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 Demeti, 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 bars in the Beyoğlu district, over the Galata Bridge from the Old City. Perennial favourites include Mikla, 360, 5. Kat, Litera and Leb-i-Derya. Formidably fashionable newcomers include Hazine (Akarsu Yokuşu 36) in the Cihangir neighbourhood and the terrace bar at the Georges Hotel in Galata. The city’s bohemian and student set tends to gravitate to 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, or around Ayhan Işık Sokak behind the Atlas Pasajı on the other side of İstiklal Caddesi. These are decidedly less glam, considerably cheaper and loads of fun.
Jazz aficionados in Istanbul all know about Nardis, the well-loved club in Galata, owned by jazz guitarist Önder Focan, but those with more experimental tastes are also seeking out new discoveries at the unpretentious Kaset Mitanni in Beşiktaş, a central neighbourhood full of lively bars, especially around the ‘Çarşı’ (market) area. Finally, mention must be made of the famous ‘Golden Mile’ – a string of superclubs dotted further north 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 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
TL20; from Ortaköy and Kuruçeşme it will be approximately TL35.
A meyhane meal will average around TL100 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 in Beşiktaş can be as cheap as TL10.
Last updated in January 2018.
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.