Explore Balat - Istanbul's most colorful neighbourhood
Balat is the kind of place I always want to return to and enjoy the homely neighborhood feeling. The diversity of its residents from various cultural backgrounds and beliefs (Jewish, Christians, Orthodox and Muslims) formed a rich mosaic of fantastic architecture, monuments, colors, traditions and food. Balat preserves the spirit of old Istanbul, hosting a small Jewish community (Ahrida Synagogue is one of Istanbul's oldest synagogues, built in the 1400s), the patriarchate of the Eastern Orthodox Church, and some of the most beautiful churches and Christian art in the world (Chora Museum displays Muslim and Christian artwork).
It was a Tuesday morning when we decided with my friend Gabi to explore its colorful streets. Luckily enough, we found ourselves straight into the weekly market, which was packed with locals. The sellers were calling their customers by name, as though they knew each other for a long time. The market prides itself with fresh organic produce, but you can also find clothes and branded cosmetics. After bargaining for a MAC eye shadow palette, like true housewives, we went on to find a good breakfast place.
One of the oldest districts in Istanbul, formerly known as the little Greece, it is nowadays a trendy hangout place with unique design stores and hip cafes. Among them is Forno Balat, a small and minimalist place, famous for its rich Sunday brunches, pide and lahmacun. After eating our menemen and sucuklu pide, we went on to conquer Balat’s hills and find the Greek Orthodox College Fener. Built in the 1880s, the locals call it kirmizi kale (red castle), due to its red brick and castle-like façade. The resemblance is not by chance, as the Greek architect Konstantinos Dimadis was known for his European castles designs. The college became the area’s landmark, which attracts large crowds, such as history enthusiasts, photographers and avid explorers. We caught our breath on the stairways next to Fener and enjoyed the views – children playing carelessly in the streets, shabby Ottoman mansions leaning against each other, connected by lines of drying clothes and the Golden Horn shining in the daylight sun.
After exploring the hills, we headed out to Vodina Street – the heart of the district. Here you can find a large selection of antique shops and even an auction house - Fener Antik Mezat, where every day at sunset people gather to auction for vintage items. The street is filled with tiny art workshops, local shopkeepers and boutique cafes. The smell of freshly baked bread will draw you inside one of the oldest bakeries in Istanbul. The 60 years old Tarihi Taş Fırın Evin Unlu Mamulleri is baking their famous crispy crackers after the same recipe in the original stone oven. If you want to enjoy the old Turkish style of eating and drinking, head over to Agora Meyhanesi, a 140 years old meeting point for locals and travellers.
HAVE SOME COLOR - Best of Balat
Cafe Naftalin K. - A Bohemian cafe, with a retro decor and vintage items scattered throughout the place. If you are a cat lover, you'll enjoy the furry little guests, as they are lounging on chairs and tables. Try Naftalin K's daily home-made sweets, such as the cute little cat biscuits, or a coffee with cardamom.
Cooklife - This is the place where you'll find quality coffee, delicious breakfast options, friendly atmosphere and a modern design. It is famous especially among local creatives, as the building also hosts the offices of the Based Istanbul fashion and lifestyle magazine.
Cumbali Kahve - A definite visit for the coffee connoisseur. They roast their coffee in-house, offer different types of coffee and preparation methods. The tiny corner cafe is easily spotted, due to its bright blue exterior and the colorful umbrellas outside.
Asitane - If you wish to try delicious dishes, recreating Ottoman recipes, than this is the place to go to. Among Asitane's culinary highlights you will find the almond soup and the melon with minced lamb.
Baran Et & Mangal - This small, unpretentious barbecue restaurant offers a delicious variety of meats cooked on a charcoal grill. There is no menu, you are choosing your meat from the counter and they serve it with their house salad and appetisers.
Balat Sahil Restaurant - A place for fish lovers, Balat Sahil Restaurant offers more than 30 different appetiser choices and different fresh fishes. Locals come here to just enjoy their national drink - raki and the delicious meze.