It was on our second night in Istanbul that my boyfriend and I decided to come out of the closet. The scene was Mikla—the city’s restaurant of the moment—a low-lit penthouse perch impeccably decked out in ‘50s Finnish furniture. As we tucked into our souffle finalé, I leaned over to the very chic (and very straight) couple alongside us to solicit their pick for an appropriate gay nightspot. Although it was a bold move, it was her response that could not have been bolder. “There’s a lovely bar with a drag show just around the corner,” she deadpanned in mellifluous Anglo-inflected tones. “Much nicer than those typical hustler bars—though I can suggest a few of those if you like.”
In the end the bar turned out to be a bit of a dud. But the ease and openness of our newfound tour guide was welcome proof that Istanbul is finally ready for its queer close-up. Eager to secure European union membership and already enjoying the good life thanks to a booming stock market, Istanbul is quickly trading the conservative clichés of the past for a decidedly more free-market, free-thinking, and—perhaps most importantly—free-loving future.
This process, though still decades from completion, is taking place against a backdrop of extreme cultural and historic beauty that rivals even Rome. Fortunately, Istanbul’s march into modernity bears little sign of the Disneyfication that marked similar urban upgrades in the United States and Europe. Yes, Istanbul is filling fast with fashionable new malls and design-driven boutique hotels. Yet underneath this shiny veneer the city pulses with an exhilarating sexual tension that can both charm and confound.
“For a city of its size, Istanbul still has a relatively small commercial gay scene,” observes Kürsad Kahramanogáu, the Istanbul-based secretary general of the International Lesbian and Gay Association. “But all you have to do,” he adds, “is flirt your way across the Grand Bazaar to quickly realize the city is one big hunting ground.”
What Kahramanoglu means is that for those who desire it, Istanbul more than lives up to its illicit all-hours reputation. But it’s a testament to the work of Kahramanoglu and others that the city has the beginnings of a gay scene with Chelsea- and West Hollywood–style amenities. There is even the beginning of a gay scene in Bodrum, the stylish summer seaside retreat just an hour’s flight from Istanbul that offers a Mykonos-meets-Ibiza party scene, dark blue bays, and a new clutch of high design–driven hotels.
Kahramanoglu himself has opened Istanbul’s second all-gay hotel, Kafes Residences, in an elegant former apartment building in Pera, Istanbul’s former Greek and Jewish quarter. Lounges like Barbahçe are filled with a stylish, professional, easygoing crowd with all the markings of an eventual gay consumer class. True, few of the boys are actually out in the loud-and-proud sense that Kahramanoglu is. And owing to Islamic traditions of modesty and propriety, out lesbians are even more rare. But neither are they opting for the gay exile that defined so much of Kahramanoglu’s generation.
The complete articles appears in the Spring 2006 issue of The Out Traveler.
(Dial 011-90 before all numbers) Istanbul is a budget traveler’s delight, with endless two- to four-star hotels and inns in Sultanahmet and the central Taksim Square. But to experience the city like a pasha, those Ottoman-era rulers, check into the onetime palace of the last pasha himself, the Kempinski Ciragan Palace Hotel(Ciragan Caddesi 32, 212-258-3377, from $384). Set right on the Bosporus with a massive outdoor waterfront swimming pool and an endless breakfast buffet, the hotel is the city’s longtime luxury leader. Also rating five stars but kinder to the wallet is the more contemporary Ritz-Carlton (Suzer Plaza, Askarocagi Caddesi 15, 212-334-4444, from about $275), a 244-room hotel tower with easily the best spa in town. The Eklektic Hotel (Kadribey Cikmazi 4, 212-243-7446, from about $85) opened in mid 2005 as Istanbul’s first gay-owned and gay-focused hotel, with seven rooms set in a restored Ottoman-era apartment building close to the iconic Galata Tower. In Bodrum the 48-room white-on-white Ev Hotel (Türkbükü, 252-377-6070, from $300) is a chic, well-located place to call home, offering eight pools set on a hill with pristine views of Türkbükü Bay. The Kempinski Hotel Barbaros Bay (Kizilagac Koyu, 252-311-0303) offers uninterrupted views of the Aegean Sea.
Ultrachic Mikla (Marmara Pera Hotel, Mesrutiyat Caddesi 167, 212-293-5656) is the latest venture from Istanbul star chef Mehmet Gürs, deftly displaying his talent for marrying Turkish and Scandinavian cuisine, including salmon tartar and grilled lamb loin on a pepper and pine-nut stew. Less fancy (and less pricey) is Umami (Nispetiye Caddesi 21, 212-279-7474), a modern take on a traditional Turkish kebab house where some dozen varieties of the chopped and grilled meat dish are served along with spicy Turkish salads and breads fresh from a massive iron oven. Set just above the Spice Bazaar, Pandeli (Misir Carsisi 1 Eminönü, 212-527-3909) is an Istanbul institution, serving ultratraditional Turkish specialties—say, lamb chunks on smoked pureed eggplant—in an ultratraditional setting. After a few days overindulging in local fare, head for Wan-na in Pera (Mesrutiyet Caddesi 151, 212-243-1794), a year-old pan-Asian eatery, to trade the Near East for the Far East. It’s set under a 15-foot vaulted ceiling and has an onsite DJ.
For local glitz, head to the top of the Misir Apartments for an early (say 10 p.m.) drink at 360 (Istiklal Caddesi, 212-251-1042), with its namesake citywide views. It’s not exactly gay, but the cool vibe transcends labels. Similarly styled is Ulus 29 in Ulus Park (Adnan Saygun Caddesi, Ulus, 212-265-6181), a supper club with Bosporus views. Gay—very gay—is Barbahçe (Soganci Sokak 7, 212-243-2879), a late-night lounge close to Taksim Square, sleaze-free and popular with students and professional types. Club Purple (Mis Sokak 20, 212-245-8933) is an all-night affair with a drag show, go-go dancers, cabaret, and both Turkish and Western pop music. Be Club (Istiklal Caddesi, Balo Sokak 22, 212-292-7040) opens Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday with dancing for lesbians and friends.
Cabs are ubiquitous and relatively cheap, about 80 cents per mile and no more than $20 to or from the airport. Have your destination clearly written out by the concierge first, and keep an eye on the meter, as drivers are known to shift them into a higher tariff zone midway through the ride. The stunning new subway mostly travels between the city’s northern suburbs and Taksim Square. Ride a streetcar instead—a modern streetcar links the Old City (Sultanahmet) and the Grand Bazaar. Local tourism operators Meptur (Büyükdere Caddesi 26/17, 212-275-0250) can help with all on-the-ground Istanbul needs as well as arrange side trips to Bodrum and other locales. In Bodrum, join gaggles of other gay travelers this fall for a trip organized by Alternative Holidays [www.alternative-holidays.com] from September 15-22.
The new Istanbul Modern Museum (Meclis-i Mebusan Caddesi, Antrepo 4, Karaköy, 212-334-7300) is housed in a former warehouse with a striking collection of contemporary Turkish art and a waterfront restaurant. Though touristy, the Cagaloglu Hammam (Prof. Kazim Ismail Gürkan Caddesi 34, 212-522-2424) is a safe bet for an authentic Turkish bath. Spend an afternoon soaking up exquisite illuminated Islamic calligraphy at the Sakip Sabanci Museum (Istinye Caddesi 22, 212-277-2200). Witness mysticism in motion at a whirling dervish show in Galata. This ancient, trancelike performance unfolds each Sunday in the Galata Mevlevihanesi (Galip Dede Caddesi 15, 212-245-4141), an actual dervish lodge. At about $25, the show is pricey and touristy, but it is a true Istanbul must-try. Reservations are essential. Pick up perfect white shirts—and only white shirts—at Bil’s (Tes¸vikiye Bostan Sokak 10, 212-327-3133), Istanbul’s answer to Anne Fontaine. Its men’s and women’s collections are all-cotton or linen, stylishly cut, and very sexy.