Nightlife in Istanbul: concerts and cultural events

by jennifer.hattam

Enjoying art openings, concerts, film screenings, and theatre in Istanbul

Istanbul is at its best, entertainment-wise, during its many music, art, theatre, dance, and other cultural festivals, which bring renowned Turkish and international artists to the city. (See my When to go to Istanbul guide for more details.)

The organisation that puts on many of the top events, the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (www.iksv.org), opened its own year-round venue last year, Salon İKSV (www.saloniksv.com, Sadi Konuralp Caddesi No. 5). This intimate space hosts an eclectic mix of classical, jazz, folk, rock and world music, as well as theatre and dance performances.

The Borusan Centre for Culture and Arts (www.borusansanat.com, İstiklal Caddesi No. 213) operates in a similar vein, showcasing classical music, jazz, and dance, as well as performances by its own orchestras.

The Akbank Art Center (www.akbanksanat.com, İstiklal Caddesi No. 8) is another multi-genre institution, organising exhibits, concerts, dance shows, and film screenings.

With the Atatürk Cultural Centre in Taksim Square undergoing a seemingly endless renovation process, the Istanbul State Opera and Ballet (www.idobale.com) can be found gracing the attractive stage of the Art Deco-inspired Sürreya Opera House (www.sureyyaoperasi.org, Bahariye Caddesi No. 29) in Kadıköy. The Istanbul State Symphony (www.idso.gov.tr), meanwhile, performs at various venues around town, including the Caddebostan Cultural Centre (www.ckm.gen.tr, Haldun Taner Sokak No. 11) on the city’s Asian side.

Rock and jazz concerts

The long-running Beyoğlu venue Babylon (www.babylon.com.tr, Şehbender Sokak No. 3) has been a fixture on the city’s music scene since 1999, hosting a hot selection of local and touring indie rock, reggae, jazz, DJ, and world music acts. The expensive drinks are a downside, though. Note that the club goes on hiatus during the summer months, typically between late May and late September.

Other popular spots for live indie and underground music include the multi-level Dogzstar (www.dogzstar.com, Kartal Sokak No. 3) and the friendly, inexpensive Peyote (www.peyote.com.tr, Kameriye Sokak No. 4), both in Beyoğlu. Balans Jolly Joker (www.jollyjokerbalans.com, Balo Sokak No. 22) in the same neighbourhood tends to book Turkish rock acts. The nearby venue GarajIstanbul (www.garajistanbul.org, Kaymakam Reşat Bey Sokak No. 11A) hosts an adventurous mix of live bands, theatre performances, and other events.

Big-name travelling concerts often come to the open-air Kuruçeşme Arena (www.turkcellkurucesmearena.com, Muallim Naci Caddesi No. 60) along the Bosphorus or, more rarely, to İnönü Stadium, home to the football club Beşiktaş and found in the neighbourhood of the same name.

Best bets specifically for jazz music include the Nardis Jazz Club (www.nardisjazz.com, Kuledibi Sokak No. 14) in Galata and the Istanbul Jazz Center (www.istanbuljazz.com, Salhane Sokak No. 10) in Ortaköy.

Film and the visual arts

Though it’s losing its old movie houses at a rapid rate, İstiklal Caddesi and its sides streets are still home to numerous small cinemas, typically showing a mix of mainstream Turkish and foreign fare. (Most foreign films are shown in their original language with Turkish subtitles, although the occasional blockbuster is dubbed into Turkish.) The AFM Fitaş multiplex (İstiklal Caddesi No. 24-26) is larger and more modern, if perhaps less character-filled, than most of the others. Many of Istanbul’s major malls also have large movie theatres indistinguishable from their counterparts in Europe and the United States. The Cinebonus at Kanyon (Büyükdere Caddesi No. 185) is a favourite for its plush seats, easy transit access (take the Metro from Taksim to Levent), and multitude of eating options in the mall itself.

For less mainstream programming, your best bests are the film series at the Istanbul Modern and Pera Museum. The city’s various international institutes also host occasional movie nights and other cultural activities, typically related to their country of origin. Check out the Cervantes Institute (estambul.cervantes.es, Zambak Sokak No. 25) for Spanish fare, the French Cultural Centre (www.infist.org, İstiklal Caddesi No. 4), and the German Goethe Institute (www.goethe.de/Istanbul, Yeniçarşı Caddesi No. 32), all in Beyoğlu.

Evening openings of new exhibits are a regular occurrence at an increasing number of art galleries, including Beyoğlu’s Elipsis Gallery (www.elipsisgallery.com, Boğazkesen Caddesi No. 45), Daire Sanat (www.dairesanat.com, Boğazkesen Caddesi No. 65D), DEPO (www.depoistanbul.net, Lüleci Hendek Caddesi No. 12), Sanatorium (www.sanatorium.com.tr, Postacılar Çıkmazı No. 5) and Galeri Apel (www.galleryapel.com, Hayriye Caddesi No. 5A). A good place for art-lovers to start is the beautiful old Mısır Apartment at İstiklal Caddesi No. 143; the historical apartment building is now home to many galleries, including Galerist (www.galerist.com.tr) and Fototrek (www.fototrek.com) where you’ll likely be able to pick up flyers and maps advertising other shows.

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.