Explore vast and hidden gay Turkey 

Long named as the meeting point between East and West, Turkey is a wild blend of Middle Eastern textures and Islamic culture complimented by European trends and ever-evolving liberal views. When you think of Turkey you may think of the ornate Ottoman-era mosques rising from Istanbul’s pastel skyline or even the enlivening chaos of Ankara’s colourful street markets. But to truly discover Turkey, one must veer from the well-worn path, journeying to far-flung ancient ports on the Aegean Sea, floating through the fairy-tale world of Cappadocia and beyond. Discover vast and hidden gay Turkey with us today.

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Mount Erciyes | Photo: Mahir Uysal

LGBT rights in Turkey

As a predominantly Muslim country in the Middle East, it’s reasonable to guess that Turkey is not the most liberal of countries when it comes to LGBT rights. Though homosexuality is not considered a criminal offence (same-sex sexual activity being legalised by the Ottoman Empire in 1858), tolerance towards gay people is limited and cases of violence have been known to occur. As of 2016, following an attempted coup, the country has been controlled by a religiously conservative president, with the result being little to no progress in the area of gay rights. In July of 2018, there was evidence of police violence at Istanbul’s Pride parade, an event officially banned by the current government. LGBT people are currently not protected by law, and in Ankara meanwhile, a prohibition on all LGBT activity has been introduced.

With the bad news out of the way, it remains to be said that travellers who act with discretion, gay and straight alike, are unlikely to experience any trouble while in Turkey. Find the gay community within any of Turkey’s big cities, particularly Istanbul where gay life thrives in the safety of packed dance floors, hidden bars and ever-present hammam bathhouses. While PDA among couples is frowned upon, ironically you may see many Turkish men embracing and holding hands in the streets as a common expression of friendship.

Sultanahmet | Photo: Fatih Yurur

Dolmabahçe Sarayı | Photo: Meric Dagli

1. Istanbul

There’s no time to acclimatise to Turkey’s intoxicating motif of spice and chaos as we dive straight towards the most populous city of Istanbul. A common starting point on any self-respecting gay Turkey travel itinerary, Istanbul introduces newcomers to all of the heritage, all at once. Straddling two continents and the final stop on the legendary Silk Road, Istanbul has always been a strategic location, coming under attack by numerous armies over the centuries, including Greek, Venetian and Roman before the Ottomans showed up. Torn down with each new empire, little remained of the city’s past until the Byzantine era when churches and palaces began to be decorated in mosaic frescoes too beautiful to destroy. Instead, the Ottomans built extravagant mosques to outshine their Orthodox predecessors, resulting in the unique skyline seen today, now also featuring impressive galleries, museums and glittering commercial towers.

Thanks to its history, Istanbul today serves a diverse population of settlers and merchants, regarded for their vibrancy and passionate spirit. See local culture at large within any of the tea gardens, coffee houses and Turkish taverns scattered about, particularly in the historical district of Bosporus or café hub of Beyoglu, one of the more liberal spots about town. In amongst it all, the heritage of a different type is cooked up in the Asian, Italian and Greek meze restaurants, operating beside local kebab and fresh seafood joints all serving the hard-to-handle national drink, Raki (aniseed brandy). Turkey’s most open-minded city, Gay Istanbul can easily be found in the area around Taksim but be careful when exploring lesser-developed areas outside of the centre, in the traditional community of Tophane for example where tourists may not be welcomed quite so openly.

Photo: Despina Galani

2. Cappadocia

A sandy kingdom carved into the mountainside of Central Anatolia lends Turkey one of its most spectacular landscapes, best seen from the sky at sunrise or sunset on a famous Cappadocia hot-air balloon ride. Look down on natural formations made from ancient volcanic rock that crest and fall with rivers of millennia past, the perfect foundation for the Bronze-age carvings that now dominate, both on the surface and deep underground. Base yourself in the capital of Nevsehir for great access to the subterranean cities beneath Göreme, featuring the spellbinding buildings of Kaymakli and Derinkuyu and byzantine churches cut into the caves adjacent.

While Nevsehir lies a little outside the heritage site, it’s considered an easy jumping-off point for trekking amongst the so-called ‘Fairy Chimneys’ (Peri Bacalari) and day trips to Göreme. You’ll want at least one day to explore the village, taking time on Müze Caddesi near the centre for attractions such as El Nazar Kilise (Evil Eye Church) Sakli Kilise (Hidden Church) and the UNESCO-listed Goreme Open-Air Museum which features a number of monastery caves and fresco-clad churches dating back to the 10th century.

Photo: Canmandawe

Photo: Taryn Elliott

3. Ankara

Istanbul may take the limelight on occasion but it is Ankara which is the modern-day capital of Turkey and for good reason. Halfway between Istanbul and Cappadocia, Ankara stands as the cultural and historical centre of the country, jam-packed with open-air museums, Roman castles and vibrant markets to get lost in. Trail steep cobblestone streets in search of Ankara Castle, immersing yourself in 3rd-century history and the Roman baths adjoining. Alternatively, cool down with a dunk in the Genclick Park pool in proximity to vast green space, ponds, fairground rides and a miniature railway. While palaces are few, Ankara offers cosmopolitanism in spades, boosted by its student population and the booming restaurant scene around Kavaklidere.

Get perspective on the city with a trip up Atakule Tower, heading back down to earth for a coffee on the sidewalks of Kizilay before taking on the Museum of Anatolian Civilisations and the Anit Kabir, a monument to Turkey’s founder. After a full day of sightseeing, ease into Ankara’s nightlife scene with a poolside cocktail at any number of affordable luxury hotels, before making your way back to Kavaklidere or Kizilay for mixed live music bars. While there is no overt Ankara gay bar, spots such as Bistro SAVOY and Sixtiees Club draw a firm LGBT crowd as gay Ankara meeting points.

4. Mardin

Way off to the southeast, near to the Syrian border, the surprisingly serene, UNESCO World Heritage city of Mardin awaits. Built into the hillside, Mardin offers a number of historic buildings, mosques and churches, such as the 12th-century Great Mosque which towers high above winding alleyways parallel to the hillside citadel that still serves as a protective military zone. In the background, endless Mesopotamian plains roll out in all directions but it’s Mardin’s ancient heart that holds us captivated. Try the local cuisine, a mish-mash of Assyrian, Arab, Turkish and Kurdish influence, with Syriac wine or Murra coffee best supped while watching the sunset over the plains.

While Syrian conflicts have left a mark on Mardin’s tourism industry, rest assured that the city is as safe as it ever was, now with a temping lack of crowds. Visit the city’s best historic sites in relative peace, such as the sacred Deyr-ul-Zafaran Monastery established over 1,500 years ago where the monks are happy to tour you through the relics, rose gardens and courtyards just a few kilometres from the city centre. While out, consider visiting the Kasimiye Medrese (Islamic School) for a glimpse at Artuquid dynasty architecture amid unbeatable sunset views. If you’re not yet done with Mardin’s maze-like streets, then other places to search for among the old houses include Kirklar Church, Latfiye Mosque and the heritage city museum.

Mardin | Photo: Tuna Ölger

Photo: Raj Steven

5. Izmir

To the other side of the nation, on the sheltered banks of the Aegean Sea is the western port city of Izmir. A vibrant centre of civilisation for 8,500 years, once the largest city of the Roman Empire, Izmir remains a meeting point of the world. Today Ephesus in Izmir Province holds the bulk of this Roman history, while old Izmir city focuses on providing Mediterranean city breaks filled with theatrical culture, lively commerce and liberal ideals. Laid-back promenades run along the Bay of Izmir, while into the centre, the colourful bazaars of Kemeralti Market and the impressive museum of history and art can be found. Those in need of retail therapy can also try the boutiques around Alsancak and Karsiyaka promenades or Cumhuriyet Avenue.

Enjoy a day trip or two exploring the Roman ruins of Ephesus before winding down with a beer at the cafés and bars surrounding Kordonboya, Passport Pier and Karsiyaka. Cultural nightlife options include performances from the Aegean Philharmonic Orchestra, various ballet troupes and lively theatre community, all coming together across the city during the Izmir International Festival. As far as gay Izmir goes, the city is relatively liberal but due to LGBT rights in Turkey, Izmir gay bar options constantly come and go. Check online for the latest gay-friendly bars and clubs, and, if exploring the Izmir gay scene, be discreet on the street and aware that hustlers and hookers may be operating in the area.

Izmir | Photo: Hakan Tahmaz

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Ephesus marks the centre of the mighty Roman city home of the Temple of Artemis, one of the seven wonders of the world

6. Ephesus – Selçuk

Once a part of old Izmir and the Roman Empire, Ephesus today marks the centre of the mighty Roman city home of the Temple of Artemis, one of the seven wonders of the world. Whether basing yourself in Izmir or Selçuk, the Ephesus ruins offer the perfect historical day trip. Nor do you have to be a history buff to appreciate the colossal Roman structures carved in marble, from temples and monuments to amphitheatres and epic gateways, all impressively preserved to perfection. Besides the ruins, be sure to roam the charming town of Selçuk nearby for a rustic village vibe and a spot of lunch.

Selçuk | Photo: Mert Kahveci

Selçuk | Photo: Nazli Atabey

7. Pamukkale

Not to be confused with the historic port city of Çanakkale below, Pamukkale is in fact a western lying town near Denizli famed for its natural beauty. Fed by mineral-rich waters coming down off the calcite ‘Cotton Castle’ mountains above, Pamukkale village is a spa retreat for the ages. See the UNESCO-heritage mountain terraces from any angle in town, but move upwards to the Roman and Byzantine city of Hierapolis for the best spa spot amongst ancient ruins and dreamy, snow-like landscapes. Other ancient ruins worth visiting in the area include Aphrodisias and Laodicea but it is Pamukkale which pleases us most, close to all the best attractions and its very own antique pool enduring from the Roman Temple of Apollo.

Pamukkale | Photo: Vladyslav Cherkasenko

8. Çanakkale

If you’ve seen the movie Troy and not been too distracted by Brad Pitt’s pecs, then you will have at least an inkling of what to expect from the ancient city of Çanakkale. Home of the much-fabled Trojan Horse and the ruins of Troy as well as a whole host of other mythological intrigues, Çanakkale also happens to be a marine town with playful student lifestyles centred along the waterfront and clock tower where eating, drinking and partying is a way of life. The region surrounding Çanakkale is one particularly drenched in history; nearby you’ve got the Gallipoli battlefields from WW1, while southwards lie the rather older ruins of Troyand, Alexandria Troas, the Apollo Smintheon and ancient Assos. Abydos to the north and even the Dardanelles waterway also have epic Greek tales to tell.

Those staying in town can tour the city starting at the Cimenlik fortress and its military museum with a stroll through the Çanakkale Archaeological Museum if time allows. From there, opt to ferry across the Dardanelles to the island of Bozcaada for open-air dining, 15th-century architecture and a fine selection of boutique hotels and pensions for longer stays in traditional Mediterranean surrounds. Natural sights in the region are also very much underrated; Mount Ida is the perfect example of this, providing the few tourists who come with forested lodges and tranquillity upon the slopes.

Çanakkale | Photo: Mert Kahveci

9. Muğla province: Bodrum and Fethiye

You might have heard of the stunning resort paradise of Marmaris but she ain’t the only beauty on Turkey’s Mugla province. Bodrum and Fethiye are two other resort towns flying lower under the radar and all the better for it. Find secluded bays and beaches like that of Mazi in Bodrum or Kabak Bay in Fethiye, or cruise up the Mediterranean coastline by yacht to choose your very own deserted beach cove. Boating to Butterfly Valley from Olu Deniz or Fethiye is especially magical, not just for the resident butterflies living in and amongst the waterfalls and forests on the reserve but also for its entirely undeveloped stretch of sandy coastline sheltered between two huge cliffs.

Moving reluctantly from the beaches you’ll soon find that each town also has a lot of offer by way of lodgings, nightlife and shopping bazaars. In Bodrum, the street art is a special feature among blue-rimmed houses and bougainvillaea, but for history, its Bodrum Castle that impresses with its sea views and wooden windmill ruins on the hills beyond. The Bodrum Cup sailing competition is a highlight on the town’s calendar but at all other times find a sophisticated crowd with high budget tastes among winding streets lined with mosques and hammams. Fethiye meanwhile is another traditional town boasting a little more in the way of water sports, with many scuba diving centres and sailing tours running from the natural harbour and lagoon beach of Olu Deniz.

Muğla | Photo: Charbel Aoun

Fethiye | Photo: Dylan Alcock

10. Antalya

Also lapped by warm Mediterranean waters in the south is the town of Antalya on the Turkish Riviera. In addition to a range of luxury resorts edging the glorious Roman harbourside, Antalya old town offers ancient ruins and quirky nightlife in proximity to canyons, waterfalls and even a theme park. For when the beach loses its allure (unlikely), move into town to explore Kaleiçi’s mix of casual eateries and art galleries beside Roman, Ottoman and Byzantine relics. Save up a day trip however because Antalya’s best bits lie a little way out; firstly there’s the ancient city of Perga and Termessos way up in the mountains or the ruins of Phaselis reachable by leisure cruise. Next, it’s the Düden Waterfalls you must make time for; a landmark of the region for its river falls plummeting from lofty cliffs into the Mediterranean below. If wet and wild sounds appealing however, it’s Göynük Canyon you’ll love most, a recreational hotspot for hiking trails, ziplining, swimming and canyoneering amid natural wilderness.

For when it gets dark, the Fire of Anatolia is sure to amuse, showcasing the skills of Turkish belly dancers, acrobats, ballerinas and fire breathers in the centre of town. Those looking for gay Antalya may be disappointed by its lack of gay bars but thankfully there’s always a Turkish bath to splash about in!

Antalya | Photo: Adel Salehi

11. Kas

For a more understated retreat along the hilly Mediterranean coast, the charming fishing village of Kas has just the vibe. Though popular among tourists, Kas still brings authentic local ways to an area overflowing with untouched natural beauty and marine life. Diving among sea turtles, exotic fish and sunken ruins around Kekova and Kalekoy is a top way to spend a day, with other beach activities including paragliding, yachting and hunting drier ruins on Patara Beach. Within town, the ancient history of Antiphellos awaits on cobblestone streets among quaint cafés, boutiques and traditional houses, but for sunset climbing up to the cliffs above is a must to catch the twinkling harbour in its best light.

12. Patara

Nestled between Kas and the resort of Olu Denis is the bohemian retreat of Patara, right at the mouth of the Xanthos River. Once a major naval and trading port, Patara now benefits from calmer days where soaking up the sun on 18 kilometres of shoreline backed by dunes and national forest is the priority. For a full day trip, get lost within the biodiverse forests beyond the beach, searching for the historic sites of Letoon and Xanthos or sticking to Patara town itself for ever-more Lycian ruins comprising of colonnaded streets, a 5,000-seater amphitheatre and bouleuterion.

Kas | Photo: Serdar Dincer

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A clean break from dusty city chaos, the Kure Mountains run 300 kilometres from the Bartin River to Kizilirmak River spanning as many as 120 villages, each bringing a unique taste of authentic mountain lifestyles

13. Kure Mountains National Park

Travelling next towards the northern coast on the shores of the Black Sea, we find the relatively new Kure Mountains National Park which has fast become a top natural attraction since opening in 2000. A clean break from dusty city chaos, the Kure Mountains run 300 kilometres from the Bartin River to Kizilirmak River spanning as many as 120 villages, each bringing a unique taste of authentic mountain lifestyles. The wildlife within Kure is the real draw, however, with the park said to hold 129 bird species, 9 amphibia, 8 reptile and 48 mammal species under the cover of 930 types of plant. Hike any of the wildflower-laden trails within the park, passing top spots such as Ilgarini Cave, Valla, Aydos or Horma Canyon and Ilica Waterfall, side-by-side with geomorphological formations and ancient archaeological remains.

14. Amasya

Around a four-hour drive, southeast of Kure more stunning mountains set the scene for the small city of Amasya, lying snug in a narrow valley beside the Yesilirmak River. A site made famous by Turkish folklore, Amasya is the legendary location of the Ferhat and Sirin love story, today still offering an ideal spot for romance. Split in two by the river, Amasya has two personalities; on the north side, Ottoman-era terraces and antique sites maintain old-world allure while to the south, a more modern city takes shape. On either side, glimpse the looming minarets of Sultan II Bayezid Külliyesi Mosque level with the citadel cliffs that once served as the town’s protection from ancient battles. Nowadays, visitors can take to the cliffs passing through the former palace and tombs of Pontus kings carved into the limestone, en route to the breath-taking Black Sea lookout. Other sites to see in town include the Hazeranlar Konagi mansions and museum as well as the 14th-century Bimarhane Hospital of the Mongol Empire. Check dating and hook-up apps for hints as to where to find the Amasya gay community, most likely within the Turkish baths about town.

Artvin | Photo: Emre Zaimoglu

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