Istanbul is a sprawling city that connects Europe and Asia and is one of the world’s most lively and interesting destinations. Istanbul is the world’s fifth-most popular tourist destination, welcoming upwards of 12 million foreign visitors each year and boasts a culturally and religiously diverse population.
The city also has a lively gay scene, with a number of gay bars, clubs and cafes littered throughout its streets. Although Turkey is a socially conservative country, Istanbul is a haven for LGBT+ individuals from many of its neighbouring countries and an increasingly popular destination for gay travelers. That being said, gay rights have taken a turn for the worst in recent years. But being gay in Istanbul is far more preferable than most Muslim countries.
Brimming with tourist attractions, religious and historical treasures, great shopping, food and hamams, as well as a vibrant nightlife and gay scene, the city makes for a great gay travel destination.
Hagia Sophia started life as a Christian church before being converted into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest. The mosque was then turned into a museum for much of the 20th century before a Turkish court ruled it illegal for the building to be used for anything other than a place of worship and Hagia Sophia’s mosque status was reinstated in 2020.
The mosque is a space of mammoth scale that is unique in its mix of both Islamic and Christian artworks and statues. Whilst Hagia Sophia is a fully operating mosque, guests are welcome to visit and will find a number of official tour guides in the entrance courtyard. These tours tend to be inexpensive and can offer travelers a more in-depth look into the history and modern use of this iconic religious destination.
One of Istanbul’s largest underground spaces, the Basilica Cistern was built in 532 and is the oldest surviving cistern in Istanbul. Supported by 336 columns, the space is a haunting yet beautiful network of ancient steam waterways and reservoirs designed to hold the catch and hold the city’s rainwater.
The Basilica Cistern was meticulously renovated in 1985 by the Turkish government and is now one of Istanbul’s most popular tourist attractions. Visitors can walk through the cavernous space on wooden boardwalks, whilst enjoying the underground cool, which can provide a welcome escape from the city’s sweltering heat. Visitors should be especially observant in order to see the two Medusa heads carved into columns within the cistern.
The Galata Tower is one of the highest and oldest towers in Istanbul. From its 60-meter high observation deck, visitors can enjoy panoramic views across the city. The tower was built in the 14th century as part of the defensive architecture that surrounded Istanbul.
After extensive restoration, the Galata Tower was opened to the public in 1967 and is now home to an impressive restaurant on its top floor. For travelers keen to reach the top of the structure and enjoy the views, there is an elevator that reaches halfway up the tower – guests must brave the steps to reach the observation area.
The majority of venues within Istanbul’s gay scene can be found in and around Taksim Square. The area is a hub of entertainment and nightlife in the city and has an energetic and lively atmosphere on weekend evenings. The area is home to a number of gay and transgender focused bars, many of which operate as coffee shops and cafes during the day.
Exemplifying Istanbul’s gay scene, Chianti Bar is a laid back and welcoming bar and cafe in Taksim square that tends to get busier and livelier around 10 pm. The bar also has regular karaoke nights and themed events. Tek Yön is the biggest and most popular gay dance club in Istanbul and is open every night, attracting consistently large crowds of locals and tourists. The club boasts a large dance floor and hosts live drag performances on the weekends.
Separating European and Asian Istanbul, the Bosporus Strait is a wide waterway that runs through the centre of Istanbul, separating the two continents. The Bosporus Strait is a busy shipping and commercial sailing passage and its banks are some of the liveliest and most bustling areas of the city, full of life and activity.
One of the best ways for travelers to enjoy the Bosporus Strait is by one of the many ferry cruises and leisure tours available from Istanbul’s shores. Once onboard, travelers will be able to appreciate Istanbul’s bustling cityscape from the water and enjoy the novelty of sailing between the two continents.
The ferries tend to be comfortable and well-furnished and usually sail close to the shore, meaning that there are plenty of great photo opportunities. From the water, travelers will also be able to appreciate Maiden’s Tower, an ancient stone building in the middle of the strait.
Sitting atop one of Istanbul’s seven hills, the Süleymaniye Mosque is a landmark on the city’s skyline and is one the grandest and most beautiful Ottoman mosques in existence. Built by Süleyman I, known as ‘the Magnificent’, the mosque was the fourth of its kind to be built in Istanbul and its 10 balconies represent Süleyman’s position as the tenth emperor of the Ottoman Empire.
The interior of the Süleymaniye Mosque is enormous and cavernous but also simplistic in its design and artwork. During construction, Süleyman instructed builders to include a soup kitchen, hospital and hammam in the mosque complex and these facilities can still be explored today.
The mosque is open daily for visitors, however, it closes during prayer times. Located near the mosque is Süleyman’s tomb which is also well worth a visit.
by George Pizani | More: Gay Istanbul