In a city that’s been the capital of three different empires, it’s no surprise that in every corner of Istanbul there’s a window into history. If you’re curious about the past and enjoy a walk, then grab a pair of comfortable shoes and take an enchanting trip back in time through the streets of the UNESCO-protected Fener Balat. A great place to start your Fener Balat tour is Kadir Has University in Cibali. From here you can see the city ramparts built in the fifth century under the orders of Emperor Theodosius. The gate in the Cibali district, built within the walls, was known as the Porta del Pozza. The district name comes from Cebe Ali Bey, who apparently burst through the Porta del Pozza when he conquered Istanbul. Over time, it’s become known as Cibali by the locals.
The central campus building of Kadir Has University was once the Cibali Tobacco Factory, which began operating in 1884. The building reflects the neoclassical architectural design typical of that era. While Cibali might be one of the less affluent areas of the city today, it’s certainly rich in terms of historical heritage.
The magnificent Bulgarian St. Stephen Church located right on the waterfront is one of the most important stops on any Fener Balat tour. The church was built using an iron frame rather than concrete and is open to the public. Next to the Bulgarian Church you’ll find Camhane, a wonderful little glass workshop. The space is owned by the glass artist Yasemin Aslan Bakiri and is full of striking pieces. She uses the old method of sand casting to give life to her incredible creations.
As you continue walking, you notice the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate. This modest building has deep historical significance, as it’s a Greek church in a city which was once the capital of the Roman Empire. Today it serves as the symbolic center of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and as a center of pilgrimage for Orthodox Christians. It’s the best place to visit to see what a Byzantine church would have looked like during its heyday in Istanbul.
Continue walking towards Fener, and a mosque of brick and stone appears in front of you. Gül Mosque is a relic from the Eastern Roman Empire and represents a piece of Byzantine history. En route, you pass the Church of St. Nicholas and an art studio belonging to Cahide Erel, among others.
On the approach to Sancaktar Hill, a building of true majesty begins to present itself. Before the fall of Constantinople, this was the Patriarchal Academy, however, it’s now the Fener Greek High School. Even though you can’t enter and explore, it is one of the architectural highlights and is definitely worth a stop for a few photos on your Fener Balat tour.
If you want to sit down, relax, and have a well-earned bite to eat, Balat Agora Meyhanesi is the perfect place. Get ready to feast on delicious mezes (tapas) prepared the old Istanbul way.
You feel like you’re in a movie scene as you wander through the historic streets of Balat. The European Union has supported the restoration of the area, and the resulting houses of multicolored tiles give Balat an almost fairy-tale quality—not that it’s lost any of its humble neighborhood charm, with laundry hanging from the balconies, flowers in the window boxes, and churlish cats wandering the streets.
There aren’t many opportunities for shopping in Fener Balat, but it’s certainly worth taking a look at Mine Atalar’s boutique, Minush, where you’ll find a selection of beautifully designed women’s shoes and accessories.