Over my three years in Istanbul, I’ve answered a bunch of questions from people who wanted to visit or move here. Some I got so often that I decided to just write a set of Google Docs to answer them. Now that I’m leaving, they’re not going to keep evolving, so I might as well publish them here, in a series of ‘Istanbul Tips’. This was written in conjunction with the amazing Kate Bloomer.
Istanbul Watering Holes: A Treatise Lonely Planet recently put out a decent summary that you can find here. I agree with almost everything they say, except the reliability and price of taxis (much lower and higher, respectively) and the likelihood male travelers encountering a ‘friendly local who will take them to a mafia-run dive bar’ – I have never heard of this happening. If you’re a dedicated foodie, Culinary Backstreets (formerly Istanbul Eats) has the best advice by far. Anyway. Topics covered: Gliteratti
Upscale but Low-key
Rough Around the Edges
***Our favorites are marked by asterisks (creatively)*** Gliteratti
Upscale but Low-key
Rough Around the Edges
***Our favorites are marked by asterisks (creatively)*** Gliteratti
- The Golden Mile – If you want to go big in Istanbul, this is what you should see and where you should be seen. The Golden Mile is string of exclusive (and vastly overpriced) clubs along the Bosphorus. Located just under the first bridge, in Kurucesme, it’s really only accessible by taxi at the hours you would want to go (certainly not before midnight). Unfortunately traffic on the shore road is ghastly in the evenings as everyone is trying to get to and from this area, but once you’re there, you’re in the glitz and glamour among the Istanbul elite, with epic views of the waterfront. Most clubs are also restaurants. In order to avoid traffic and entry fees, it’s worth having dinner beforehand, then you can stay on and watch it fill up with labels. Arrive by boat for added effect. Reina is the most famous, otherwise it’s hard to keep track of what’s hot these days. Sortie and Blackk were big in summer 2011.
- NuTeras (Pera) – A great club / restaurant that’s much closer to the center of the city, NuTeras is a rooftop gem which also has great views over the Golden Horn in Beyoglu. Drinks are still quite pricey, but the venue is great with an awesome glass dance floor that goes down about 11 storeys to the entryway below.
- 360 (Istiklal / Galatasaray) – 360 is a well known restaurant that becomes a nightclub after the 10:00 sitting on weekends. The food is not terribly overpriced if you’re looking for a nice meal and again affords great views. It’s a bit of a tourist trap, as it’s been written up in most of the travel guides, but, well, the view really is nice. Service can be slow, so make sure to accost your waiter.
- Ulus 29 (Ulus) – Located in Ulus, which also requires a taxi, this restaurant is one of the best in the city. The views are unbeatable, as it is set back from the Bosphorus on a high point so there’s great visibility. You’re treated like a star here, but you’ll be paying for it. On weekends this venue becomes a nightclub a la Reina after dinner.
- Lucca (Bebek)- I’ve never been sure why the who’s who decided that the viewless, always crowded Lucca is the place to be. Maybe it’s the amazing mojitos.
- Angelique (Ortakoy) – Angelique is known as “little Reina”. Located in Ortakoy, a quaint neighborhood along the Bosphorus, before the first bridge. Similar crowd, but this year touted to be a bit young. The music is loud, but on the outdoor patio you can escape to look out across the Bosphorus and the picturesque Ortakoy Mosque. It makes a great alternative to the Golden Mile as you don’t have to contend with quite as much traffic, but don’t expect a quick journey here either.
- Suada (Kurucesme) – Located beyond the Golden Mile, this man-made island between Europe and Asia harbors a multitude of treasures, including a floating pool (80-100TL/day entry). Several of the big-name Istanbul restaurants have their sister restaurants here, including 360 and Fish. You get to take a boat ride there – so what if it’s only 30 seconds long. At night the pool is lit up and there’s usually a line up of well-known Turkish DJs on weekends.
- Babylon (Asmalimescit) – Probably Istanbul’s best known music venue, not far from Pera. Performances from world-famous artists as well as some local stars. Its Istanbul location closes in the summer as the crowds migrate to Cesme on the Aegean coast.
- Ghetto (Galatasaray) – Nipping at Babylon’s heels is the cathedral-ceilinged Ghetto, located just off Istiklal by the British Consulate. The performers aren’t quite as well known as the ones who end up at Babylon but there are a few headliners every season. Local act Baba Zula***, an excellent Turkish psychadelic electronica group, performs here often (bellydancer included).
- NuBlu (Asmalimescit) – Opened by Turkish jazz composer Ilhan Ersahin, who started Nublu in New York, his location on native soil is a great spot for jazz, and is located adjacent to Babylon. Catering to a younger crowd it is a bit snazzy for a jazz club, and upstairs they often have a techno DJ.
- Nardis (Galata) – Nardis is another local jazz spot, with nightly performances starring good local jazz musicians and the occasional international headliner. The venue is small but atmospheric and it’s a great place for some chill music and a glass of wine.
- Atolye (Galata) *** – Next door to Nardis, this bar doesn’t seem to have a set schedule for its live music, but generally Thursday-Saturday will find an excellent local jazz group tuning up around 10pm. No cover, cheap but good quality food and drink, and a great location make this a favorite.
Upscale but Low-key Bars
- Leb-i Derya (Istiklal/Asmalimescit) – This small restaurant/bar is a favorite among expats and locals. The food is excellent, as are the views. There are two venues, one in the Richmond Hotel (not nearly as atmospheric, though the ovular bar is quite cool) and the second on a side street off of Istiklal called Kumbaraci Yks, which is much nicer. You would hardly know it was there if you didn’t see the small green sign outside the door, and you walk into a rather grungy looking hallway, however, once you arrive on the top floor, you’ll be thrilled by the views.
- 5 Kat*** (Cihangir) – This was once Istanbul’s local gay hangout and it remains one of the most fabulous places in town. The decor is wonderful – red walls, purple chairs and fantastic chandeliers inside, and an outdoor terrace with less exciting decor but stupendous views above (only open seasonally). I’d call it more campy than upscale, but it remains one of my favorite places in town, and the prices are more reasonable that some other similar venues.
- White Mill*** (Cihangir) – One of few green places in Istanbul, this Cihangir garden is incredibly picturesque and a wonderful escape from the business of the city. The outdoor restaurant is set amongst trees and feels like someone’s well-landscaped back-yard. Also a great spot for brunch.
- Litera (Galatasaray) – This rooftop restaurant is located above the Goethe Institute (the German Cultural Society) just past the Galatasary High school off Istiklal st. It has good space and is a nice spot for a more quiet drink, again with wonderful views out over the Golden Horn and the Asian side. Easily accessible but not well known, it’s quite ideal if you’re looking for something chic but quiet.
- Mikla (Pera) – Located at the Marmara Pera hotel, Mikla has hands down the best view in Istanbul (even better from the rooftop pool!) It is also considered to be one of the best restaurants in the city. I would highly recommend checking this place out, if only for a soda water and the view, since you’ll be paying top dollar for the venue. The hotel is one of the high points (literally and figuratively) in the Beyoglu area and can be recognized for the rather unfortunate jumbotron which crowns the skyscraper.
- The Pera Palace (Pera) – Next door to the Marmara Pera is the Pera Palace Hotel, an Ottoman building which has been lovingly restored, reviving its splendor if losing some of its charm. The Orient Bar has a lovely, old world atmosphere and feels like the perfect place for a scotch on the rocks.
- Kiki’s (Cihangir) – Kiki’s is a small club that tends to get moving around one o’clock. It has a nice patio and dance floor, but the DJ can sometimes be a bit lackluster and it tends to get very crowded. Still, if you are looking for something that keeps going til late hours, this is a good bet.
- Mini Music Hall (Cihangir) – MMH is one of those places that gets moving at 3 and chucks people out around 7 when the sun comes up. The music is always pumping, the air filled with cigarette smoke, and the walls covered with the most bizarre collection of backlit photographs and mirrors. As one of the few venues that stays open so late, it is always crowded and they charge a 20TL cover (but only 10TL until 1AM, and free before midnight). Make sure to get a doner sandwich on your way to bed in the morning. Located below 5 Kat in Cihangir.
- Machine – Machine is a seizure inducing combination of strobe lights and pumping techno beats. Open till 5AM, and dance-til-you-drop or get out before you have a chance to absorb what’s going on.
- Balkon (Asmalimescit) – Another rooftop spot in Beyoglu that is popular with the young local crowd. Arguably the best caipirinhas in the city. The rooftop is a little shabby but has a lot of charm with colored lights and usually a decent selection of well-known tunes over which it can be difficult to have a decent conversation. Can get over-crowded and has no space to dance, but a popular spot to start off the evening.
- Buyuk Londra*** (Pera) – The Buyuk Londra hotel is pure kitsch, and an absolute favorite. The bar on the first floor has a wonderful collection of wrought-iron stoves, pastel chandeliers, and bird cages, and it’s a cosy spot for a winter evening. But in the summer, make your way up to the rooftop for sunset: magnificent views made all the better because the price of drinks won’t send you over the edge.
- Journey (Cihangir) – A streetside Cihangir bar with a 70’s ski-lodge atmosphere, and the best free cerez (nuts) in town. A little on the pricey side but recognized for delicious fare and the opportunity to watch the Cihangir locals sipping cocktails.
- ***Kafe17 (Cihangir) – Located just around the corner from Kiki’s, this camp extravaganza has been recently discovered by us… and practically noone else. If you’ve got enough people to create your own party, chances are you can play your own music and have the place more or less to yourself. The owner, Jasmine Highheel, is exactly the kind of person you would expect to oversee a glitter/leopard print/disco balled party den. This place is moving in on the space previously reserved for the Buyuk Londra in our hearts. *Update: at last glance the place had been discovered by Erasmus students, thus ruining its appeal completely.
Rough around the edges
- Line Bar – Live cover bands perform here all the time, some better than others. Cheap drinks, but avoid the vinegary wine. Great for getting your dance on, and open late. Located off of Istiklal near Taksim Sq.
- Thales – A small rock bar off the top of Istiklal (near Taksim Sq) with unbeatable prices on drinks. Rather grungy, but nice rooftop, usually inhabited by smokers.
- Novo – Located in Asmali Mescit, a winding warren of bars and restaurants in Tunel, at the bottom of Istiklal. Despite being the size of an affordable studio apartment in New York, the place consistently draws a good crowd – sort of a pain in winter, when it’s too cold to be comfortable when you’re squeezed outside.