Exploring Off-the-Beaten-Path Neighborhoods in Istanbul
My decision to pursue working and living in Istanbul was preceded by a week-long sojourn in the city as a tourist. Needless to say, I fell in love. There is something about the layering of diverse cultures, religions and histories that make this city one of the most fascinating places I have ever been.
During our week in the city, my friend Dita and I were devout tourists. We were really quite proud of ourselves for our ambitious schedule. We’d done our research and felt we’d done a pretty good job of hitting all the top-rated spots.
There are several qualities of these neighborhoods that set them apart from any other area of the city. You will immediately notice the narrow, winding streets, which make it very easy to get lost.
It wasn’t until six months later, as a new resident of the city, that someone suggested taking a look around the neighborhoods of Balat and Fener. My brother had arrived from the States for a visit, and as I had the week off from work, we heeded the suggestion and headed to these historic neighborhoods.
Located side by side in Fatih, a huge district and municipality of Istanbul that contains most of what was formerly Constantinople, Fener and Balat were once grand neighborhoods inhabited by Greek and Jewish residents. Over the ensuing centuries, however, these areas fell into poverty and disrepair.
Fortunately their historical value has been recognized in recent years, and with their inclusion in the UNESCO World Heritage List’s Historic Areas of Istanbul, some restoration and redevelopment efforts have begun to revitalize the area.
This maze of alleys is filled with hundreds of colorfully painted Ottoman-style houses, groups of working-class children running in packs, and laundry hanging from balconies and strung between buildings on lines high above the street.
There are several qualities of these neighborhoods that set them apart from any other area of the city. You will immediately notice the narrow, winding streets, which make it very easy to get lost. This maze of alleys is filled with hundreds of colorfully painted Ottoman-style houses, groups of working-class children running in packs, and laundry hanging from balconies and strung between buildings on lines high above the street.
There is a stark contrast between the buildings which have been restored and meticulously cared for and those that have been neglected and are literally in ruins. If you are anything like me, you will find many to be an artsy photo-op.
One thing you are not likely to see a lot of is tourists. As I mentioned before, Dita and I felt as if we had done our research, but somehow a visit to this area hadn’t even been on our radar. While researching this article I read somewhere that less than 1 percent of tourists visit this part of the city. While I can’t verify the accuracy of that figure, on the several occasions I have ventured there I have seen only a few other foreigners.
There are two very important sites in the area. One is in Fener, the historic Greek neighborhood. This place is the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. While I don’t know a lot about the history of Orthodox Christianity, my understanding is that the Ecumenical Patriarchate is the Orthodox equivalent of the Pope, and the Patriarchate of Constantinople is the equivalent of St. Peter’s in Rome. In any event, the church is worth visiting. It is difficult to find, but you will enjoy getting lost on the way and if you start seeing a lot of religious souvenir shops with icons and trinkets for pilgrims, you are probably close.
The detail and quality of the mosaics, especially considering their age and the fact that they weren’t completely destroyed during the Ottoman period are astounding.
The other important site, located in Balat, is The Church of the Holy Savior in Chora, otherwise known as the Chora Museum or Kariye Müzesi in Turkish. This one does find its way into many guidebooks and travel sites, but it doesn’t seem to get the recognition it deserves as one of the most amazing places to visit in the city. The detail and quality of the mosaics, especially considering their age and the fact that they weren’t completely destroyed during the Ottoman period are astounding.
Like the Patriarchate, the Chora is difficult to find and you may not be able to find it at all without help from a map, the locals or a GPS. You could also take a cab from Eminönü to the museum and then walk down the hill and into the neighborhoods from there.
I’m glad that I got a chance to live in Istanbul and rectify the mistake I made as a tourist of not exploring Fener and Balat. I hope that if you have a chance to visit Istanbul you will consider taking a day to wander through these neighborhoods.
One thing to be conscious of if you do decide to explore this area is that Fatih in general is considered to be one of the more conservative areas of Istanbul. Women wearing revealing clothing will probably receive a lot of unnecessary attention, so wearing something more modest during your visit would be to your advantage.
Just like any unfamiliar area of a city, I wouldn’t want to be alone here at night as a woman. Even though people in this area are very helpful and friendly, I might feel a bit uncomfortable alone here even during the day, if only because the comparative rarity of foreigners guarantees extra stares from the locals.
Have you explored off the beaten path neighborhoods in Istanbul? We’d love to hear about it. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to share you experience.