Balat is one of Istanbul’s hidden gems. It’s a charming and historic neighbourhood that’s filled with colourful streets, rich cultural heritage, vibrant art and food scene and lively nightlife. It offers a unique blend of old and new, making it a must-visit destination for everyone’s Istanbul itinerary.
As you wander through the narrow alleys, you’ll be transported back in time to a bygone era. The area is home to some of the city’s oldest buildings, many of which have been lovingly restored to their former glory. From grand Ottoman mansions to colourful wooden houses, the architecture here is a feast for the eyes.
In this guide, I’ll cover some key information such as the location, how to get there and the history of the neighbourhood. I’ll then get into the best things to do, where to eat and where to stay. At the end of the guide, you’ll find some frequently asked questions, however, if you have any further questions then drop a comment at the bottom of the page.
Where is Balat in Istanbul?
Balat is situated along the Bosphorus straight in the Faith district which sits on the European side of Istanbul.
Below is an interactive map so that you can see the exact location.
How to get to Balat in Istanbul
Walking to Balat from main touristic areas in Istanbul such as Eminönü or Karaköy is more than doable. In fact, it’s quite an enjoyable walk alongside the Bosphorous for almost the entire way.
Depending on where you’re coming from, it will take between 30-50 minutes.
- Public transport
If you want to take public transport, then you’ll need to hop on the T5 tram at Cibali, After travelling for just 6 minutes, you’ll arrive at Balat.
To take any of the public transport in Istanbul, you’ll need to have purchased a travel card known as an ‘Istanbulkart’ which you can top up throughout your time in Istanbul.
Check prices: Istanbulkart
If you’d prefer to take and Uber or a taxi, then simply flag down a cab or order an Uber. However, given the congestion in Istanbul, this will likely take longer than the tram. Typical journey times are between 15 and 25 minutes.
What is Balat known for?
Balat is best known for its colourful houses, diverse culture and rich history. It’s riddled with narrow streets, charming coffee shops, and in recent years, it’s become popular for its street art and galleries.
Whilst it’s a quirky neighbourhood that seems to be attracting more tourists by the day, it’s still very much an authentic area of Istanbul. Many of the residents living here have done so for years and are still trying to adjust to the influx of visitors in what used to be fairly quiet streets.
Is Balat safe?
Although Balat was once known as being a fairly dangerous part of the city, in recent years it has undergone significant redevelopment with a number of new cafes, restaurants hotels and shops opening up in the area and is now considered very safe.
Whilst you should always be cautious of your belongings when visiting a new place, it’s unlikely that you’ll find yourself in any trouble in this part of the city.
That being said, if you’re considering walking back from Balat to Istanbul city centre after dark then you may want to rethink the decision, as parts of the journey lead through less-touristic neighbourhoods which are not as safe.
Who lives in Balat?
Balat has always been a very multicultural part of the city and historically had a large Jewish community which is still represented by the number of synagogues in the area today.
Whilst it’s still home to a number of different ethnicities and religions, today it’s one of the most popular places to live for young professionals and artists living in Istanbul.
Best time to visit
The best time to visit Balat depends on what kind of vibe you like the most.
Below is what you can expect during different times of the year.
April, May, September, October, and November | if you’re visiting during these months then you can expect the weather to be relatively mild with few tourists on the street. The prices will also be lower compared to other months during the year.
June, July and August | these months are when Balat is its most busy. You’ll experience lively streets and a bustling atmosphere with a number of outdoor events and festivals to get involved in. However, this is when both temperature and prices are at their highest as it’s peak season.
December, January and February | these are the winter months in Istanbul and temperatures can often be cold with occasional rain forecast. Yet, you’ll see fewer tourists on the street and you’ll benefit from cheaper prices during this time.
Ultimately, the best time to visit Balat in Istanbul depends on your preferences and what you hope to experience during your trip. Regardless of when you go, you’re sure to fall in love with this vibrant and historic neighbourhood.
Things to do in Balat
Admire the colourful houses
As with most cities, there are a lot of grey buildings across Istanbul, but this quirky-looking neighbourhood adds a big dollop of colour. With houses every shade of the rainbow, these colourful properties in Balat are certainly one of the most Instagrammable places in Istanbul.
Although almost every building in this area is painted with a bold colour, there are some which are much more desirable than others to photograph – the most popular location is Kiremit street.
If you’re looking for the perfect image, then you’ll want to beat the crowds that flock to Kiremit street to get the classic photo of this area. I’d recommend heading here before 9 am if you can.
Find a bargain at an antique shop
When it comes to hunting for antiques in Istanbul, this area is a goldmine. Whether you’re looking for unique furniture, ancient ceramics or collectables, you’ll be overwhelmed by the amount on offer here.
Some of the best places to find hidden gems are:
- Antikacılar Çarşısı
Antikacılar Çarşısı is an antique market slap bang in the middle of the neighbourhood and there’s not much you can’t find here. Whether you’re searching for vintage jewellery, large pieces of furniture or random little titbits, you’ll almost certainly bag yourself a bargain.
- Mekan Antik İstanbul
Mekan Antik is a truly marvellous place for finding special things and what’s even better is that the owners are just excellent. They run auctions for items which pique significant interest, which is an experience in itself. And, who knows, you may be heading home with a very special present to yourself.
- Lighthouse Antique Auctions
Lighthouse Antique Auctions is another auction-based antique store where you can bag some bargains. It’s much bigger than many of the other antique shops in the area and so there are a lot of goodies to be found. Auctions are mostly run on the weekends from around 3 pm and it can get pretty crowded, so be sure to head there early if you’ve seen something which you like.
Bag yourself some vintage clothes
Similarly to finding fabulous antiques, if you’re looking for vintage clothes in Istanbul then this is the area to be in. There are tonnes of incredible vintage clothes shops scattered around the cobbled colourful streets of Balat, but there is one clear winner that never fails to produce some excellent garments:
- Backstage Vintage
Backstage Vintage sells both men’s and women’s clothes as well as things like handbags and sunglasses. They sell true vintage items for a decent price and have staff who are super willing to dig through what’s in the store to find you your perfect item.
Visit İstanbul Haliç Bulgar Kilisesi
Istanbul Haliç Bulgar Kilisesi, also known as the Bulgarian Church of St. Stephen, is a historic Bulgarian Orthodox church situated on the edge of the neighbourhood and overlooks the water. Unlike the rest of the neighbourhood which is bright and colourful, the church is white and gold with grand architecture.
The church was built in the late 19th century by Bulgarian architect Hovsep Aznavur and served as the centre of the Bulgarian community in Istanbul for many years – particularly during the turbulent years of the early 20th century. During World War I, the church was used as a hospital and refuge for wounded soldiers and civilians, and many members of the Bulgarian community sought shelter there during the chaos of the war.
This stunning church is a testament to the rich cultural heritage of Istanbul and the important role played by its diverse communities throughout history. Today, it’s still an active place of worship and is open to visitors who wish to explore its history and architecture for free.
Pet the cute street cats
If you’ve ever been to Turkey you’ll know that there are cats absolutely everywhere. And, Istanbul is not excluded from that.
In fact, in Istanbul, it seems that they’re looked after particularly well and seem to each have their own ‘home’ that they return to for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Aside from the lack of spray and neuter programs, one of the main reasons why there are so many cats in Istanbul is because they are considered to be clean and often depicted as companions to the Prophet Muhammad. In a country like Turkey where there are many religious people, cats are therefore respected and well looked after.
You’ll notice that if you’re in a cafe or restaurant, it’s more than likely that you will have a cat curled up in a ball on the seat next to you.
Check out the street art
As if Balat wasn’t colourful enough, the street art scene here throws in a little extra. Since the early 2000s, local artists have been showing off their talents by covering walls and buildings in the neighbourhood with impressive and detailed graffiti.
In fact, in more recent years, incredibly well-known graffiti artists have been paying a visit to the area to leave their mark. Shepard Fairey is among a number of artists who contributed to the neighbourhood by creating a mural of the human rights activist Leyla Güven.
It’s hard to go more than a few hundred metres without spotting some street art and some of the best are photographed above, however, there is always new stuff popping up.
Take a trip to the Church of St. Mary of the Mongols
Church of St. Mary of the Mongols was built in the early 13th century during the Byzantine Empire and was later converted into a mosque during the Ottoman period and has a unique history and significance in Istanbul’s cultural heritage.
It’s believed to have been built by a Byzantine noblewoman, Maria Palaiologina, who married a Mongol prince and became a member of the Mongol royal family. After her husband’s death, Maria returned to Constantinople and built the church as a tribute to her Mongol heritage.
The church has a distinctive red brick exterior and a traditional Byzantine cross-in-square plan, with a central dome and four smaller domes. The interior of the church is adorned with colourful frescoes and mosaics, including a large image of the Virgin Mary on the apse – it really is a stunning sight that you’ll notice many people climbing the hillside to see.
As mentioned, during the Ottoman period, the church was converted into a mosque and became known as the Imrahor Mosque. It served as a place of worship for the local Muslim community for many years until it was restored and returned to its original function as a Byzantine Orthodox church in the 20th century.
You can see it from almost anywhere in the neighbourhood since it’s on top of the hill, and visitors can enter for free to marvel at its beauty.
Climb the colourful stairs
Aside from the colourful houses, the colourful stairs in Balat are one of the most popular attractions for visitors to this historic neighbourhood.
The stairs are near the Church of St. Stephen and are adorned with vibrant shades of blue, yellow, pink, and green, which offers a beautiful and whimsical contrast to the surrounding red-brick buildings.
Besides just being nice to look at, the stairs actually have some meaning to them, as were created as part of a community art project that was initiated in 2013 by a group of local artists and residents.
The project aimed to beautify the neighbourhood and promote a sense of community pride by transforming a neglected set of stairs into a colourful work of art.
The stairs quickly became a hit with locals and tourists alike, and they have since become a popular spot for photos and selfies – although, you may have to wait a while to have them all to yourself.
They have also been featured in numerous travel guides and magazines, cementing their status as a must-see attraction in the neighbourhood.
Stroll under the colourful umbrellas
Just down the road from the colourful steps are the colourful umbrellas, which create yet another wave of colour in the already multicoloured neighbourhood.
Again, besides being nice to look at, they were also put in place as part of another community art project that began in 2016 by local artists and residents to add even more of a reason for tourists to come to the area. The thought behind it was that they would be eye-catching and attract attention to visitors who are looking to capture the perfect social media posts.
Next to the umbrellas, there are also some huts – which of course, are also colourful. The locals here have capitalised on the popularity of the area and set up some stalls which sell street food, so these huts are the seating area.
Try some pottery kebab
Pottery kebab, also known as “Testi Kebabı” in Turkish, is a traditional Turkish dish that is popular in Istanbul and other parts of Turkey. The dish is named after the special cooking vessel in which it is prepared, which is called a “testi” in Turkish and is a type of earthenware pottery.
To prepare pottery kebab, meat (usually lamb or beef) and vegetables are marinated with herbs and spices and then placed inside a sealed pottery vessel. The vessel is then placed inside a wood-fired oven and left to cook slowly for several hours, allowing the meat and vegetables to cook in their own juices and become incredibly tender.
When the cooking process is complete, the pottery vessel is brought to the table and broken open with a hammer, releasing a burst of steam and fragrance. The dish is typically served with rice pilaf and fresh bread.
Many of the restaurants in the area serve this type of kebab, but New Balat Cafe is a particular hit.
Spot the Smurfs
Once you begin to wander the streets, you’ll notice there are a significant number of Smurfs and other bizarre toys, teddies and dolls which are stuck to walls and houses.
It definitely adds character to the area and besides being slightly disturbing, it’s actually street art which was created by Belgian cartoonist – Peyo.
It’s a great hit among families and children and has featured heavily across social media platforms in recent years.
Buy some local paintings
Being such an arty district, it comes as no surprise that there are heaps of stores which are selling local artists’ drawings and paintings.
On almost every street you’ll find one of these stores, and you can bet that you’ll be able to pick yourself up a cute souvenir for next to nothing.
Where to eat in Balat, Istanbul
Cumbalı Kahve is a historic traditional Ottoman-style coffeehouse located in the heart of the neighbourhood with beautiful carpets and ornate furnishings that transport you back in time.
It’s best known for its coffee which is prepared using a special brewing method that results in rich and flavourful coffee, but also for its scrummy Turkish delights and baklava, which go perfectly with the coffee.
Velvet cafe is a cosy, chic and minimalist style cafe which comfortable seating and a small outdoor terrace that’s perfect for enjoying the warm weather.
The menu features a variety of dishes, including breakfast items, sandwiches, salads, and homemade pastries which all use ingredients that are fresh and locally sourced, ensuring that each dish is bursting with flavour. They also serve a variety of speciality coffees, a selection of teas and plenty of freshly squeezed juices.
Aras Cafe is a popular spot for locals and tourists alike, who come to enjoy the delicious food and drinks and soak up the unique atmosphere of this historic neighbourhood.
The menu at Aras Cafe features heaps of dishes, including breakfast items, sandwiches, salads, and traditional Turkish dishes. One of their specialities is menemen, a traditional Turkish breakfast dish made with scrambled eggs, tomatoes, peppers, and spices.
Pancakehouse in Balat serves – yes, you guessed it – a variety of sweet and savoury pancakes.
Some of their popular savoury options include the spinach and feta pancake, the chicken and mushroom pancake, and the classic cheese and egg pancake. For those with a sweet tooth, the Nutella and banana pancake, the honey and walnut pancake, and the apple and cinnamon pancake are all popular choices.
Old Balat Cafe & Kitchen
Old Balat Cafe & Kitchen has a warm and rustic atmosphere, with exposed brick walls, wooden furniture, and vintage decor that give it a charming and nostalgic feel.
The menu at features a variety of traditional Turkish dishes, including meze plates, soups, salads, and grilled meats. One of their specialities is the lamb shank, which is slow-cooked and served with a rich and flavorful tomato sauce. They also serve delicious homemade pastries and desserts, such as baklava and Turkish delight.
Balatkapı Cafe ve Restaurant
Balatkapı Cafe ve Restaurant is housed in a beautifully restored 19th-century building and features a charming and inviting atmosphere, with a mix of traditional and modern decor.
It has both indoor and outdoor seating areas, with a spacious terrace that offers panoramic views of the historic neighbourhood and the Golden Horn.
They serve a variety of tasty Turkish and Mediterranean dishes, including meze plates, grilled meats, seafood, and vegetarian options and are known for their extensive selection of wines and spirits, including many local and regional varieties.
Where to stay in Balat
If you’re not overly fussed about staying in the centre of Istanbul and you’d rather stay in a trendy neighbourhood that has heaps of cute cafes on your doorstep, then this may be the location for you.
Plus, since there is a tram station just opposite and it takes just 6 minutes to reach the city centre, it’s actually quite well-positioned.
Below are some accommodation options to consider, however, it’s worth noting that you won’t find anything super fancy in this neighbourhood. It’s rustic, arty, home-away-from-home vibes.
- Your House in Balat
Check prices: Booking.com
- Balat Residence
Check prices: Booking.com
- Hotel Troya Balat
Check prices: Booking.com
Is Balat worth visiting?
Yes, Balat is definitely worth visiting; it’s a must-visit destination for anyone interested in exploring Istanbul’s rich history and cultural heritage. With its colourful streets, stunning views, and vibrant local culture, it’s a unique and fascinating neighbourhood that shouldn’t be missed.
How long to spend in Balat
The amount of time you should spend in the neighbourhood really depends on what you want to do and see while you’re there. If you’re just looking to explore the neighbourhood’s charming streets, visit a few cafes and restaurants, and take in the local culture, you could probably do that in a half day or a full day.
However, Istanbul is one of the best holiday destinations in Turkey and if you’re interested in exploring some of the neighbourhood’s historic landmarks and museums, such as the Church of St. George or the Balat Synagogue, you may want to plan for an additional day or two.
Explore more of Istanbul and Turkey
If you enjoyed this guide to Balat and you’re looking for further inspiration, then you may want to take a look at this 4-day Istanbul itinerary.
Alternatively, if you’re wanting to explore other parts of Turkey, then Cappadocia is a great location that I have plenty of guides on. To start with, you could check out this Cappadocia itinerary or this list of the best hikes in Cappadocia.
Stay Wild Travels.
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