More famous for its historical sites and its carpets, most visitors come to Turkey not expecting to find much in the way of nightlife. Nothing could be further from the truth. Turkey’s recent economic growth and increasing prosperity had had enormous effect on the vitality, energy and variety of its nightlife. The range of night entertainment is huge, from traditional male-dominated birahanes to techno and rave nightclubs, with new venues opening by the week. As a result, Turkey’s nightlife is quickly gaining recognition as one of the liveliest in Europe.
An authentic Turkish experience can be combined with a racuous nights drinking at one of Turkey’s meyhanes. These tavernas serve raki, beer and wine, along with an awe-inspiring selection of mezes (starters), succulent kebabs and fruits of the season. A favourite location for raki drinking, the atmosphere gets louder and merrier as the night progresses, with clients often breaking into impromtu renditions of Turkish classics. The most famous meyhanes in Turkey are located in the Cicek Pasaj in Beyoglu, Istanbul, a bustling passage whose many meyhanes are interspersed with flower, fish and vegetable stalls, and where street musicians and vendors wander among the revellers. Birahanes are more basic, with the beer taking precedence over the food. Turkish women rarely enter birahanes. Although foreign women are tolerently expected to break all the rules, and will usually be made feel welcome, it is advisable not to go to such all-male preserves alone.
The past few years have seen a huge growth in the popularity of Anatolian folk music or Saz bars. These tend to be garishly decorated in artificial flowers and a profusion of kilims and wickerwork, but the prices are very reasonable and the food fresh and delicious. The music is usually provided by a sole singer, accompanied by a saz, who sings plaintive tales of love and war. Dancing is an essential part of the evening, and with customary Turkish hospitality visitors will always be invited to join in. Luckily, the most common dance, called halay, is a simple folk dance which can be
picked up in seconds.
For those who want to see something more exotic, many nightclubs offer “Oriental shows” with sequined bellydancers, troupes of Russian or Romanian dancers, and flashy caberet singers. Most of these shows are quite tame and sanitized, although the visitor should beware of the seedier style pavyon, where the unsuspecting can be ripped off for an inordinate amount of money, in return for some watered-down drinks and the dubious company of one of the girls who work there. Fortunately, these joints are fairly obvious, advertising their services with neon lights and photographs of scantily-clad girls, and its not difficult to avoid them. They appear to be a dying species, being replaced in city centres by more profitable and fashionable rock bars and cafes. If in doubt about the reputation of a place, clearly establish the prices before ordering anything.
If the pavyons are not sufficiently tittilating for your tastes, Turkey has thriving red light districts, where genelev (brothels) operate legally under the control of the municipality. Certain hotels in the sleazier areas of towns also act as unofficial pickup joints. In the past few years Western-style bars and cafes have become the place to see and be seen. Opening hours are long; most bars stay open until 2:00 am and some keep going until 4:00am or later. The most downmarket of these are sawdust-on-the-floor style rock bars, where the beer is incredibly cheap, decoration is minimal, and heavy metal and 70s rock is the order of the day. These are popular among students, and the atmosphere is extremely lively, with lots of political discussion taking place amidst the headbanging. The dress code for these bars is strictly grunge, with body piercing, heavy metal t-shirts, and lots of hair. The oldest and most enduring of these is Koprualti Kemanci, also known as Eski Kemanci, which began life as one of the hangouts under the old wooden Galata bridge, but is now located in Taksim.
In the middle, there are numerous rock bars offering live music, usually bands performing covers of popular rock classics from Pink Flyod, The Who and Led Zepplin, alternating with the latest disco mixes. Prices in Istanbul are usually a little less than other European cities, while in tourist resorts competition means the prices are kept extremely low. In Istanbul try Kemanci, Hayal Kahvesi and Mojo Blues Bar. In Turkish tourist resorts you will find a selection of bars to suit every taste in music. Kusadasi is famous for its aptly named Bar Street, lined with self-styled Irish and British bars. The nightlife of Bodrum is known all over Europe, the highlight being the outdoor Halikarnas disco. Homegrown pop and rock is improving, and many Turkish stars also perform at bars and clubs. A great way to spend a summer evening is to attend one of the many outdoor rock and pop concerts featuring the current chart toppers which are regularily held in the main tourist resorts. Admission is usually free. Alternative music is becoming more widely available and popular in Turkey, and the newest clubs cater for fans of underground, hardcore and drum and bass. For a more relaxed atmosphere, there are many late-opening cafes serving great cappuchinos along with alcohol and playing everything from classical to drum and bass. At the top end of the market are bars and clubs catering to the young and upwardly mobile elite. These are superbly stylish, and concentrated mainly in Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir. In Istanbul, the top discos have summer locations along the Bosphorus, where you can enjoy the beautiful view while partying until the early hours. Levent and Etiler are also recommended watering spots.
Gay nightlife is largely confined to Istanbul, where many bars and clubs cater for the gay community. Açık Radyo has a gay programme where you can find details of any special activities going on. Bilsak, Prive, Hans and Club 14 are currently popular, and are all centrally located around Taksim. A word of warning – always carry your passport or some equivalent ID when you go out.