Imagine this sublime setting: Sunset on a roof deck bar overlooking the Bosphorus: Asian Istanbul to your front, illuminated minarets dominating the skyline to your rear, Islamic evening calls to prayer buzzing through Mosque loudspeakers as you sip raki (Turkish spirit) and nibble on mezes (appetizers). The former Constantinople feels more like a soiree inside Genie’s bottle than a scene from a European metropolis.
In fact, Istanbul is by far the most exotic locale on Continental soil and the legacy of the Ottoman Empire drenches the city with dazzling palaces, mosques, mosaic marvels, Hamams (Turkish baths) and Whirling Dervishes. Reprints of centuries-old homoerotic artwork of köçeks (young transgender dancers), tellaks (boy masseurs) and bathing ladies document a sexy past once enjoyed by Sultans and privileged citizens.
In the present, for most Muslim countries homosexuality is a serious crime punishable by death. Turkey, however, is far less uptight. The desperate Turkish bid for admittance to the European Union demands elevating national human rights and –at least outwardly– the Turks are attempting to embrace current Western standards. Ironically, it was the West’s influence that some claim originally made post-Ottoman gay lifestyles taboo in the first place.
Inwardly, gay culture in Istanbul remains as complexly interwoven in society as the threads in the sumptuous Turkish carpets– prepare to blend in and not unravel the mystery. Turkish hospitality can be over the top, but keeping affections on the down low until safely inside a gay friendly space is recommended.
By day, take in the divine sightseeing wonders from the Golden Horn to the historic Sultanahmet. By dusk, Istanbul’s pedestrian zone Istiklal Caddesi and Taksim Square bars, restaurants and cafes are packed with trendy Turks and bewitched travelers that come out to make their evening cameos in this fiery and intriguing East meets West urban mecca.