Nightlife in Istanbul: bars and clubs

by jennifer.hattam

From underground to over-the-top, a guide to Istanbul’s bar and club scene - in Beyoğlu and beyond

Whether you want to drink cheap beer or 35-Turkish-lira martinis, there’s a bar scene for you in Istanbul. The most happening part of the city for nightlife is undoubtedly Beyoğlu, particularly the area centred around İstiklal Caddesi, which is packed until the wee hours with people moving from bar to bar or just socialising in the street.

Going down İstiklal from Taksim Square, Mıs Sokak to your right and Büyükparmakkapı Sokak to your left are both full of largely interchangeable, but lively, bars with tables out in the street. Some offer nargile (hookah) pipes to smoke, along with serving alcohol, and many of the bars on Büyükparmakkapı Sokak also have live bands playing rock, blues, and Turkish music of varying quality (and typically including a lot of cover tunes). The music generally doesn’t get going until late; after 11pm at the earliest. Hayal Kahvesi (No. 19) is a good bet for a first stop.

Further down the main street, near Galatasaray Square, you’ll notice a large, ornate gate bearing the words Balık Pazarı (Fish Market). Though there are still vendors of (typically overpriced) fresh fish in the market, it’s now also packed with meyhane-style fish restaurants, the best of which are on Nevizade Sokak, a small, so-packed-you-can-hardly-walk-through-it street that connects the Balık Pazarı itself with Balo Sokak. All three streets have multiple bars interspersed among the restaurants, and stellar people-watching opportunities.

The James Joyce Irish Pub (Balo Sokak No. 26; www.theirishcentre.com) has live bands and weekly quiz nights, while Araf (Balo Sokak No. 32) and RittimBar (www.ritimbar.com) in the Balık Pazarı are unpretentious places to get your dancing groove on. The larger nightclubs Ghetto (Kamer Hatun Caddesi No. 10; www.ghettoist.net) and The Hall (Küçük Bayram Sokak No. 7; www.thehallistanbul.com) in the same general area both host higher-profile dance parties and occasional live music.

At the opposite end of İstiklal from Taksim, the area behind Tünel Square is another nightlife hub, particularly the intersecting streets Asmalımescit Sokak and Sofyalı Sokak, where the meyhane/bar vibe is reminiscent of the Nevizade scene. The lounge-y bar Leyla on the square itself (Tünel Meydanı No. 186) has a somewhat posher feel.

Beyoğlu isn’t all dive bars and dancing, of course. There are plenty of places to sip a cocktail in style, including a number of recommended restaurants that double as bars: Mikla, Cezayir, Leb-i Derya, and 5. Kat. All but Cezayir have fab views too.

The Cihangir neighbourhood of Beyoğlu has its own low-key café and bar scene, centred around Akarsu Yokuşu off the main square. Bar/cafes Kahvedan and Meyra (in the Hotel Villa Zurich are among the spots on that street that are busy until late.

Partying elsewhere in the city

The fancy Bosphorus clubs define “Istanbul nightlife” in the minds of many, though fewer have probably set foot inside their ultra-exclusive doors. Reservations are generally required, and good luck getting one, especially on the weekend. Proper attire is definitely de rigueur, and pulling up in a limo wouldn’t hurt either. Reina (Muallim Nacı Caddesi No. 44; www.reina.com.tr) - which touts Paris Hilton’s previous appearance at the club - and Angelique (Salhane Sokak No. 5; www.istanbuldoors.com), both in Ortaköy, are among the best-known names.

Ortaköy’s waterfront around the Mecidiye Mosque is a much lower-key place for a night out on the town; the House Café bar is a particularly popular spot. In the trendy shopping district of Nişantaşı, one of the best clusters of bars can be found inside - where else? - a shopping centre, the Milli Reasürans Çarşışı on Abdi İpekçi Caddesi.

The generally quiet Asian side of the city has its own bar and club scene centred around Kadife Sokak - known locally as “Barlar Sokak” (Bar Street) - in Kadıköy. Isis (No. 26) is good for dancing, while Arka Oda (No. 18A; www.arkaoda.com) brings in DJs who spin an eclectic range of tunes. The funky, multi-level bar Karga (No. 16; www.kargabar.org) has plenty of nooks and crannies to hole in up with a group of friends or a date. Nearby Gitarcafe (Sakizgulu Sokak No. 7; www.gitarcafe.com) is an intimate venue for mostly acoustic musical performances.

The ferry service between Asia and Europe stops at midnight, but continent-hopping bar-goers needn’t fret; you can find a dolmuş (minibus) to take you back across the bridge at any time of the night for about 5 Turkish liras per person one way.

There’s not much nightlife to speak of in Sultanhmet. Other than a few backpacker bars, most drinking opportunities can be found at hotel bars, which generally have a nice rooftop view to offer at best. The bars at the The Kybele Hotel and Hotel Nomade (Ticarethane Sokak No. 1; www.hotelnomade.com) have more atmosphere than most and are open to non-guests.

More expert advice on Istanbul

For suggestions on where to stay in Istanbul, see my Istanbul Hotels – Award winning expert hotel reviews, from cheap to luxury hotels in Istanbul page.

Read my nightlife overview on my Istanbul nightlife page.

jennifer.hattam

I work as a news editor at Turkey's leading English-language paper, the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review, which keeps me up-to-date on everything from political campaigns to coup plots to the latest cultural events in Istanbul. Writing freelance dispatches for publications such as the luxury lifestyle magazine Ayn, the Abu Dhabi-based daily The National, the online magazine Salon.com, and the popular U.S. technology magazine Wired meanwhile allows me to peek into new cultural, political, and historical corners of this ever-fascinating city in greater depth.

I was smitten with Turkey on my first visit to the country, in 2001, and have now been living in Istanbul for more than three years, regularly renewing my love affair with the city by gallery- and bar-hopping in Beyoğlu, clambering on the Byzantine city walls, and swimming in secluded coves on the Bosphorus. As an inveterate urban explorer, news junkie, avid photographer, and enjoyer of a good night out, I find Istanbul hits all my buttons -- excepting, alas, the yen for microbrews and Burmese food.

I write about my travels, linguistic misadventures, and daily observations about expat life at http://theturkishlife.blogspot.com.

My Istanbul

Where I always grab a coffee: With its funky-old-house interior, large patio, and artsy vibe, centrally located Kafe Ara (named for the famous Turkish photographer Ara Güler) is the perfect place to meet for a leisurely chat with friends or while away the afternoon with a book.

My favourite stroll: Every time I walk along the waterfront from, say, the Sakıp Sabancı Museum in Emirgan to Bebek for an ice cream, I ask myself why I don't do it more often. The Bosphorus views and sea breezes always give me new energy. For a more urban experience, I love crossing the Galata Bridge on foot, watching the passing boats, the crowds of fishermen, and the giddy tourists, before being swept up into the chaotic warren of streets in Eminönü, where everything from cheap pajamas to heating stoves to wooden spoons is on offer.

Books for inspiration: Nobel Prize-winning writer Orhan Pamuk's memoir Istanbul is a loving, if melancholy, ode to the city, while Elif Şafak's novel The Flea Palace has been described as a Turkish-style Tales of the City. Latife Tekin explores a darker side of Istanbul life with her Berji Kristen, a somewhat surreal story set in a community built on a garbage dump. For lighter fare, Jason Goodwin's Ottoman-era mystery The Janissary Tree is an atmospheric page-turner.

City on screen: Istanbul's twisting streets and dramatic backdrops seem made for action flicks, from the James Bond classic From Russia with Love and the 1960s French heist movie Topkapı to the 2009 global-banking thriller The International. Films by Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Distant), Semih Kaplanoğlu (Egg), and Fatih Akın (Head-On) give viewers a taste of modern Turkish cinema along with an intimate perspective on the city.

Where to be seen this summer: Life is lived outdoors during Istanbul's sticky, sweltering summers, whether on a rooftop bar or a sidewalk café. The Cihangir neighbourhood has a café culture to rival any in Europe, with the White Mill Café and nearby Limonlu Bahçe offering shade and socializing day and night in their "hidden gardens." Rooftop bars like Balkon in Asmalımescit and My House near Taksim have great views without too much pretence.

The most breathtaking view: A ramble up through the leafy hillside cemeteries of the Eyüp district is rewarded with a sweeping view down the Golden Horn from the Pierre Loti Café, while those who hike up to Yoros Castle above Anadolu Kavağı (the last stop on the Bosphorus Tour) can gaze out over the seemingly endless Black Sea and the undulating green hills leading back to the city.

The best spot for some peace and quiet: The car-free Büyükada - The Princes’ Islands is the classic Istanbullu getaway -- escape from the city for the price of a ferry ride. If you must go on a summer weekend, try the lesser-visited Heybeliada or Burgazada. Pure bliss, though, if you have enough people and/or money, is to charter a boat for a day trip up the Bosphorus, to sunbathe, grill fish, and swim in the secluded coves at the northernmost end of the strait.

Shopaholics beware: There's always something enticing to buy in this city of salesmen. The Grand Bazaar is a must-see on most visitors' itineraries for its sheer size and chaos, but to pick up evil eyes, prettily patterned ceramics, and other typical Turkish gifts for visits home, I prefer the much smaller Spice Bazaar in Eminönü or (to escape the "Hello, lady, I have very nice carpet. You like?" gauntlet altogether), the Avrupa Pasajı, a quiet arcade off the bustling Balık Pazarı in Beyoğlu. The new city's Cihangir, Çukurcuma, and Galata districts are increasingly good places to find boutiques offering clothing by up-and-coming designers and other out-of-the-ordinary items.

City soundtrack: Ship horns on the Bosphorus mixed with the cries of street vendors, the five-times-daily call to prayer, taxi horns honking, and whatever pop hit of the moment is pumping out of all the stores and bars on İstiklal Avenue.

Don't leave without… Joining the throngs on İstiklal on a weekend night and feasting on mezes while drinking rakı at a raucous street-side meyhane in Nevizade or Asmalımescit.