Horn of plenty | Monocle

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Istanbul’s riverside Balat neighbourhood is full of surprises. The working-class area also has preposterously rich history. Once home to the Ottoman Empire’s dense mix of Christians, Muslims and Jews, it emptied out and declined throughout the 20th century, turning into a ramshackle district that became home to Black Sea immigrants and Istanbul’s Roma communities. 

Yet Balat has kept its spirit and its style: colourful old townhouses wind up steeply cobbled streets, peopled by boisterous local characters whose celebrations (even weddings) are open to anyone lucky enough to be passing by. Gentrification has arrived here rather happily and has not yet polished away the neighbourhood’s rough edges. You might, for example, spy a hip restaurant or a popular tearoom in the middle of a street of otherwise abandoned buildings. 

These contradictions are part of Balat’s charm – and if its grittier side tends to keep bigger crowds of tourists away, so much the better for those of us who are feeling intrepid. —  L

1. Read
Cornucopia magazine is the cultured Istanbullu’s bible: a gorgeously designed English-language affair covering arts and history. Find a spot on the renovated Golden Horn waterfront to be transported through the rich layers of the city’s story.





2. Board
One of Istanbul’s great pleasures is taking the public ferry (ignore tourist boats and just get a transport card). Many routes go straight up the Golden Horn, giving you a view of Balat from the water. Jump board at Eminönü.





3. Stay
Castello Bella’s gilt-framed mirrors, chandeliers and sumptuous furnishings are only surpassed by the view over the water from its balcony suite. The building dates from 1820, when Balat was a beating multicultural heart of the city.



4. See
The rainbow of tall, narrow houses on Kiremit street is a fine sight, many of them adorned with balconies and intricate metal trelliswork. Nearby are plenty of cafés, shops and the odd street mural to keep you entertained as you wander. 





5. Shop 
Orhan Pamuk’s 2014 novel A Strangeness in My Mind captures the changes that districts such as Balat have undergone over the decades. Visit Balat Sahaf, an antiquarian bookseller with shelves full of dusty volumes. Be sure to pick up a historical caricature magazine or something from the shop’s collection of old newspapers.



6. Eat
Greasy, spicy, satisfying: there is little to match Turkish meatballs, known as köfte, for comfort food. Reward yourself after a morning’s exploration by popping into Köfteci Arnavut, which has served the classic snack to a peerless standard since 1937.





7. Book
Snag the corner table at seafood specialist Smelt&Co, set in a restored traditional house, for inventive twists on Turkish cuisine. If the weather is kind, try the rooftop terrace for views of Balat and the Golden Horn. 


8. Hear
Many of Balat’s residents are Roma, a minority known for distinctive, joyful music. Roma popstar Kobra Murat lives here – be sure to get a picture if you see him strolling past.


9. Buy
Yasemin Aslan Bakiri’s glass studio, next to the Bulgarian St Stephen’s church, is filled with brightly coloured pieces that are beautiful, functional and collectable. She works here most days and teaches classes too.


10. Consider
Byzantium is long fallen and the Hagia Sophia no longer a cathedral but Istanbul is still the seat of the Greek Orthodox Church. The Patriarchate of Constantinople complex includes St George’s church: visit on a Sunday to experience a ceremony unchanged for centuries.


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