The Best Bars in Istanbul
A night out in Istanbul is rife with possibilities. For a traditional Turkish experience, linger at a teahouse or an atmospheric nargile bar; for a more contemporary take, follow the cool kids to lively cocktail spots in Nisantasi or Karakoy. There are wine bars for sampling local vintages, rooftops for savoring a view of the Bosphorus, and streets known for their outdoor cafes and roving musicians.
Teşvikiye, Hacı Emin Efendi Sk. No:28, 34365 Şişli/İstanbul, Turkey
A mostly local crowd spills out onto the sidewalk from this hole-in-the-wall hangout in Nisantasi. They’re here for the effortlessly cool and collegial vibe; the funk and soul tunes; and signature cocktails like Serendipity (chili, passion fruit, lime juice, tequila) and Keep the Spice (Johnny Walker Black, orange bitters, honey, a rosemary-thyme infusion, lime juice).
Tomtom Mahallesi, Yeni Çarşı Cd. No:44, 34433 Beyoğlu/İstanbul, Turkey
This tiny hybrid wine shop–cum–wine bar has impressed many local vino lovers with its intimate ambience, tasty mezes, and friendly service from general manager Suleyman Er and his team. It has imported and local wines available to consume on-site or take away at discounted prices, and it’s perfect for a late-afternoon escape from the crowds of İstiklal Avenue—just 300 feet away—a pre-dinner drink, or a nightcap.
Merkez Mahallesi, Birahane Sk. 1/D, 34381 Şişli/İstanbul, Turkey
Turkey isn’t known for its beer, with most menus dominated by the serviceable yet flavorless Efes. The craft beer movement has been gratefully welcomed (especially by expats), and a few breweries have popped up in Istanbul in recent years. The Populist brewery is part of Bomontiada, a massive complex of art and performance spaces, shops, restaurants, and nightlife on the site of the former Bomonti Beer Factory, which closed in the 1950s and was abandoned for several decades. Populist’s food menu is standard pub fare, with a few surprises like a lamb burger with Carolina mustard sauce and a flatbread pizza with kokoreç (better-than-it-sounds grilled lamb intestines). The rotating selection of 12 beers on tap might include a Belgian Turkish wheat with anise and a hoppy IPA. To reach Bomontiada, take the metro to Osmanbey, and from there it’s a 10- to 15-minute walk through a historically diverse and rapidly changing neighborhood.
Kemankeş Karamustafa Paşa Mahallesi, Kara Ali Kaptan Sok. No:7, 34425 Beyoğlu/İstanbul, Turkey
The blocks of Karikoy from the Galata Bridge going east to Istanbul Modern have emerged as one of the hottest areas in the city in recent years. In this transitioning neighborhood, there are still plenty of local barbershops and offices and shops that reflect the port-related economy of the old Karikoy, but emerging among them are boutiques and cafés catering to a new crowd. Karabatak’s name, Turkish for cormorant, reflects the harbor front location of the neighborhood (Karabatak itself is three blocks inland), but this coffee house which opened in 2011 is all about the new Karikoy. It is the Istanbul headquarters of the Austrian coffee roasting company Julius Meinl and you can sit in its comfortable rooms with tiled floors and vintage furniture and choose from a long menu of coffee drinks, as well as sodas, limonatas, and some sandwiches and snacks. On warm evenings, patrons sit under the vine arbor that forms a roof over the pedestrian street, extending to another popular café, Unter, diagonally across the intersection. (Karabatak is on the right side of the street in this photo.)
Asmalı Mescit Mahallesi, Şehbender Sok. No:3, Ivy Masjid Quarter, 34430 Beyoğlu/İstanbul, Turkey
In the neighborhood of Asmalımescit near Tünel, you’ll find Babylon, a popular club with a capacity for 450 people and pumping sounds. The club’s state-of-the-art lighting and sound system, mixed with its rustic Byzantine-style backdrop, makes it the crème de la crème of intimate performance venues in Istanbul. Gigs here run the whole gamut of genres including rock, pop, alternative grooves, world music, and music from the ‘80s. Pictured above is celebrated Australian singer-songwriter Sarah Blasko at her Istanbul debut in 2013.
Emniyetevleri Mah. Eski Büyükdere Cad., Emniyetevleri, Yamaç Sk. No: 7, 34415 Kağıthane/Kâğıthane/İstanbul, Turkey
In Istanbul, the most authentic place to smoke nargile (also known as hookah and shisha) is Corlulu Ali Pasa Medresesi. The 300-year-old Medrese evolved from a religious school and dervish lodge during the Ottoman times to bazaar stores in the mid-20th century to its current form—a respite for locals and tourists from the bustling Grand Bazaar district. Relax amid the bubbling sounds of the nargile while indulging in the wafting aromas of fruity tobacco. Alcohol is not served; instead, savor a Turkish tea in a tulip-shaped glass or try “boomba” tea with lemon, hibiscus, and mint at the café on the left as you enter the complex. In winter, the warm milky cinnamon drink called salep is a local favorite. The customers are mainly men, but ladies, don’t feel intimidated. It’s a great place to people watch and meet locals who speak many languages. Corlulu Ali Pasa Medresesi is open till 2am and located on the tram line between Cemberlitas and Beyazit/Grand Bazaar stations. If you want my recommendation, try the apple and mint or rose and mint nargile—best shared with old and new friends. Afiyet Olsun (bon appetit)!
Caferağa Mh Moda Cd. &, Caferağa Mahallesi, Damacı Sk. No:4, 34710 Kadıköy/İstanbul, Turkey
When the crush of 14 million people (and what seems like an infinite number of rude taxi drivers) gets to you, Istanbul has a cure for what ails you: a peaceful ferry ride across the Bosphorus and a seat in the leafy garden at Viktor Levi wine house. The son of a fisherman, Viktor Levi started bringing back his favorite wines from the Aegean Islands more than a century ago, and his namesake restaurant, tucked into a side street in Moda in Kadiköy, now has more than a dozen house varietals, most under 100 lira. A meal by the fountain or inside the restored town house might inspire your own trip to Bozcaada, or just a return trip on the ferry.
Bereketzade Mah, Kuledibi, Büyük Hendek Cd. No:5, 34420 Beyoğlu/İstanbul, Turkey
Turkey, one of the few countries in the world to be self-sustainable in food production, grows more than 600 grape varieties and is an emerging leader in producing good quality wines. It’s no wonder that wine bars specializing in Turkish wines are sprouting up over Istanbul. A wonderful place to sample and buy Turkish wine (şerap, as it’s known in Turkish) is Sensus Wine Bar, tucked away on a cobbled street almost on the doorstep of the Galata Tower. Here you can purchase or sample wines from around the country along with cheeses and olives. I recommend taking some friends and staying a while in the cellar-like atmosphere and ordering a sample plate that comes with wines and delicious meze.
27-29 Akarsu Yokuşu
Coffee shop by day, cocktail bar by night, this cozy venue is fast becoming the hipsters’ haunt in urban-chic Cihangir. Serkan İpekli, a Turkish barista champion, and Yağmur Engin teamed up to brew, mix, and shake classic and innovative beverages all day with a vibe that’s laid-back, yet irresistible.
Süleymaniye Mahallesi, Necatibey Cd. No:8, 34425 Beyoğlu/İstanbul, Turkey
This good-looking cocktail bar serves up drinks with homemade syrups and herbal infusions (lavender, bergamot) to an equally stylish crowd. DJs spin on weekends, and heat lamps keep the outdoor fun going well past summer.
Hüseyinağa Mahallesi, Nevizade Sk., 34435 Beyoğlu/İstanbul, Turkey
For a Saturday night out, many locals will head to Beyoğlu’s liveliest street, Nevizade, lined with meyhanes (taverns) and bars where mezes (starters) and seafood are peddled openly and the rakı (aniseed liquor) and Efes beer flow freely. Highlights of a night here are the musicians who roam playing fasıl tunes (classical Turkish music) accompanied with darbuka (drums), violin, clarinet, and the kanun (a triangular-shaped string instrument that sits on the lap or a table). If they come to your table and play a song or two, it’s customary to tip them 10-15T lira. It’s also customary that if you do not wish to part with your money, you politely gesture them to move on before a note is played. Judging by the number of explanatory brackets in this article, a night on Nevizade is a cultural experience and a great way to immerse yourself in local nightlife. Be wary, though—like any crowded place in any part of the world, Nevizade does get very busy, so keep an eye on your valuables. To find Nevizade, walk along Istiklal Caddesi and turn onto Balik Sokak near Çiçek Passage. Nevizade runs off Balik Sokak on the right.
Kuloğlu Mahallesi, Cihangir Mahallesi, Firuzağa Cami Sk. No:4, 34433 Beyoğlu/İstanbul, Turkey
Çağatay Gülabioğlu’s micro roastery and specialty coffee shop, KronotRop, is located in one of Istanbul’s most hippest neighborhoods. The outlet was a revolutionary initiative in Turkey’s gourmet culinary world, and as such, it set the scene for other third wave coffee roasters in town to blossom. Coffee beans from around the world are imported, roasted onsite, and ground upon order. The beans are brewed from fair-trade, organic, single-origin beans and presented in all styles of caffeine and de-caf concoctions. If you’re missing that favorite cup from home, then KronotRop may have what you’re craving—brewed hot or cold.
Hüseyinağa Mahallesi, İstiklal Cd. No:26, 34435 Beyoğlu/İstanbul, Turkey
Irish bars tend to be a gathering place for local expat communities, and in Istanbul, that role is played by James Joyce—just off Nevizade Street in Beyoğlu. This bar has the typical attributes of a hospitable Irish establishment with its hearty menu, international beers, wooden bar stools and booths, and country-style ambience. James Joyce hosts live music acts every night of the week and telecasts international sporting events on its big screens. Visit here to bump into your fellow countryfolk.
Teşvikiye, Vali Konağı Cd. No:40, 34365 Şişli/İstanbul, Turkey
If you’re keen to experience the medieval practice of “kahve falı" or “fal” (fortune telling with Turkish coffee) then make an appointment at Symbol Café in Nişantaşı with Tunc, one of the few English-speaking coffee readers in the city. Once there, order a Turkish coffee with “sade” (no sugar), “az” (little sugar), “orta” (medium sugar), or "şekerli” (sweet), and savor the flavor of a rich aromatic coffee as you ponder your life’s ambitions. When the last drop leaves your lips and all that is left are the grinds sunk deep in the demitasse (small cup), take the saucer and gently seal it atop the cup. Swirl the cup and saucer clockwise three times and then flip them both toward you, holding them firmly so as not to spill the grinds. Relax as the grinds dry out, and wait for Tunc to find you in the cozy café filled with locals who are also eager for readings. When Tunc hypnotically gazes at the grinds to interpret the patterns before his eyes, expect to hear about your past, present, and future with uncanny accuracy (or at least that’s what happened to me). Facts about your life, love, career, money, family, and travel will spill out of the cup for Tunc to interpret without you mentioning a word. Symbol Cafe is at Valikonağı Caddesi (Street) No: 34 Nişantaşı - İstanbul - Telephone: (0212) 291 75 40. The closest train stop to Symbols Cafe is Osmanbey Metro Station, one stop from Taksim Square.
No 54, Sultanahmet Mh., İstiklal Cd. No:50, 34435 Fatih/İstanbul, Turkey
A popular summertime refrain in Istanbul is: “Shall we meet at Mama Shelter?” When you arrive at the venue, high above the streets of bohemian Beyoglu, you can see why it’s popular with Istanbul’s sophisticated set. This vibrant, yet relaxed, open-air rooftop terrace sits just off Istiklal Street above the stylish rooms of the international hotel chain of the same name. Designed with the eclectic tastes of Philippe Starck, Mama Shelter Istanbul is proving to be a swanky place to kick back to enjoy a meal or drinks. Choose to sit with a panoramic view of old Istanbul or recline in a day bed as you gaze at the skyscrapers populating the business district of Sisli.
Asmalı Mescit Mahallesi, Meşrutiyet Cd. No:53, 34430 Beyoğlu/İstanbul, Turkey
The Grand Hotel de Londres (also known as Buyuk Londra) has been open for more than 100 years, and while its interior is immaculately kept, there’s something about it that is charmingly stuck in the past. You can imagine Ernest Hemingway at the bar in 1922, reviewing notes for his story in the Toronto Daily Star. Wander through the lobby with its antique furniture, past the requisite portrait of Atatürk, to the tiny elevator that will take you up to the rooftop. The bar there is scenic without being a scene: no seasonal cocktails or artisanal ice cubes here, just a simple but serviceable menu and gorgeous views of the Golden Horn and the Old City. If you can, try to arrive before sunset to hear the call to prayer echo throughout the streets, then descend the grand staircase back into the noisy nightlife of Pera.