Global Gayborhoods: Istanbul

By

Originally published on Advocate.com August 12 2008 12:00 AM ET

Outside In

Literally split
by the Bosphorus Strait into the "Asia side" and
"Europe side," Istanbul is a destination stuck between two
poles. Seen from Europe, it is exotic yet within
cultural spitting distance. By the same token, it
feels foreign to the vast majority of Turkey, a
conservative Muslim nation.

Despite its
deserved reputation as wealthy, secular, and liberal, the
former Constantinople faces a rising tide of political
conservatism, from the traditional population and the
religious government they elected in 2006.

This is a
particular concern to gay travelers, who can no longer rely
on the country's biggest and most visible gay
organization; Lambda Istanbul was closed in April
by a government raid under unfounded charges,
including promoting prostitution.

The climate has
by no means shut down Istanbul's gay life, but it has
made resources more difficult to locate, rattling the nerves
of out and proud individuals and businesses.

Inside Out

Tricks: Tricks

Western visitors
should be on the watch for two troublesome groups. Rent
boys hang out in the seedier locations, do not always
identify themselves, and can be dangerous. Also common
in gay venues are men who sleep with men but do not
identify as gay. Generally from lower-income and more
traditional backgrounds, these groups tend to see
"gayness" as emasculation and will sleep with men only if
they are "active" or the penetrating partner, an
ancient Mediterranean convention of masculinity. Start
your night in sophisticated and newbie-friendly Sugarclub Café (Saka Salim
Cikmazi, 3-A, off Istiklal Caddesi; +90-212-425-00-96;
4-6 YTL for drinks, open 11 a.m. to 1 a.m.). The
bartenders speak English and are happy to inform you about
the city’s gay life.

Your next stop
should be Barbahçe (Soğancı
Sokak No. 3/1, off Taksim square; +90-212-245-17-18; 7 YTL
for drinks; open 10 p.m.-5 a.m. weekends). The
venerable dance club is most well known to tourists,
and although locals roll their eyes at Barbahçe
(which features go-go boys, good music, and a lesbian
section) they all go because it has such staying
power.

For the newest
hot location to party ‘til sunrise, Love Dancepoint (Cumhuriyet
Caddesi 349/1; +90-212-296-33-57; 8-10 YTL for drinks;
Wednesday, Friday, Saturday; 11 p.m. to 5 a.m.) boasts
popular DJs, drag queens, and sexy Istanbul men to
boot.

Tips: Sleeping Around
Hidden in Sultanahmet, Ibrahim Pasha (Terzihane Sokak
No: 5, Adliye Yani, Sultanahmet; +90-212-518 0394; 85+ Euro)
is a tastefully chic, gay-friendly hotel in a
century-old building with a rooftop terrace
overlooking the Blue Mosque.

The Ciragan Palace Kempinski
(Ciragan Caddesi 32 Beşiktaş; + 90 212 326
46 46; 200+ Euro), on the other hand, is a lavish
19th-century Ottoman palace on the banks of the
Bosphorus. Massive restorations were completed in
2007, bringing the amenities and service up to modern luxury
standards. The in-house historic hammam (Turkish bathhouse)
is worth a peek.

Tips: Getting Around
Public transportation in Istanbul is diffused across
trams, buses, light rail, metros, trains, funiculars,
metrobuses, and ferries. Get a good
map
or simply board something going your way and
disembark when it veers off course. Trams are the most
convenient, operating between major sights and using
an intuitive token system for fares.

Taxis can be a
reasonable option if you know how much a trip should cost,
as drivers occasionally take advantage of foreigners. At
night, they run along set routes with the fare split
between carpoolers. The system is efficient and cheap,
albeit intimidating at first for non-Turkish speakers.

Ferries operate
on a handful of lines between the Asian and European
sides of Istanbul. Overwhelmingly used by commuters, they
can be hellishly packed at rush hours but afford the
most stunning and intimate views of sunrise and sunset
from the middle of the Bosphorus. Make use of the
no-frills on-board cafés if crossing for pleasure.

Tips: Must-sees
Beautifully imposing, the former Byzantine church and
Ottoman mosque Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya Square;
+90-212-522-17-50; 10 YTL) is an architecturally
eclectic testament to Turkey’s multicultural past.
Lose yourself in the Grand Bazaar
(Sorguçlu Han no. 22, off of
Kalpakçılar Caddesi; +90-212-522-31-73), flirting
with vendors as they serve you tea and hawk carpets,
gold jewelry, hookahs, and anything your heart
desires. Finally, make time for the Topkapı
Palace
(Topkapı, Sultanhamet;
+90-212-512-04-80, 10 YTL), if only to view the priceless
jewels in the Imperial treasury, and the sumptuous (some
would say bloated) robes the well-fed sultans
wore.