With a population of 13.5 million, the economic, cultural, and historical heart of Turkey, Istanbul is among the largest cities in the world. Straddling the busy Bosphorus waterway that divides two continents, the city is split between the tightly packed commercial and historical center on the European side, and the more sprawling Asian side, where third of its population lives.
Founded around 660 BC as Byzantium, the city became one of the most significant places in history, with a strategic position on the old Silk Road, and astride the only sea route between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, by way of the Sea of Marmara. Following its reestablishment by the Romans as Constantinople in 330 AD, it was for sixteen centuries the capital site of four empires: Roman, Byzantine, Latin and Ottoman. A vital center of Christianity until the Ottoman conquest of 1453, it then became an Islamic stronghold, the seat of the last caliphate. In the early post-Ottoman years much of the power and influence, and many people involved in the arts moved to the new capital at Ankara. A more recent resurgence in business and the arts has brought many changes to this old metropolis.
The Fatih district corresponds to what was, until the Ottoman conquest, the whole city, across from which stood the Genoese citadel of Galata, now part of the Beyoğlu district. Istiklal Caddesi, formerly known as the Grande Rue de Pera, runs through Beyoğlu, Istanbul's theatre and nightclub district, once home to many European embassies. The area has again become a center for the arts, commerce and entertainment, along the avenue, and around Taksim Square. If anything people are now fighting to save the area from over-gentrification, in what is now also the heart of gay social life in Instanbul.
As local writers at Istanbul Gay put it, "Turkey has a traditional bisexual or hetero-flexible culture... the classic gay relationship is between 'real' gay men and bi-curious men." Dispite the many cultural changes and rapid westernization of the past 20 years, "there is still not a sharp distinction among sexual orientations." Border lines that separate straight, bisexual, gay, queer, transvestite and transgender people remain much more transitional and pliable here than elsewhere, they maintain. Consult their website for advice on staying safe when out and about, on taxi etiquette, avoiding scams, and for cautions when cruising and in situations with rent-boys, hustlers, and escorts.
In the many gay clubs and bars to be found around the Taksim/Beyoglu area you'll likely feel quite at home, and there are no laws at all concerning homosexuality. That said, people in public places tend not to kiss on the mouth, or hold hands, especially outside the gay neighborhoods. Laws on public morals and public order may be used by police against people deemed suspicious or in violation of public decency. The saunas and hamams also have certain rules of conduct, even as people continue to play, and they're promoted as spas, rather than as sex clubs. Follow the lead of locals, do what they do, but note that local men may be less knowledgeable or careful about safe sex than you'd expect. Eighteen is the legal age for entry to bars and clubs; also the age of consent. See our maps & listings pages for a recent compilation of gay bars, clubs, cafes and saunas, along with some hotel and restaurant suggestions, shops, and area museums.
Gay Pride Istanbul (Onur Yürüyüşü) gay pride march and LGBT street festival have been annual events since 2003. Dates are either the last Sunday in June or the first Sunday in July, wrapping up Istanbul Pride Week. Marchers assemble in Taksim Square and parade the length of İstiklal Avenue. See the KAOS website for info.
A number of streets around Istiklal Avenue, the main commercial thoroughfare of Beyoğlu, are known for having a diverse and lively concentration of places to eat and drink, including foreign cuisines. Cezayir Sokak behind Galatasaray Lisesi, is another narrow and pretty lane of cafés and restaurants, some with musicians playing, and Nevizade Sokak is also known for lively pubs and restaurants.
Çiçek Pasajı is an arcade of fine restaurants between İstiklal and Sahne, where Russian noblewomen once sold flowers after the Russian Revolution. The Asmalimescit neighborhood behind Tünel Square, has Turkish restaurants and grill houses (Ocakbasi) that retain the feel of old Istanbul, with ancient façades and narrow streets. Closer to Taksim Square there's a cluster of restaurants on Kurabiye Sokak. Along the Marmara coast the Kumkapı quarter boasts around 50 traditional fish restaurants. Tipping is a way of life here --figure 10 to 15 percent.
The Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts holds the International Istanbul Film Festival, the Theatre Festival and the Istanbul International Music Festival each year, along with the Istanbul Biennial, held every two years since 1987. The latter has risen in prestige to stand among elite biennales such as those of Venice and São Paulo.
The Topkapı Palace Museum and the great architectural beauty, the Hagia Sophia, are the most visited of Istanbul's seventy museums. The city's 17 palaces, 64 mosques, and 49 churches of historical significance include the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, known for blue tiles that cover it, completed in 1616.
Other art museums include the İstanbul Modern, the Pera Museum, the Sakıp Sabancı Museum and the SantralIstanbul. Older museums include the three Istanbul Archaeology Museums, with sculptures from Archaic to Roman eras, and artifacts of pre-Greek Anatolia and Mesopotamia and pre-Islamic Egypt and Arabia; also the Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum with notable examples of Islamic calligraphy, tiles, and rugs.
Our map has shopping options ranging from the Grand Bazaar, in operation since 1461, among the world's oldest and largest covered markets with 4,000 stalls, to the modern shopping centers such as Istanbul Cevahir and Kanyon, each with hundreds of upscale stores.
Travellers need a visa to enter the country, obtained at the border and paid for in cash before standing in line at passport control. You’ll need a passport valid for 90 days or more, the period for which the visa is valid, during which time you may make multiple entries.
Atatürk International Airport is the city's primary airport. Ulasim Metro trains serve the airport to the city center route, about a 10 minute walk from the baggage claim/arrivals area. The trip from the airport to Sultanahmet takes about 45 minutes, with a transfer at Zeytinburnu station to the blue tram, line T1, for a total cost of under US$4.
Havatas buses run every half hour between the airport and the IETT Bus Stop, located opposite the Marmara Hotel in Taksim , taking about 40 minutes, depending on the traffic.
The Istanbul Airport Pickup Service costs around US$30 into town, but a taxi to Taksim would run about the same price.
Istanbul has a second airport, Sabiha Gökçen International Airport on the Anatolian side of the city. Havatas also has bus service connecting the airport with Taksim, taking about an hour (more in heavy traffic). Bus schedules are sometimes but not always linked to flight arrival and departure times. There is also public bus service from the airport.
Long-distance train services into Istanbul have been suspended until 2015 due to ongoing construction of the Bosphorus Rail Tunnel. Trains from Europe terminate at the border, and designated buses complete the trip. On the Asian side, trains from the south terminate in Eskişehir. Trains from eastern Turkey and Iran now stop in Ankara.
Most buses and coaches terminate at Esenler Otogar, about 10 km west of downtown, on the European side. Get here via the Otogar stop on the M1. Some companies have courtesy minibuses or taxis to city center.
International ferries from beyond Turkish borders stop at Karakoy Port, conveniently close to Sultanahmet and Taksim districts.
Cruise ships often dock near downtown. Taxis may be found at the port entrance, and streetcars are a short walk away.
Istanbul Ulasim operates the tramway, metro and light rail trains, funicular and aerial cable cars throughout the city. The system is not easy to figure out, as maps are rare and transfers are often necessary, each requiring the payment of another fare. Tokens cost 3 TL (September 2012) from ticket kiosks & machines at bus, railway and metro stations. Fares are flat rate, however far you go. Only cash is accepted and there are no transfer tickets.
The Istanbulkart is good for stays of several days using public transport, a plastic card charged with fares good for use on buses, trams, suburban trains, metro, and local ferries. You can use it as a group card too, touching once for each person. As the card balance gets low it can be recharged, but there is no refund for unused balance. See IETT for more information. Beware of pickpockets during the rush hour crush on buses and streetcars.
Private ferries travel between the European and Asian sides of the city, a crossing of about 20 minutes, costing about US$1, with great views of the Bosphorus. See ferry timetables at the Sehir Hatlari website. Deniz SeaTaxi motorboats provide a fast, customized and private transportation, shore to shore, around the clock.
Money & Banking
The Turkish Lira, the official currency, has been fairly stable (around US$1:1.80TRY throughout 2012), since rampant inflation abated after 2005.
ATMs can be found in most malls and other points around cities for Turkish Lira, and someties other foreign currencies. Consult your home bank before departure for information that could save you money on withdrawal fees, also to let them know you'll be making foreign charges on credit cards.
Visa and MasterCard are commonly accepted in Turkey. Foreign banks with local branch offices include Chase, Citibank, Deutsche Bank, and HSBC.
Media and Resources
Istanbul Gay, the best GLBT resource, has lots of information and insights on the local scene, plus well maintained listings for gay and lesbian bars, restaurants, cafes, nightclubs, shops and cruising areas; also hotel bookings services --all in English.
KAOS GL, a Turkish language GLBT civil rights organization magazine and regional website news portal, also has English language pages.
TurkeyGay.net also covers Istanbul and other major Turkish cities.
Turkey Gay Guide has some good background information, but their business listings are outdated.
IstanbulQueens is another local gay website with a few good tips.
For a wide range of inexpensive hostel rooms and dorm beds, see Hostel World/Instanbul.
For a guide to the many hammams of Istanbul see the HammanGuide website.
The Guide Istanbul magazine/website has good coverage of local restaurants/cafes, nightlife, arts & entertainment, shopping and local events, in English, including their Expat's Bible --your essential guide to the city. For long-term trips see ExpatArrivals.
For locations and website links to businesses listed below, see our Istanbul gay map & listings pages.
An historic footnote on sexuality during the early years of the Ottoman Empire concerns the Janissaries, an elite army corps of conscripts (mostly European youths). These soldiers were not permitted to marry or to grow beards, but were expected instead to eat, sleep, fight and die together, as a brotherhood, with the Sultan as their father. Two divisions of troops once went to battle with one another in city streets over a young male attendant who washed and massaged clients in a hammam. The lover of a soldier in one group, he'd been snatched away for the pleasure of a rival, leading to full-scale combat. The sultan had to step in to end it. See Dellakname-i-Dilküşa, (the "Record of Tellaks") an 18th century work by Dervish Ismail Agha. Hammams are still meeting places for men, and although their managements now prefer to downplay the homoerotic opportunities, the Turkish term hamam oğlanı (bath boy) may still be used to label someone as homosexual.
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