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EXCLUSIVE | Global Gayborhoods: Istanbul

EXCLUSIVE | Global Gayborhoods: Istanbul

Exotic and familiar to Westerners, Turkey's cultural epicenter contrasts its historically cosmopolitan character with growing Islamic conservatism. Gay life abounds, but is it going underground?

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 Caf? (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 Barbah?e (Soganci 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 Barbah?e (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 Besiktas; + 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 caf?s 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 (Sorgu?lu Han no. 22, off of Kalpak?ilar 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 Topkapi Palace (Topkapi, 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.

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