How to tell that the political landscape of a Middle Eastern country has changed? Just look at your tab. I’m giving you a well-scouted list of bars in Istanbul, but not without warning. Alcohol has gotten really expensive in Turkey since I lived there in 2007. For a cocktail you’re looking at upwards of $11, which may seem like nothing coming from New York and San Francisco, but most things are considerably less expensive here, and as I learned while stirring my vermouth martini in search of vodka, the artisan cocktail renaissance has yet to hit the Sea of Marmara shores, so you’re not necessarily getting what you paid for. While talking to a bartender in a boutique hotel I learned that some imported alcohol and domestically produced alcohol (like wine and raki, Turkey’s version of ouzo ) have been hit with increasing tax hikes since the current government party (called AKP) took power in 2002.
Since Turkey has become another expensive place in Europe to buy a drink (while imposing conservative values on its citizens and limiting its own alcohol production industry— can you tell I’m annoyed?), this list is more about location and atmosphere than it is about the drinks themselves. My best recommendation to you is to order a beer or glass of wine, and my recommendation to AKP is hands off my cocktails already, and god forbid you get anywhere near my uterus.
On a Bridge
It’s an obstacle course to get through the restaurant hawkers on the Galata bridge. Sometimes they stand directly in front of people walking by, thrusting their menus around, shouting “hello lady,” and blocking the walkway. But push past and the setting becomes one of the best places in Istanbul to grab a beer or a nargile. The bridge connects Istanbul’s imperial city to its European neighborhoods, and bars and restaurants line both sides, facing the Golden Horn. Here, below the city’s traffic and tramway, is where I used to sit on a bean bag and watch the sunset with my friends after a long work day. Any place that looks relaxing is a good bet here (first check if they serve beer though), but we used to head to Onnumera.
On a Roof
This rooftop bar is tucked away in Cihangir, a neighborhood where gentrification was just settling in as I was leaving town. The same pickle store filled with jars of peppers and eggplants remains, but new cafes are packed with young folk, and vintage stores dot the streets. 5kat is no newcomer though. Across from the hospital on Siraselviler Sk, down Soganci Sk (which is basically an unamed alleyway across from three ATMs), you’ll find 5Kat on the fifth floor of a dark apartment building. Exit the elevator to arrive to a rooftop terrace with a spectacular view of the bosphorus, velvety furniture, garden lanterns, deep red and purple walls, and lots of greenery. Beware, the atmosphere compensates for the food.
This is one of Istanbul’s poshest bars. It costs a ridiculous cover to get in on weekend nights after dinner, but when the patio opens up it is a legitimately special place to mingle over a 360 view of Istanbul. Plus, you’ll feel uber trendy.
They got it right here. A few exposed brick walls, understated furniture, and warm dim lighting make the atmosphere here more rustic than most uber-sleek Istanbul establishments, and more comfortable. A low couch faces the bosphorus, it’s the best and most informal seating in the house, so come at about 6 pm and most likely you’ll be the only one sitting on it. We came here twice at sunset: the stone mosques and white ships reflected off the sun, a pair of women sat on the roof of their apartment building below us (and paid nothing for their view, dammnit!), and even after a long day walking through the Grand Bazaar, this view was the most grandiose of the day. I felt too classy here to order a beer, so I had a glass of blush, which is as girly and refreshing as it sounds.
It may be the ex-ex-pat in me (can you be an ex-ex-pat?), but I get excited when I hear about Asian restaurants in Istanbul. I was so hungry for some variety (not to mention ginger, soy sauce and chili oil) back then that I wish Banyan, an upscale Thai fusion restaurant in the Ortakoy neighborhood had been around. This is one of my favorite neighborhoods in Istanbul. The Ortakoy mosque, less dramatic in size and age than many of Istanbul’s famous mosques, makes up for drama with the cracks and curves of its ornate windows and arches, and with its location — it sits on the bosphorus and the bridge between Europe and Asia stands tall in the background, close enough to watch the cars pass from one continet to the next, far enough to escape their noise. Around it is a small plaza filled with cute restaurants and cafes, and on Sunday an Artist’s Market fills the neighborhood’s small alleyways. Banyan has one of the most spectacular views in the neighborhood, overlooking the water, the plaza and the mosque, and not to mention a sleek bar.
With Live Music
I never knew how to dance to the clarinet before I came to Istanbul. One of the best dance parties to be found here is when folk bands (some of them are amongst the most well known in the region) take the stage, and the crowd becomes a whirling love-fest of raised snapping hands, circle dances, and belly dancing. Araf, a small bar up several flights of stairs, is one of the best places to catch these types of shows, and other “world” music, and the crowd, a motly crew of hippies, university students, foreigners, and unusually happy people, is almost always friendly. In fact, when the music plays, they won’t let you sit down.
In a Garden
I think many people come to this glamorous bar in a 19th century building to feel stylish. I come for the leather couches, just feet away from a lush garden patio. Cezayir’s long wooden bar, leather barstools, retro lamps, and unique tile floors also beg to be admired. Now if only they weren’t playing Beatles smooth jazz remixes.
Got the travel bug?
Galata Bridge (coming from Sultanahmet get off at the Eminönü tram stop and walk through the underground tunnel. From the European side you can get off at Karaköy or take the Beyoğlu Tünel down)
5Kat, Soğancı Sokak No: 7 5th Fl, Cihangir
360, Istiklal Street, Mısır Apartment, Beyoglu
George Hotel, Serdar-I Ekrem Sokak No:24 Galata – Beyoğlu (near Galata Tower)
Banyan, Ortakoy Muallim Naci Cad. Salhane Sok. No:3 (near House Cafe)
Cezayir Hayriye Caddessi 12, Galatasary (Behind Galatasary High School, off of Istiklal)