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Gay Travel: Istanbul's Gay Scene
Many consider Turkey to be a conservative society, so it's perhaps unusual to discover that the country's largest city, Istanbul, boasts a thriving gay scene that has continuously grown since the 1980s. While this scene may not rival other places throughout Europe which are particularly renowned gay travel destinations, Istanbul is considered to have the most lively and most welcoming gay culture in Turkey.

Precisely why Istanbul became Turkey's rebellious city can't be said, although its location spanning the Bosphorus River, with the western half of the city classed as Europe, and the eastern half officially in Asia, is likely to be a major factor. Not only does the city's ability to bring together two continents mean that it's a cultural melting pot, but the diversity of millions of travelers that stop by to see its rich history and the beautiful Bosphorus Strait have also contributed to Istanbul's cosmopolitan nature.

Many cruise companies boast Mediterranean and Black Sea cruises that organize cruise excursions in Istanbul. Most of these cruises are considered to be European cruise lines and choose to have relatively lengthy shore times in Istanbul. Some operators also offer numerous cruise vacation packages tailored exclusively to gay travelers.

The Beyoglu area, particularly in the vicinity of the ever-crowded Istiklal Street, is the city's leading gay district. Many lively and loud bars and clubs can be found lining the streets, and while some are gay friendly, others specifically target gay revellers. Club Tek Yoen is one such place, and while the quality of the nightly entertainments has been criticized in recent years, it's still one of the most popular hangouts in the city as it's considered to be the home of Istanbul's 'bear' scene. Despite this distinct 'theme', the club is more mainstream than you may think, and it shouldn't deter those not looking for that particular scene from stopping by.

Istanbul ClubOne of the reasons that Club Tek Yoen's entertainments have perhaps fallen short is that any club would find it hard to compete against the city's premier drag club. XLarge Club remains a primarily gay venue with go-go boys on poles, but of course the world's fascination with cross-dressing, and drag queens especially, has meant that the shows in this huge converted movie theater appeal not only to the gay population but also to straight women, both young and old, who get a bit of a cheeky thrill from seeing men dressed in corsets and full makeup. If this club is on the itinerary for the night, check out some other places first as the shows don't start until 2 a.m., in line with Istanbul's reputation for not getting the party started until after midnight.

Of course, the gay scene in the city isn't just lively nightclubs and busy bars, and there's actually a much more relaxed scene if you know where to look. As with bars and clubs, many cafes and restaurants are welcoming of gay travelers, but some are particularly gay oriented. Frappe Istanbul proudly boasts that it is the only 'gay cafe bar restaurant' in Turkey. The food menu is basic, but it's the gigantic drinks menu that's really the focus here. As well as the usual beers, wines, and spirits, there are a number of lethal cocktail concoctions with, shall we say, some rather 'colorful' names that only the brave dare order.

For a drink in a welcoming, quiet, and laidback setting, Sugar & Spice Cafe is the place. Even those unfamiliar with the city can't miss this venue, with its huge gay pride flag hanging prominently above the doorway. Due to its relaxed, everyday nature, this bar is equally as popular with locals as it is with visitors, so it's a great place to meet some native Turks and find out more about Istanbul's gay community. Sugar & Spice is an absolute must during the summer, when it transforms into the city's one and only open-air gay establishment.

While Istanbul's highly public gay scene is a promising sign that tolerance is improving in the east, it could also be a slight concern. The city is generally safe, but it's important to exercise the same care as you would in any other busy city. Not all gay venues in Istanbul are completely legitimate and above board, with some acting as money making scams on unsuspecting tourists. However, stick to the reputable places and you'll find Istanbul to be a particularly open-minded, welcoming, and beautiful city. 
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Published on:  May 1, 2013

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