Touring Balat Neighborhood in Istanbul – How to Make the Most of Your Visit
Last updated on May 22nd, 2023
With its colorful houses, nostalgic streets, different works of art from different periods and cultural heritage, Balat in Istanbul is one of the most interesting neighborhoods to visit.
This charming settlement, which has its own beauty in every season, is one of the bucket list places in Istanbul if you are interested in exploring the history and culture of the largest city of Turkey and seeing where many popular Turkish TV series were shot.
Until recently Balat was still a hidden gem not discovered and unable to offer much to a traveler. But within the last couple of years, it has risen a lot and turned into a real center of attraction just like Karakoy, Arnavutkoy, and Moda neighborhood in Kadikoy.
Besides pretty colorful houses that you may have seen on the internet, Balat is home to a number of important historical and cultural landmarks, designer shops, boutique cafes, gastropubs and modern antique shops.
Visiting Balat will be definitely a wonderful addition to your Istanbul itinerary no matter if your trip is long or short!
See this quick guide below to Balat and the nearby Fener neighborhood to understand when is better to visit Balat, what to know about its history, places to eat, shops to check, historical landmarks not to miss, and of course where to find colorful houses in Balat that inspired many TV series and movies.
Quick Introduction to the Balat Neighborhood in Istanbul
Balat is an old historic quarter on the European side of Istanbul with a long history dating back to the Byzantine and Ottoman empires. It is known for its rich cultural and architectural heritage, narrow streets with colorful houses, many of which are adorned with intricate tile work and ornate facades.
Balat was the center of the Jewish community in Istanbul, especially after 1492 when the Sephardic Jews were expelled from Spain and the Ottoman Empire welcomed them with open arms and offered to settle in Balat. Since then Jews have been living in this neighborhood for years together with inhabitants from different faiths and backgrounds.
Balat is considered to be a special and historically significant place with a wide variety of ethnicities, cultures, and religions. It is home to the Greek Orthodox College, the Church of St Stephen of the Bulgars, and 18 synagogues that represent the diversity of the neighborhood and the city as a whole, as they are places of worship for different religious communities.
You can still find many of these religious buildings today when being on a walk through Balat. Though most residents are Muslims, you can still feel the essence today.
The colorful Balat became part of the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1985. Since then, it has undergone a process of gentrification with many of its old houses being renovated and converted into trendy cafes, restaurants, and boutique hotels. Renovations still take place around the entire area but it doesn’t interfere with walks through the cobbled streets with historical buildings. Some of them are the most photographed spots in Istanbul.
Despite these changes, the neighborhood has managed to retain its traditional character and remains a popular destination for tourists and locals alike.
So, keep reading to find answers to the most common questions about Balat Istanbul as well as about the most popular places to visit.
FAQs About Balat Istanbul
Where is Balat?
Balat is part of the old town on the European side of Istanbul. It’s located next to the Golden Horn in the Fatih district between the neighborhoods of Fener and Ayvansaray.
Even though the Balat location is well-known, you still feel like you are walking into a hidden area that feels like no other place in Istanbul.
Is Balat Istanbul Safe?
There have been reviews and blogs written saying Balat is an old, conservative, and dangerous neighborhood not worth a visit. While it is true that there is a big conservative population living there now, Balat is a very welcoming quarter filled with families that have been living here for generations.
If you speak a bit of Turkish or if you’re ready to use your Google translator, be open to starting conversations with some of the locals. They will eagerly tell you about their families and their neighborhood, and will also ask you tons of questions about your background to learn more about their welcomed guest.
Some neglected and poor areas on the border of Balat with Ayvansaray and Fener are not the colorful houses you see online. You may want to avoid walking there late at night or if you a female traveling solo.
But, if you follow this guide and stick to places I recommend, you will visit this dreamy neighborhood while staying absolutely safe. Balat is so worth visiting or staying at while you are in Istanbul.
Best Time To Visit Balat, Istanbul
It depends on the day of the week and season. From late spring to early fall, the best time to visit Balat is in the first part of the day before the area becomes too crowded.
Early spring in Istanbul and Istanbul winter are not those seasons when Balat sees too many people. So you can visit pretty much any time of the day. Mornings and afternoons are still the best as you can enjoy an incredible breakfast (that Balat is also famous for) and take better photos of popular streets as there will be fewer tourists.
Weekends are always busy which can be a challenge for some people.
How Much Time to Spend in Balat?
This depends on many things but as a photographer, I can spend days capturing beautiful images of the people, the cobbled streets, the views, and cafes with different lighting at different times of the day. I personally have been to Balat many times and there was always something new to do.
Realistically though, if you are visiting Istanbul on a short trip, staying somewhere else, and just want to visit Balat, I will say half a day or 6 hours will be enough to enjoy this unique neighborhood.
How to Find Colorful Houses in Balat
The colorful houses of Balat have become one of the symbols of the neighborhood that have been decorating it for ages.
The most popular street with colorful houses is Merdivenli Yokus Evleri which is also one of the most photographed places in Balat. But there are many more quirky streets with cute wooden houses all over the district.
Other Balat streets with colorful houses that I love are Kiremit Caddesi, Sadik Ahmet Caddesi, and Corbaci Cesmesi Sokak. There is also a pretty street Burcak Sokak with Turkish flags. And one more location which is extremely popular with tourists is the colored staircase at the cafe “Incir Agaci Kahvesi” and the decor of the cafe itself.
However, if you wander away from all the tourists and turn to quiet streets, you’ll end up finding many more old gorgeous houses that are no less special as well as streets with colorful umbrellas, ropes with clothes, and rows of antiques. Like here:
Is Balat the Same as Fener?
The Balat quarter in Istanbul smoothly flows into the neighboring Greek quarter of Fener, but you won’t even feel the difference between them. Turkish people often consider these two neighborhoods as a whole.
One difference between them is that Balat has a more diverse population and a mix of different cultures and religions. It is home to a large Greek Orthodox community, as well as Jewish, Muslim, and Armenian residents. Fener, on the other hand, is mostly a Greek Orthodox neighborhood and is known for its historic churches and monasteries.
Overall, both neighborhoods are worth visiting for their charming streets, colorful houses, and rich cultural history, especially considering how close they are next to each other.
Why Visit Balat Neighborhood in Istanbul
Many people who visit Balat, do it mainly for its colorful houses and Instagram worthy photos. However, that’s not the only reason to go to this quirky neighborhood.
A visit to Balat on your trip to Istanbul can give a unique insight into the city’s past and present since there are a lot of important buildings and symbols of history and diversity.
There is also a number of charming streets lined with cafes and restaurants where you can try traditional Turkish cuisine and drinks. The quarter is known for its delicious food, so be sure to try a few local specialties while you are there like dibek coffee (Naftalin cafe has a good one) or Bosnian cuisine for example.
And if visiting in the morning, do not miss Turkish breakfast, in Balat there are quite a few nice restaurants offering it.
Balat also has a number of small vendors who sell everything from fresh produce to handmade crafts. They offer plenty of souvenirs and give a sense of the local culture.
Overall, the Balat neighborhood in Istanbul has a distinct character and charm that is not found in other parts of the city.
How to Get to Balat Istanbul
Balat has two ferry ports, bus and tram stops, and even a seaplane base. And since it is located in a very central part of Istanbul, there are many options for how to get there by different means of transportation.
Depending on the neighborhood where you come from, you can take the ferry from Uskudar, Karakoy, and a few other points along the Bosphorus.
The T5 tram will take you to the beginning of Balat Park from where you can either walk to the heart of the Balat neighborhood along the boardwalk or make a transfer near the Ataturk Bridge in Eminonu and hop on a bus to ride a couple of stops.
The bus line connects Balat very well with the rest of the city. Some of the bus lines you can take are 33, 35D, 36CE, 41Y, 44B, 99A, 399B and so on, they are marked as the yellow lines and you can take them to/from Nisantasi, Karakoy, Eminonu, and the north of Istanbul.
If you want to go to Balat by bus, you can take the buses from Eminönü Square towards Balat Beach. You can visit IETT’s website to learn about the buses going from Eminönü to Balat and their timetable.
If you want to go to Balat by metro bus, you can get off at the Ayvansaray stop and walk along the beach to reach Balat.
Best Way to Explore Balat Quarter
I’ve been to Balat numerous times, exploring it on my own and with a guide, and each time it was different and special in some ways. After all my visits, I can offer some suggestions for exploring the neighborhood:
1.) Take a walking tour – it is one of the best ways to explore Balat. This will allow you to see the neighborhood at a fast pace but not miss anything and learn about its history and culture from a local guide.
If you are on a shoestring budget, this free walking tour of Balat by a historian is a wonderful introduction to the neighborhood where you get to learn all important information in an interesting way!
Check out some of these other awesome tours of Fener & Balat:
2.) See the historic Greek Orthodox church the Balat Church, located in the heart of the neighborhood. It is a beautiful building with intricate architectural details, and it is well worth a visit.
3.) Visit the Balat Museum which is a small museum located in a historic house. It showcases the history and culture of the area through exhibits and displays.
4.) Eat and drink in Balat as the number of dining establishments is high and many of them offer excellent food. Take some time to sit and relax in one of the restaurants and soak up the atmosphere.
Should You Stay in Balat?
Balat is a beautiful place to stay, where you can find astonishing accommodations inside historical buildings and even a 5-star hotel.
However, for first-time visitors, Balat is not the right neighborhood where to stay in for many reasons.
First of all, it doesn’t have a Havaist bus Airport transfer. This will minimize your options to either a taxi, private car service or public transportation that will force you to walk up the steep hills with your luggage.
Second, staying in Balat will not give the right presentation of Istanbul as a city.
Balat is well connected to other points of Istanbul, but its feel of being hidden and remote will seem like you must travel long distances to get to all the attractions in the city.
So, if this is your first time in Istanbul and you want to maximize your time in the city, I would not recommend staying in Balat.
On the other hand, if you have been to Istanbul before and you like to come once or twice a year, then Balat will be a yes. It is a great option to get deeper into the local life and see a calmer and more harmonious side of Istanbul.
Among recommended accommodations options, I suggest you look into Hotel Troya Balat or Petrion hotel as they both have excellent location and fantastic views of the Golden Horn. Airbnbs in Balat are somewhat average.
Cool Things to Do in Balat, Istanbul on Your Own
Just walking along Balat streets and along the Golden Horn is an experience. The 200-year-old colorful houses, endless cafes and restaurants will give you the perfect excuse to take a break as you climb up the very steep but beautiful streets of the old Istanbul Jewish quarter.
But, let me share my favorite spots when in Balat. Let’s start with the eclectic mix of churches, mosques, synagogues, and schools:
Fener Greek High School and the Virgin Mary Church (Bloody Church)
This is the oldest operating and most prestigious Greek Orthodox school. The intense red color and the majestic architecture of this building make you walk around to enjoy every angle of it.
The church is one of the few that was never converted into a mosque and exemplifies the splendor of the Byzantine empire.
St Stephen’s Orthodox Church
Also known as the Bulgarian Iron Church. The iron casting was made in Vienna and the belfry tower was a gift from Russia. I love walking along the coast and seeing this magnificent building.
Ferruh Kethüda Mosque
Built by the famous Ottoman architect, Sinan. This mosque was built initially as a dervish convent’s complex. One of my favorite things is visiting religious buildings for their architectural styles and the peace they give, even though I am not a religious person.
Even with the blue details contrasting the white walls and the garden outside, this mosque is very simple compared to other Sinan’s constructions.
Pammakaristos Church or Fethiye Mosque
You will find here the most Byzantine mosaics in Istanbul after the Hagia Sophia.
This building was converted into a mosque in 1591, and it truly makes you travel in time when you are in the presence of a place that has been influenced and “owned” by different beliefs and faiths.
Go Shopping in Balat
Shopping in Balat is also an experience that you don’t want to miss. In this neighborhood, you will find small art galleries, secondhand and vintage clothing stores, fresh produce, and spices.
Feel free to wander around and stumble upon unique items that you can find only in Balat. Do not expect to find big brands or shopping mall experiences here.
One place that I would recommend not to miss to do some unique shopping in Balat is Mistik Atoyle.
The owner/artist is one of a kind. He always dresses in colorful, artistic clothes, and he likes to talk to everyone. He uses different materials to create his art pieces and shows a very happy and mystique style.
My Favorite Cafes in Balat Istanbul
As I mentioned before, there are tons of cafes and restaurants where to eat in Balat. There are also plenty of meyhanes (traditional restaurants that serve traditional foods and alcoholic drinks), famous for mezzes and seafood dishes. They serve alcohol, so back in the days only non-Muslims ran these businesses, like Armenians or Greeks.
Most establishments are beautiful and even though I haven’t tried them all, I will share my favorites with you here.
Dimitrie Cantemir Museum Café
Dimitrie Cantemir was a Romanian prince and one of the most significant figures in the Enlightenment period. He was exiled to Constantinople and lived in this house that now is turned into a beautiful and colorful café.
I would recommend having breakfast or coffee/cay in this location. Be aware that this place is quite famous so make a reservation during peak season and weekends if you want to enjoy your time at one of the outside tables.
A very popular cafe which probably everyone knows about.
This place is elegant, colorful, cozy, and has a home feeling. Yes! All of that is in just one spot. Great for brunch and Turkish breakfast with a huge selection of coffees.
Incir Agaci Kahvesi
A relaxed and quaint place. The decorations exemplify the character of Balat. You will see some pictures of old Turkish artist such as Turkan Soray.
Have a coffee, cay or something to refresh yourself. Then, start the photo session with the colorful umbrellas, steps, and outside seating area with the trees.
Agora Meyhanesi 1890
One of the most popular restaurants in Balat. It can get a bit pricey, but they have a plethora of options for mezes and seafood.
The great thing about this place is that the waiters are very helpful. They can guide you to navigate all the options based on your likes.
I prefer this dedicated service especially for people who are not very familiar with Turkish mezes. Anything you order, pair it with Raki (a licorice alcoholic Turkish beverage). If you are not visiting in a group, do not order a big bottle. Instead, get a small one or even individual glasses to try.
Etis Balat Kebap Evi
A very local and simple spot, but their food is delicious at an affordable price. My favorite dishes here are Adana Kebap (lamb) and Ciger sis (liver).
As you can see, there is really a long list of things to do in Balat as well as a long list of cafes to check out. The neighborhood is incredibly rich in history and promises a rewarding experience. Get your phone/camera ready and go to Balat to have an unpredicted adventure in Istanbul!
Looking for more cool neighborhoods in Istanbul? Here are some of my favorites:
- Guide to all neighborhoods and areas in Istanbul – get to know them all
- Istanbul Old City discovery – touring Sultanahmet, the historical center of Istanbul
- Arnavutoy neighborhood – one of the most romantic areas in Istanbul
- Dat trip to Burgaz island – avoid the crowds and visit the best beaches in Istanbul