Whatever comes to mind when you think of a Hookah cafes in Istanbul – groups of Middle Eastern men getting high on smoky inhalations in shadowy teahouses or the rainbow of peculiar looking vials cluttering the stalls of the Grand Bazaar – you’ll likely find plenty to fuel the stereotype. Rest assured though, the hookah pipe, or Nargiles as they are known throughout Turkey, are far removed from the hashish-packed water-pipes of the 1960s – today’s offerings are strictly tobacco, albeit a little stronger than the average cigarette.
Nargiles have a long history in Turkey, traveling over from India, Iran and Arabia during the 17th-century and quickly becoming a hit among the male population. During Ottoman periods, the pipes were packed with opium, which gave way to hashish and finally to simply tobacco. Nargile cafés are still booming in Istanbul, and today the pastime is popular among the younger generation. Many tourist-orientated bars and teahouses in Sultanahmet or around the Grand Bazaar offer Nargiles and while this can be an unintimidating way to brush up on your smoking etiquette, the real experience is best had at a local café. Expect clusters of young Turks lounging on colorful floor cushions, carefree chatter buzzing around the walls and a wide variety of weird and wacky flavors on offer. Apple and strawberry are both popular flavors, but mint, chocolate, watermelon and even, bubblegum, are all on offer.
Tophane is the main area to find Nargile cafes, attracting locals and tourists alike to the traditional smoky teahouses, but keep an eye out around Galata and the side streets of Taksim Square for the most crowded local haunts. Traditionally hookah cafes do not serve alcohol so do as the locals do and couple your nargile with an endless stream of sweet çay -Turkish tea, good company and plenty of time to relax and unwind.