia Church.

Saint Theodosia was one of the icon-lovers who died during the Iconoclasm, a period against religious depictions in the Byzantine period. According to tradition, this church was erected in her memory in the 11th century.

Gul Mosque is located in the Cibali district today and is one of the most important stops of the Fener Balat walking tour. There are many legends to be told about this thousand-year-old structure.

4. Church of St. Nicholas

Greek Churches in Fener District

Church of St. Nicholas is one of Istanbul’s hidden gems. Although it is located on the main street, it does not have a distinctive dome, so it is not well known even to Istanbulites.

Visiting this church is only possible on a private guided Fener Balat tour. Because it is not normally open and you can visit it through tour guides who know the church’s officials.

However, as soon as you step into the courtyard of this old church, you reach another world. The interior of the church is much larger than it appears from the outside and is decorated with wonderful icons.

5. Atolye Kafasi

Fener and Balat Cafes

Atolye Kafasi is located on Ayakapi Street, which you can reach by passing through one of the old city walls in the area. I usually take a tea or coffee break here when I finish the first part of the Cibali, Fener and Balat walking tours.

Atolye Kafasi has a really cozy atmosphere and is decorated with great woodwork. But that’s not the only feature of this retro cafe. This place is also home to the ruins of a very old church.

6. Fener Greek Highschool

Fener and Balat Neighborhoods in Istanbul

Fener Greek Highschool was 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 Konstantin 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 Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople as they discover an amazing building. It’s common to come across such mistakes on social media posts.

7. Church of St George (Fener)

Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople

Church of St George is the highlight of Fener Balat walking tour. When you enter the Patriarchate complex in Fener, you will see a small white church among walnut colored buildings. The Patriarchal Church of Saint George gives no clue at first glance about the treasures it holds.

The Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, once the leader of the Eastern church, still retains this honorary title today. For this reason, while St. Peter’s Basilica is important for Catholics, Church of St. George is equally important for Orthodox.

Church of St George has a spectacular wood carved and gold foiled altar in the center. If you visit the church while a ceremony is performed, you will have a chance to observe a really different and interesting religious ceremony.

Some of the stops on the Fener Balat walking tour can overlap with the Byzantine Istanbul tour, which is another historical tour I organize. If you have a special interest in Byzantine history and architecture, you can review some specific tour options through this site.

8. Yildirim Street

Fener and Balat Restaurants

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

Colorful Stairs in Balat

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

Ioakeimeion Girls' High School

Yuvakimyon (Ioakeimeion) 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 in Fener

Church of St 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

Fener and Balat Colorful Houses

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 (Balat)

Fener and Balat Colorful Streets

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 (Balat)

Synagogues in Balat Istanbul

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. Leblebiciler Street

Old Jewish Quarter in Istanbul

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 St Stephen (Bulgarian)

Bulgarian Iron Church in Istanbul

Church of St 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.


Oldish Streets of Istanbul

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.

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