Istanbul: Asia meets Europe and Ancient meets Modern

Slightly mysterious, exotic, and yet often comfortably familiar, Istanbul is not just the city where Europe meets Asia, Christianity and Islam overlap and the familiar and the exotic coexist.

Hagia Sophia Dome

Istanbul today is one of Europe’s largest cities; as such, it is a collection of many cities in one — historic and modern, rich and poor, religious and secular. Perhaps this is not surprising for a city that has been capital of the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman Empires.

The historic Sultanahmet can remind one of a fantastic museum, while vibrant Taksim Square, with its streets awash in bright yellow taxis, strolling youths, and street vendors recalls lower Manhattan. Affluent suburbs offer trendy restaurants (often on rooftop terraces with amazing views) and designer shops. Poor neighborhoods offer up hidden monuments of Byzantium and encounters with friendly locals.

In short, there is something for everyone — the modern, the traditional, nightlife, good food, history, art and monumental architecture, and friendly people. We didn’t know what to expect, but the tone was set on our first encounter upon arrival: A youthful, super-cute customs officer stamped our passports and welcomed us with a friendly smile.

Archeology Head

Istanbul has the most developed gay scene you are likely to find in a Muslim country. That said, homosexuality, while legal and seemingly widespread, still exists out of sight, and some diligence is required to explore gay life in Istanbul.

It is quite common to see cute young men strolling arm in arm — sweet! — but you shouldn’t infer a sexual relationship. There is no English-language gay press, map or guide (and only one gay publication in Turkish), and many guidebooks and even Web sites are notoriously out of date and unreliable. So think of it as an adventure, and see what you can find.

Like broader Turkish society itself, gay life is marked by a rich/poor, traditional/modern, European/Ottoman dichotomy. You will see this in the gay bars and dance clubs, of which there are two distinct types. There are modern European-style bars and discos, with high prices, theme décor, and well-to-do Turks in the latest fashion who are likely to identify as gay, at least in private.

On the other hand, and more fascinating, are the “a la Turka” bars, which cater to a working-class clientele. These tend to be basic, no-frills affairs, with Turkish pop music. Some of the more famous, such as Sahra (Istiklal Caddesi/Sadri Alisik Sokak 40, Taksim; $3) cater to Istanbul’s transvestite community — alleged to be the largest in Europe — joined by rent boys, working-class youths, and straight tranny admirers.

night

My favorite bar was the conveniently located Déjà Vu (Istiklal Caddesi/Sadri Alisik Sokak 26/l; $5), essentially a small, undecorated concrete cube that managed an unintentional modernist chic. A small bar offered one kind of beer and one brand of energy drink. The crowd was young and working-class — some hustlers, no doubt, but also guys out with friends and boys avoiding long bus rides to far-off suburbs.

Music blared, and the abundant staff (three doormen, two bartenders, two waiters and a DJ, were most happy to have us order more than the one-drink minimum. (Alcohol, heavily taxed by the Islamic government, is expensive in a city where most things are a bargain . . . the $5 beers were obviously an extravagance here.)

Not so in the European-style clubs, such as Neo (Lamartin Caddesi 40/z, Taksim; Tel: +90 212 254 4526; Fax: +90 212 245 6821; www.neobar.gen.tr; $10), and Privé (Tarlabasi Bulvari 28, Taksim; Tel: +90 212 235 7999; $10), where pricey drinks, Western music, and designer fashions are more the norm. Here the feeling is that of a gay venue in any major city.

All the gay clubs are in the Taksim area, except for the summer-only open-air disco Douche Club (Sepetciler Kasri/Kennedy Caddesi 3, Sarayburnu, Eminonu; Tel: +90 212 511 6386; Wed, Fri, Sat, $10) overlooking the Golden Horn at the foot of the Topkapi Palace.

You can also take in a hammam. There were reputedly several where discreet gay encounters took place, but this seems to be on the wane. Sadly, Turks seldom go to the hammam now, preferring the pleasures of indoor plumbing.

The historic hammams are worth a visit for the spectacular architecture, but the scrubbing can be perfunctory and the clientele all tourists. One older hammam, Çukurcuma (Çurkacuma Caddesi 57, Beyoglu: daily 9pm-9am; $18), does function as a de facto gay bathhouse — it’s open all night.

Rooftop

There are two locations for lodging in Istanbul, each with certain advantages. Most tourists choose to stay in Sultanahmet, the historic center just steps from the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, the bazaars and other major sites. The plentiful hotels here tend to occupy renovated 19th-century wooden Ottoman houses, and are moderate in amenities and price. Many offer terrific views of the city from rooftop breakfast rooms. Rooms themselves can range from comfortable to grim.

The Best Western chain (Acropol Hotel; Hotel Spectra; Obelisk Hotel; $60-$150), surprisingly, offers several hotels of high standards. The most stylish small hotel is the charming Nomade (Divanyolu Caddesi/Ticaretheane Sokak 15, Sultanahmet; Tel +90 212 513 8172; Fax +90 212 513 2404; Hotel Nomade; $75-$120), featuring a hip décor and a friendly, young management. There are no gay hotels in Istanbul, but this one has a definite vibe.

For unparalleled luxury, the new Four Seasons (1 Tevkifhane Sokak, Sultanahmet;1 800 332 3442 or +90 212 638 8200; www.fourseasons.com; $340+), housed in a converted jail, is the only hotel of its class in the old city.

The Sultanahmet location puts you close to the major sights, but it is very touristy, and lacking in the vibrant street life and nightlife you will find in Beyoglu around Taksim Square. This area is the heart of the modern city, pulsing with life 24 hours a day, and featuring a multitude of shops, bars, cafés and locals.

While Taksim Square has a few budget lodging options, this area has most of the big luxury hotels. Particularly nice is the Hyatt Regency (Taskisla Caddesi No. 1, Taksim; Tel: +90 212 368 1234; Fax: +90 212 368 1000; http://istanbul.regency.hyatt.com; $250-$340), with its attentive service, spacious and modern rooms and resort-like pool and spa. Do stay on the club floor, where you get complimentary breakfast and cocktails along with a helpful concierge. It’s walking distance to Istiklal Caddesi, the main pedestrian street, and a short cab ride to Sultanahmet or luxury shopping in the suburbs.

Corn Boy

Turkish food is delicious, and Istanbul abounds in fresh fish. The best fish restaurant in the city is the unassuming Balikçi Sabahattin (1 Seyit Hasan/KoyuSokak, Sultanahhmet; Tel: +90 212 458 1824; $20), where the daily catch is displayed on ice and tables are arrayed on a delightful terrace. Aside from the Four Seasons, it’s the best place to eat in Sultanahmet.

Restaurants abound along the pedestrian Istiklal Caddesi off Taksim Square, but avoid the tourist traps; even guidebook recommendations can be suspect. For delicious mezas (a variety of small plates selected from a tray), honestly priced, Victor LeviDegustasion, andCumhuriyet (around Sahne Sokak at the Balik Pazan fish market off Istiklal Caddesi, Sultanahmet; no reservations, open late; small plates $4-$8) are all fine choices.

The traditional drink is raki, a drink similar to ouzo, but you may find that Turkish beer or the increasingly excellent Turkish wines are a better complement to the food.

To experience a very traditional lokanta, the Turkish version of a cafeteria, try the elegantly appointed Haci Abdullah (Sakizagaci Caddesi 17, Beyoglu; Tel: +90 212 293 8561; $12). Choose typical hot dishes from a display case and sip the surprisingly delicious grape juice (no alcohol is served).

Or join the in crowd at Vogue (BJK Plaza, Suleyman Seba Caddesi 92, Akaretler; Tel: +90 212 227 4404; $10-$22), one of the high-style international restaurants that offer fantastic views from atop Istanbul’s skyscrapers.

Bosphorus

It is essential to take the public ferry up the Bosphorus and back. Enjoy incredible views and have lunch in a fishing village in Asia! Justinian’s underground cistern is a must-see, along with (obviously) the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque and Topkapi Palace. This is just a beginning, though — consult mainstream guidebooks for a vast selection of mosques, Byzantine churches, Roman ruins, museums and historic sitesWe recommend Lonely Planet (www.lonelyplanet.com).

Bazaar

Everyone in Sultanahmet wants to sell you a rug. Not a particularly compact souvenir, and unless you are an expert in carpets, you are likely to pay too much and/or get a machine-made rug from China. Good carpets are expensive, even in Turkey.

It’s much more fun to bargain for cheap trinkets at the Grand Bazaar. You can always get them to knock a buck off a $5 purchase! And the array of merchandise is astonishing.

General travel information: Guidebooks are useful, but some contain more outdated and erroneous information than usual, as do Web sites, though an Internet search will yield lots of information. The city is changing quickly; ask your hotel concierge, waiters you like and even salesclerks for their advice.

Turks are friendly to strangers and will gladly offer advice and opinions as well ask you a million questions. Beware only of strangers offering to take you to “a special club” — these are clip joints where it is likely you will lose a great deal of money. We were solicited several times in this manner, by a couple of 15-year-olds and by a man who told us he knew a place with “crazy ho’s.” The come-on is fairly obvious, and a polite “No thanks, I’m meeting someone” is enough to discourage them.

There is a $20 visa fee payable (in U.S. dollars or euros only) upon entering the country. The visa is valid for 30 days. A good map is essential, but the inexpensive taxis (taksi, in the phonetic Turkish language) are indispensable.

Unless you are going someplace well-known, write the name and address, as most drivers do not speak English. The Turkish government recently simplified its notoriously inflated currency, dropping six zeros, so that what was formerly 1,000,000 Turkish lira has become 1 (cutely named) young Turkish lira, about 70 U.S. cents.

By Clay Doyle for Gay.com

photos 1,2,3,7 by Michael Logan, photos 4,5,6 by Clay Doyle

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