By Roy Heale
I must admit my knowledge of Turkey was limited to my online research before I departed for Istanbul plus a few faded memories from the 80s cult movie Midnight Express. But at least I knew that Istanbul was at the crossroads of two continents—a globally unique occurrence—the city being divided into Europe and Asia by the Bosphorus Straight. With over 11 million people residing in this metropolis I felt confident that my trip would unveil the mystique of Turkey and possibly in a city so populous there might even be a sizable gay community.
Much to my surprise, on the drive into the city from the airport, I quickly learned the dichotomy of Istanbul as I gazed at the specter of modern high rise towers amidst the historic mosques adorned with their towering minarets. With a history dating back to circa 6500 BC and the ruins of a Neolithic settlement plus monuments from Ancient Greece, Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman civilizations up to modern day architecture this truly is a heterogeneous city. And it soon became apparent that this diversity included a thriving gay and lesbian community. My knowledgeable English speaking local tour guide, Okan Kutlu from Istanbul, explained that although the gay community is spread throughout the city there were several bars, clubs, restaurants and cafes to enjoy. However, there are no exclusively gay accommodations but many gay-friendly boutique hotels. But you will be pleased by the lower cost of living in Turkey and some cheaper prices to ease your vacation costs during these tough economic times.
In the shopping, entertainment and gourmet dining district of Nisantasi the Sofa Hotel offers a unique combination of new technology, comfort, peace and exclusive personal services. With eight-two rooms and executive suites Sofa provides luxury accommodations and facilities for a relaxing urban vacation. The Sofa offers a new generation of hotel amenities within walking distance to international brand-name stores like Gucci and Louis Vuitton, distinguished restaurants, bars, cafés and the city’s newest and most prestigious shopping mall.
Close to the Taksim District gay nightlife is the elegant boutique Lush Hotel where any gay traveler is going to feel right at home with pampered service and upscale rooms. With thirty-five uniquely different and stylish rooms to choose from the Lush Hotel offers something for every vacation budget and, as I soon discovered, lives up to to its name. The rooms here would entice any gay vacationer to stay longer and lap up the decadent luxury for a few days more. Perhaps a Chi Yang massage using 24 carat gold pieces from the Far East where it is believed gold increases the life span—a few extra gay days in your life! Not to mention the lavish cocktails in their stylish Brasserie bar.
Despite the vast number of cars on the roads and the near gridlock traffic, we maneuvered deftly around the city by day to cover the major tourist attractions including the Blue Mosque—which, it turns out, is only blue on the inside—the Grand Bazaar, the Spice Market—where Turkish Viagra is plentiful—the Hagia Eirene, the Topkapi Palace, and the Hagia Sophia just to name a few. With thousands of years of history there is an ancient monument or an architectural wonder around practically every corner. If you only have a few days to spend here make certain you hire a local gay tour guide to ensure that you see as much as possible. The city covers a vast land mass with waterways and navigation is complicated for out-of-towners.
At the end of a busy day of sightseeing a two-hour cruise along the Bosphorus Straight reveals even more historic sights where you will be pleasantly surprised by the city’s architectural heritage. Everything always looks different from the water and some would say that this is the only way to really see Istanbul and understand its enormity. If the timing and conditions are right, a spectacular sunset may welcome you upon returning to the docks in the heart of old Istanbul.
But this city by night also proffers a few unexpected surprises for the gay adventurer.
Dining out in this sophisticated international city offers every specialty or ethnic cuisine imaginable and of course a variety of Turkish Delights. At the Sultanahmet Palace you can sample fine Ottoman cuisine based on recipes from the Palace archives including fresh Marmara and Black Sea fish, olive oiled vegetarian foods, typical Anatolian home made soups and boreks (meat turnovers), grilled meat kebabs and daily cold appetizers of different meats in a dish known as Mezes.
While you are visiting the Spice Market be sure to try the local treats at Pandelli restaurant. This experience is like taking a step back in time to when Pandelli first opened his restaurant in 1901 at Eminonu. At this new market location Ottoman stone and turquoise tiles adorn the walls and floor as they did hundreds of years ago. Almost seventy different dishes grace the menu, including chicken, fish and other meats. Lunch at Pandelli’s is a must for anyone seeking those authentic Turkish delights.
For simpler fare and a gay atmosphere be sure to check out the Sugar Cafe and Cilek Cafe in Beyoglu. Both have cozy atmospheres welcoming an LGBT clientèle and are popular with the local gay community. Also, the elegant Gitane Cafe and Bar owned by Cemil Ipekci—one of the most famous gay fashion designers in Turkey—is said to serve fabulous salads. This cafe is also close to the chic “French Street” which is full of Parisian style shops, cafes, bars and restaurants.
Wherever you choose to dine it will be a break from home-town traditions and a fun part of your vacation memories from this land of many cultures.
Of course no visit to Turkey would be complete without a trip to the gay hammams—Turkish baths. Although the owners of these establishments prefer to keep their locations discreet because they can still be closed by an obsolete Turkish law, it is easy to discover their whereabouts by asking for the location and directions at any gay establishment. I think this secrecy is because they are just trying to add more mystique to this traditional personal delight. Make sure you hunt down a hammam in order to enjoy some recreation and relaxation Turkish style.
The Taksim district of Beyoglu town on the European side of Istanbul is the center of most major gay venues and is in fact the heart of this city’s major nightlife. Although my time was limited I did manage to discern a few favorites amongst the many choices for libations and entertainment.
We made an early start at the Shake’in Bar which opens at 4PM and is a local cafe and bar with several different rooms plus a small dance floor. On this particular occasion a local singer entertained the crowd with Turkish songs and although I didn’t understand the words, when a handsome young man sits on your lap to serenade you, the language becomes universal.
Next we headed to the larger more American-style Tek Yon dance bar. Currently recognized as the most popular gay bar in Istanbul, the waiters and staff are very friendly and the crowd very mixed and packed most nights.
But our last stop of the night quickly became my favorite when we arrived at the Love Dance Point. Although it doesn’t open until 11:30PM and only on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, it stays alive until 5AM on weekends. The incredibly friendly waiters, bartenders and management make the place. Here I learned that the Turkish Viagra from the spice market is firmly recommended by the locals for yet another Turkish delight! Not surprisingly the hot Turkish go-go dancers are a real treat plus the amazingly diverse, tightly packed crowd quickly made me realize I had found the real midnight express in Istanbul.