Ah, Istanbul. One of the cities that we fell in love with on our first backpacking trip together in 2008. Once the centrepiece of Byzantine, Roman and Ottoman empires, Istanbul is a city that straddles the continents of Europe and Asia and has incredible history, art and architecture.
I remember being blown away by our first visit to the city. We spent hours exploring the warren-like Grand Bazaar and buying scarves, pottery and jewellery (and worrying that we'd need to buy another suitcase to bring all this stuff back); getting a stiff neck from constantly looking up in awe in the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia; having romantic cocktails on fairy-lit French Street; exploring the Museum of Anatolian Civilisations for hours and realising that there were so many artefacts in there that the museum was actually never ever going to end and we'd be locked in when it closed; relaxing in the tea gardens of Gulhane Park...all of these memories made us so excited to go back nearly a decade later. We were interested to find out how the city might have changed and whether we'd still love it as much as we did on our first visit.
Well, the long and short of it is that we did love it. It's still our favourite city in the world and all the more so because we decided to stay in and explore the up-and-coming area of Fener-Balat. Previously, we had stayed in Sultanhamet as we wanted to be near to all the tourist sites, but this time we wanted to try something different. Staying in Fener-Balat opened our eyes to a whole new area of Istanbul and so here are our top reasons why we think you should explore this area too!
1) It's A Great Place to Just Get Lost In
Sure, your legs will ache from walking along the steep sloping streets of Fener and Balat, but trust us when we say that the pain will be totally worth it. Narrow and labyrinthine cobbled streets, brightly coloured and crumbling Ottoman style houses, washing lines strung between buildings and kids playing football in the streets or simply hanging out as older 'youfs' tend to do - this is the perfect place to see local Istanbulites getting on with their daily lives. You'll definitely get lost around here (and asking for directions from the friendly locals is difficult as they don't speak that much English) but that's part of the charm of the place. There's something fascinating around every corner in Fener-Balat, so our advice is to take your time, wander and soak up the atmosphere of the Istanbul of old.
2) Neighbourhoods With a Rich History and Amazing Architecture
The neighbourhoods of Fener and Balat have a rich and unique history and are even on the list of UNESCO world heritage sites. Traces of the Jewish, Greek and Armenian communities that once lived here can be seen in the architecture, particularly the beautiful churches, mosques and synagogue.
A DIY walking tour of Fener and Balat enables you to take in the main architectural sites: we started at the very ornate Church of St Stephen of the Bulgars (Balat Mahallesi, Mürselpaşa Cd, No.10), which is the world's only iron Orthodox Church and according to the legend was built in just one month!
The cast iron pieces were made in Vienna and shipped down the Danube River and across the Black Sea to Istanbul on 100 barges. Considering that this was in 1871, way before IKEA's self assembled furniture and pre-fab houses were even a thing, this is pretty damn impressive. In 2007, St Stephen of the Bulgars was declared the most beautiful church in Turkey and with its gilded interior and colourful stained glass windows, it's easy to see why. The dome of the church has also been recently gold plated, making it the blingest (and one of the most beautiful) churches we've ever seen.
You can then take a short walk to visit the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople (Yavuz Sultan Selim Mahallesi, Dr. Sadik Ahmet Cd. No.44), which is also known as St George's Church. This church is actually the symbolic headquarters of the Greek Orthodox Church and is one of fourteen churches that comprise the larger Eastern Orthodox Church. As you can see, it's also pretty blingtastic.
A further walk up a steep hill will lead you to the very striking red brick Phanar Eastern Orthodox College (Balat Mahallesi, Sancaktar Yks. No.36). It seems like every building in Istanbul has an amazing history and once again, this Harry Potter style building is no exception.
Built between 1881 and 1883, the College is the oldest surviving and most prestigious Greek Orthodox school in Turkey. About 50 students study at the college and the building is often referred to as "the 5th largest castle in Europe" or the kirmizi kale (red castle) because of its castle-like shape and red brick exterior. The large dome at the top of the building is apparently used as an observatory for astronomy classes and has a large antique telescope inside. This last fact actually makes us really jealous - why didn't they have these kinds of facilities at our local highschools?!
From the College, you can stop off at one of the many cute and quirky cafes in the area for a brief rest (see the next section for more details). Or, continue your wanderings and head towards the Fethiye Museum (Fethiye Caddesi, Çarsamba, Fatih). Unfortunately, we didn't get to go inside the museum as it was closed when we arrived but it is famous for its beautiful gold Byzantine mosaics. The museum building was originally the Church of Pammakaristos, a Byzantine church built between the 11th and 12th centuries. It was converted into a mosque in 1591 by Sultan Murad II. The main part of the building is still used as a mosque today but the side chapel has been partitioned off and now functions as a museum.
After all of this walking we were a bit tired and so we decided to have a Turkish coffee and baklava interlude before we headed off to the Grand Bazaar (for a bit more walking). However, if you fancy continuing your walking tour, you can continue on to visit the Chora Church and the Ahrida Synagogue.
The Chora Church (Dervisali Mahallesi, Kariye Cami Sk. No.8), built in the Medieval Byzantine period, is now also a museum and is famous for its gorgeous mosaics and frescos, which some say rival those seen in the Hagia Sophia. Ahrida Synagogue (Ayvansaray Mahallesi, Kürkçü Çesmesi Sk. No:9) is one of the oldest synagogues in Istanbul and was built in the early 1400s. To go inside the synagogue you have to gain permission from the office of the Chief Rabbi in Istanbul. We're saving these two sites for our next visit to Istanbul!
3) Cafes, Cafes, Cafes
We adore a good old dose of cafe-hopping and people-watching and found that we could do this to our heart's content in Fener-Balat. There are many cute and quirky cafes for you to while away some time in, accompanied by a strong Turkish coffee and Turkish delight of course! And like many places in Fener-Balat, you will find that even the cafes and shops are steeped in history.
One of our favourite places was Evin Unlu Mamuller (Balat Mahallesi, Vodina Caddesi, No. 82/A) a local bakery that has been operating since 1923. The bakery window is a biscuit lovers dream - there are all sorts of biscuits and pastries that will satisfy your sweet tooth. Our favourites were the icing sugar dusted, rectangular apple cookies that tasted like the child of an apple strudel and an apple turnover danish pastry. Simply yums. You can also get a coffee with your pastry of choice to takeout and the friendly owners are more than happy to explain the whole gamut of sweet treats on offer.
Sticking with the theme of sweets, Merkez Sekercisi (Ayvansaray Mah. Leblebiciler Sok. No.33) is an old school style sweet shop that sells homemade ice cream and delicious Turkish delights. And guess what? This shop first opened 140 years ago! The owner inherited it from his grandfather and has worked there since he was a young boy. The sweets are baked fresh each day and it's the perfect place to stop for a break on your walking tour of Fener-Balat. If homemade ice cream and Turkish delight doesn't tickle your pickles, don't worry, there's Turkish style revani (sweet semolina cake soaked in honey) and baklava that we are sure will get your mouth watering.
For all of you Turkish coffee 'turk kahvesi' (or general coffee) addicts out there, there are a plethora of coffee focused places that you can try. We really liked the cosy Aski Ruba Kafe (Ayvansaray Mahallesi, 1/1, Kürkçü Çesmesi Sk) in Balat for their Turkish coffee, particularly as they have a number of flavours that we haven't seen elsewhere, including cinnamon and clove. The owner prepares the coffee outside in the traditional way, over hot sand, and it is served with several flavours of Turkish delight. There is a small seating area upstairs overlooking the street, which is a great place to watch the comings and goings of Balat.
If you like to have a coffee whilst also browsing some interesting antiques, you could also try Balat Residence Cafe and Antique (Balat Mahallesi, Vodina Cd. No.120). As well as coffee, they also serve Turkish breakfasts, menemen (Turkish style scrambled eggs) and a number of other dishes including pasta and soup.
If you visit Istanbul in the winter and want something a bit different, you should try the traditional winter warming drinks of salep and boza in Balat Sokak Lezzetleri (Balat Mahallesi, Vodina Cd. No.102). Boza is a fermented drink made out of grains such as durum wheat or barley, water and sugar and is traditionally topped with roasted chickpeas and a sprinkling of cinnamon. It's a thick, heavy drink that definitely warms you up from the inside and is great on a freezing Istanbul winter day.
Similarly, salep is made out of finely ground orchid root, milk and sugar and is also served with a dusting of cinnamon. Both salep and boza are rich drinks that make you feel really full, so it's better not to drink them after a heavy meal as you end up feeling like your stomach is going to burst. We found this out the hard way when we first tried salep after gorging on a mezze selection at a lokanta 'tradesman restaurant' in Fethiye. We wouldn't recommend doing this. Ever.
There are many more cafes in Fener-Balat in addition to the ones we've highlighted above - just let your feet wander and you are sure to come across some gems.
4) Affordable Accommodation
Our decision to stay in the Fener-Balat neighbourhood was also influenced by our budget. When looking for a place to stay, we found that the cheapest hotel rooms cost at least £40 per night, with most being in the region of £50 - £60 per night. The reviews for many of these cheap two and three star hotels weren't great and so we were really keen to find other options. Of course, we could have looked at staying in a hostel for a really dirt cheap price, but to be perfectly honest, we don't enjoy sharing rooms and bathrooms (apart from with each other, because otherwise that would make things really difficult) and we wanted to be somewhere that was clean and comfortable.
We found Ozkan's place on AirBnb and it looked cosy and lovely. The studio apartment cost £25 per night to rent, and including the cleaning and service fees from AirBnb, averaged out at £33 per night. The apartment had a fully equipped kitchen as well and whilst we ate out most of the time we were in Istanbul, it was good to have the option to make dinner at home if we fancied it.
Ozkan's place also had something else going for it - central heating. In the summer months, this wouldn't even be a consideration (it also has air conditioning, if you are wondering) but during the 0 degree days and -3 degree nights of an Istanbul winter, it was an absolute godsend. Stepping out of the freezing weather and into that toasty apartment was pure bliss.
In terms of location, the area of Fener-Balat is served by a number of buses that go into the centre of Istanbul including the 99, 99A and 55T (the last bus actually takes you directly to Taksim square). We used an Istanbulkart to get on the buses, which is the contactless smart card payment for all public transport in Istanbul, including the trams. One card was enough for the both of us and we could top it up at most tram and bus stations. Google maps was actually really helpful in showing us which buses and trams would take us back to Fener-Balat when we were in different parts of Istanbul. And when we were feeling really lazy, or it was just too cold or late to wait for a bus...we used Uber, which was pretty reasonably priced.
Fener-Balat is changing. The area is becoming increasingly trendy as artists, graphic designers, architects and hip cafes move in. Hopefully the neighbourhood will continue to retain its traditional, local feel as it develops, but in the meantime, we hope we've convinced you to visit. You won't be disappointed!
Have you been to Fener-Balat? Tell us what you think of our suggestions in your comments below!