Istanbul has a population of over 15 million, and half of them seem to descend on Beyoğlu and neighbouring districts on Friday and Saturday evenings in search of a good time. You really will find everything here from hip rooftop bars and raucous indie clubs to basement jazz cafés and grungy rock bars, as well as traditional Turkish folk venues and über-cool dance clubs. This area is Istanbul’s good-time heart and soul. For a more adventurous alternative, hop on a trans-continental ferry to the Asian suburbs of Kadıköy and adjoining Moda, which is this pulsating city’s latest place to hang-out and 'see and be seen'.
Hip bar-cum-club right on the waterfront in Karaköy, close to the iconic Galata Bridge. Small balconies overlook the Bosphorus near the cruise ship terminal, and the interior décor is a mix of distressed industrial chic and stripped back Parisian watering hole. There’s an open fire for those cool Istanbul winter nights on the upper floor and the food on offer ranges from burger and chicken-wing style ‘Taste from the Street ‘ menu to the ‘Delicatessen’ menu with its shared cheese and smoked meat plates. With some 40 different cocktails on the menu, Unter appeals to a mix of sophisticated Istanbulites and discerning visitors looking for a chic, mellow ambience.
Leb-i-Deriya is set on a steep, cobbled street (actually the line used by the Ottoman Turks to secretly drag a number of boats up from the strait and into the Golden Horn during the siege of 1453), running down from heaving Istiklal Caddesi to the Bosphorus. This place was one of the first of the rash of rooftop bars that have swept across the city in the last decade or so. It has more than maintained its appeal. Come prepared for mellow music, a great range of wines and rakı, and a hip, well-heeled clientele. The bonus? The views down over the Golden Horn and Bosphorus are just fabulous.
This citrus-tree shaded courtyard is found behind a row of nineteenth-century apartments just below the crowd-choked throngs on Beyoğlu’s main thoroughfare, Istiklal Caddesi. It's a great place to escape the hustle and bustle of the area – albeit with the company of dozens of other like-minded, predominantly youthful, Istanbulites. Head through a narrow passage to emerge in the spacious, brick-floored courtyard, shaded by a mass of pot plants. Cocktails are a staple, along with beer (they even have Leffe and Guinness – at a price). There is a reasonable Turkish-international menu, too, with pasta and kebabs very popular, and a range of healthy salads.
This chic, verging on flash, rooftop bar cum restaurant on pulsating Istiklal Cad (Independence Street) is located atop a beautiful, Parisian-style nineteenth century apartment block. As its name implies, 360 has superb panoramic views over the city. The menu mixes international and Turkish dishes, with the ‘Society Shish Kebab’ telling you that its’ target customers are either well-heeled or aspirational, so if you want to get in don’t turn up in shorts and a T-shirt. They only serve the best Turkish wines, plus a wide-range of imports, best sampled with a selection of cold mezze. Service is friendly and efficient. Reserve well in advance, especially if you want one of the outside terrace tables on a summer’s evening. There’s live music most evenings, too.
Address: Istiklal Cad 163/8, Misir Apt, Beyoğlu
Contact: 00 90 212 251 1042
Opening times: Sun-Thurs, 2pm-2am; Fri-Sat, 2pm-4am
Büyük Londra Hotel Bar
The ground-floor lobby bar of this gloriously unchanged fin-de-siècle hotel conjures up the spirit of the era when Istanbul (or rather Constantinople) was the destination of passengers on the Orient Express – not least amongst them Agatha Christie and Ernest Hemingway. With its heavy drapes, wood panelling, gilt furniture, cast-iron radiators, caged parrots and potted plants, the bar really is redolent of a bygone era. If you’re here in summer, head up to the hotel’s splendid rooftop bar, with fine views down to the Golden Horn and across to the old city.
Opening times: Daily 12pm-1am
This venerable institution claims, justifiably, to “turn Istanbul on”. It is located in an atmospheric old brewery recently converted into a superb performing arts venue north of Taksim Square, which also houses a gallery devoted to famed Istanbul Magnum photographer and Istanbulite Ara Güler. The stripped-back-to-brick interior and sophisticated lighting make this the most atmospheric venue in the city, an ideal setting for the jazz, indie, world music and electronica artists who perform here. As with many other music venues in the city, the action moves to the Aegean coastal retreats in the holiday months of July and August.
An atmospheric wine and cheese 'boutique' a stone’s throw from the landmark Galata Tower. This cellar bar is lined with literally hundreds of bottles of Turkish wines and is the place to come to try a wide variety of domestically produced wines. Many come from the smaller vineyards such as Izmir’s Urla, few of which you’ll find in the average Istanbul restaurant and most of which are good to excellent. The various wines are best accompanied by platters of surprisingly varied Turkish cheeses, but there’s also a decent mains menu, with pizza and grills as the staples.
Nardis Jazz Club
Tucked away in a historic building on a narrow street below the landmark Galata Tower, this small club is the most atmospheric jazz venue in the city. Set up and run by local jazz aficionados, it showcases the best (and they are invariably very good) Turkish jazz musicians, sometimes accompanied by international performers. Appropriately enough for the genre, performances don’t start until 9.30 on weekday nights, 10.30 on Fridays and Saturdays, with an intermission between sets. The small wooden stage, framed by a stripped-back to brick wall and black drapes, makes for an intimate ambience, whether you’re seated at the small tables on the same level, or on the narrow gallery above.
Arcadia Blue (Fine Dine Istanbul)
Even in a city famed for its breath-taking panoramas, the view from the long, narrow east-facing top-floor balcony of the Arcadia Blue hotel bar is exceptional. Time your visit for sunset to sit, glass of wine, beer or cocktail in hand, and watch in awe as the domes, minarets and rooftops of the historic core of the old city are swallowed up by the evening shadows, the Sea of Marmara turns golden then deep blue to black and the lights of Asia begin to twinkle across the Bosphorus. The Fine Dine restaurant of which the bar is a part is pretty good too; stay on to enjoy a Turkish meal and enjoy night-time views of the atmospherically lit old city.
If Performance Hall
Whilst Beyoğlu remains the heart of the city’s nightlife scene, other areas are making up lost ground at a rapid rate. One of them is Beşiktaş, nuzzling up to the Bosphorus and home of the famous football club and the flamboyant nineteenth-century Dolmabahçe Palace. It’s also student central and the buzz they have created helped lead to the opening of the hip If, set up by the people behind Istanbul’s best indie film festival, !f. The majority of acts are Turkish and alternative and a night here gives the visitor a real insight into what’s ‘happening’ amongst Turkey’s young people.
Viktor Levi Şarap Evi
Many of the venues in this buzzing area of the Asian-side of the city are decidedly youth- and student-orientated. Viktor Levi, a venerable 100-year-old wine bar dating back to an era when Kadıköy and adjoining Moda were home to a bewilderingly cosmopolitan mix of Muslim Turks, Greek and Armenian Christians, Jews and European traders, bucks the trend with style. Set in a rambling turn of the nineteenth century property, it has a lovely, leafy patio garden area and produces a dozen of its own very palatable red, white and rosé wines. It also has an extensive Turkish and international food menu, with a great choice of Turkish meze and everything from steaks and pastas to fajitas and seafood.