The modern heart of Istanbul, and thus its nightlife, is Beyog?lu, and the long semi-pedestrianised boulevard of I?stiklal Caddesi that runs through it makes it easy to find your bearings as well as the music venues in the area.
Spend an hour or two in one of the many türkü bars that line Hasnin Galip Sokak and Imam Adnan Sokak, two small streets that run perpendicular and parallel a to I?stiklal Caddesi, respectively.
Since most of these venues leave their doors open to entice customers, you can often scope who’s performing from the street. Typically, a singer will be playing slow, minor key türkü (folk songs) on an amplified saz, the long-necked lute common in Turkish music. It has a pleasant metallic sound, not unlike a Portuguese guitar, and the songs are like the similarly melancholic fado style.
The audience will be sitting at tables singing along as they sip raki and eat plates of fruit, which effectively pay for the shows as there’s no cover charge.
Things hot up for wedding tunes or a performance on the raucous zurna (shawm) and davul (drum), a pairing typical of village ceremonies. In the more upmarket türkü bars such as Mektup on Imam Adnan Sokak, you’re more likely to catch larger ensembles, sometimes with electric instruments.
For something livelier, try Feraye at Balo Sokagi No.1, again just off I?stiklal Caddesi and actually overlooking it from atmospheric turn-of-the-century bay windows. Every Thursday and Saturday you’ll find gypsy clarinetist Selim Sesler playing his fasil (nightclub) tunes, accompanied by violin, derbuka (hand drum) and kanun (lap zither).
On other nights, DJs spin a cosmopolitan music selection until 4am. For a night of belly dancing, you’ll have to hop in a taxi and head across the Golden Horn arm of the Bosphorus to one of the gazinos (nightclubs) of Laleli or Aksaray neighbourhoods in the Bazaar district, most reliably at the pricey Orient House at Tiyatro Caddesi 27.
Istanbul’s hippest live music venue is Babylon, at Sebender Sokak 3, once again back in Beyog?lu. It’s the best place for international and high profile local acts such as jazz fusion percussionist Burhan Öcal, electronic Sufi artist Mercan Dede or digital folk experimentalists Orient Expressions and SOS.
On a more spiritual tip, head for Galata Dervish Lodge, a place for Mevlana Sufi (a mystical Islamic sect) worship at Galip Dede Caddesi 15, the street running off the southern end of Istiklal Caddesi. On Sunday evenings at 6pm you can catch a sema (whirling dervish) ritual.
There are other less inviting venues in Istanbul where the group perform, such as Sirkecki train station, but this outdoor setting in a leafy graveyard is the best place to watch. After a short, low-key musical performance, worshippers spin in colourful capes, working themselves and their audience into a trance.
Food, glorious food
On the hoof between clubs and no time for a sit-down nosh-up? No problem. Istanbul has some yummy street food options. For the peckish, the humble simit (a crispy, sesame-covered bagel) is available everywhere, and roasted corn is ubiquitous in season. Seafood lovers will adore the teeming bars and cafés on and around Nevizade Sokak for meze and fish, or take-away mussels deep-fried on skewers.
A healthier alternative are the delicious midye dolmasi (mussels stuffed in their shells with rice) and best of all, the freshly seared mackerel sandwiches sold along Resadiye Caddesi, the picturesque waterfront on the Bazaar shore of the Golden Horn.