The residents of Istanbul do a number of things extremely well. They shop with an almost religious fervour, they demand (and deliver) fresh and flavoursome food, and they work hard to maintain strong and supportive local communities - something that can’t be said about many of the world’s megalopolises. Most of all, though, Istanbullus know how to party. Indeed, when you visit you are sure to be both charmed and impressed by how much fun the locals seem to get out of life.
Take the much-loved meyhane. These casual eateries specialise in serving hot and cold meze (small plates of seafood and vegetable appetisers) followed sometimes - but not always - by kebabs or fish dishes. In Beyoğlu and the string of suburbs along the European side of the Bosphorus, meyhane meals are accompanied by copious pourings of beer, wine or rakı (aniseed-flavour spirit, usually diluted with water) and are usually enjoyed by large groups of friends. In more conservative areas, alcohol isn’t part of the equation but a great time is had by all regardless. Many meyhanes also host live fasıl (folk) music, ensuring that music shares centre stage with great food and copious - often raucous - conversation.
Visitors to Istanbul should be sure to spend at least one evening in a meyhane while in the city. Popular choices include Demetı, Feraye, Asmalı Cavit, Karaköy Lokantası and Sofyalı 9. There is also a growing number of fashionable meyhane/restaurant hybrids, the best of which is probably Meze by Lemon Tree. All of these can be relied on for a great night’s entertainment, although only Feraye and Demetı host live music.
When not dining in meyhanes, locals can often be found sipping cocktails and showing off their most glamorous outfits at an ever-growing number of bars in the suburb of Beyoğlu, over the Galata Bridge from the Old City. Perennial favorites include Mikla, 360, 5 Kat, Litera and the three branches of Leb-i-derya. Formidably fashionable newcomers include Münferit and Le Fumoir at the Georges Hotel in Galata. The city’s bohemian and student set tends to gravitate to grungy Kadife Sokak in Kadıköy on the city’s Asian side - known to everyone as Barlar Sokak (‘Bar Street’) - or to the bars in Beyoğlu’s Asmalımescit enclave. These are decidedly less glam, considerably cheaper and loads of fun. A current favourite is tiny bar/club Off Pera in Gönül Sokak, Asmalımescit, which hosts live Turkish music on Tuesday nights.
Jazz dominates the soundtracks at many of these bars, but there is also a clutch of live jazz clubs in Beyoğlu and along the Bosphorus where aficionados congregate. The best-loved of these is Nardis in Galata, owned by jazz guitarist Önder Focan, but those in the know are waiting with anticipation for the mid-2012 opening of Nublu, the local branch of the New York club run by Turkish-American saxophonist İlhan Erșahin. Until it opens, Nublu will host a jazz program at Istanbul’s best live-music venue, Babylon.
Finally, mention must be made of the famous ‘Golden Mile’ - a string of superclubs dotted along the Bosphorus shore between Ortaköy and Kuruçeşme. This is where the seriously glamorous and wealthy come to party - to join them you’ll need to dress to kill, tip the doorman lavishly and unblinkingly pay the stratospheric drink prices. The most famous of these clubs are Reina, Sortie, Anjelique and Blackk.
The entertainment options certainly don’t stop with those we’ve mentioned here. Once in town, you’ll quickly realise that performances, parties and convivial bars are never far away. All you need to do is go out and find them.
In general, Istanbul is a safe city. The usual caveats apply - avoid dark side streets, watch your bags and wallets on crowded trams and buses, don’t flaunt expensive jewellery - but there are blessedly few thefts or muggings considering the city’s size.
Women will be treated respectfully at most venues, but may encounter some strange looks if they go to bars and clubs by themselves - Turkish women don’t do this very often. Males travelling alone or in pairs should be wary of being adopted by a friendly local who is keen to take them to a club for a few drinks - many such encounters end up at pavyons, sleazy nightclubs run by the mafia where a drink or two with a female hostess will end up costing hundreds - sometimes thousands - of euros. If you don’t pay up, the consequences can be violent.
Most public transport stops operating around midnight, but taxis are a safe and relatively cheap alternative. The trip from Beyoğlu to Sultanahmet costs approximately TL15; from Ortaköy and Kuruçeşme it will be approximately TL25.
A meyhane meal will average around TL75 per person including alcohol. Jazz club covers vary according to who is performing, but often include a compulsory dinner charge and can be as high as TL150. A beer at the fashionable bars will set you back TL20 or so; the superclubs charge double or even triple this, but a beer on Kadife Sokak or around Asmalımescit can be as cheap as TL7.
Ready to party hard in the city where Europe met Asia? Don't leave home with a copy of Lonely Planet's Istanbul Encounter guide.