Istanbul Travel Guide

Istanbul Travel Guide

The heady collision point of continents and cultures, Istanbul is where Europe meets the Middle East, bringing diverse people, religions and philosophies together in a frenetic fusion of mysticism and modernity. Istanbul’s skyline melds minarets with sleek high-rises, Byzantine mosaic-laden churches with imposing Ottoman-era mosques, all sewn together with raucous, rakı-toasting Turkish taverns. The last stop on the legendary Silk Road and a key player on the global spice trade for millennia, Turkey’s capital has long been mesmerizing merchants with its bustling saffron-stained markets and lively ramshackle districts presenting a globally inspired food scene of flavoursome mezes, succulent kebabs and seafood that can’t wait to win your heart and feed your soul. By the last call to prayer, this Orphic city begins to glow with the light of a thousand domed mosques twinkling against an inky blue sky, the perfect set up for a night to remember. Wondering where to stay and what to do in Istanbul? For your definitive Istanbul gay scene guide, you’ve come to the right place.

The best hotels in Istanbul

Staying in Istanbul can be a real treat, elegant in all the right ways with unmatched hospitality. Let’s start our Istanbul gay city guide with the best accommodation the city has to offer, beginning with The House Hotel Karakoy, a five-star lodging in the up-and-coming district of Karaköy on Bankalar Caddesi, the city’s sleek financial district, in close proximity to bohemian Beyoğlu and historic Sultanahmet. As well as all the luxury amenities, this hotel serves up daily buffet breakfast and global cuisine at the grand on-site restaurant, with relaxation areas in the library, garden and terrace, in addition to a full spa and fitness centre.

A little away from the centre over in the wealthy neighbourhood of Çengelköy is the quiet retreat, Sumahan on the Water. Housed in a former Ottoman-era distillery, Sumahan has since been renovated into a modern boutique right on the edge of the Bosphorus Strait. All the sumptuous rooms here face the water with many boasting a Turkish-style marble bath and fireplace. In addition to the on-site wellness centre with its own Turkish hammam, Sumahan offers a waterfront bistro-cum-café, terrace and garden. Next up is Witt Istanbul Suites over in a quiet residential street in the Cihangir district beside an eclectic mix of antique shops, cafés and designer boutiques. Fitting right in, this award-winning design hotel brims with chic-bohemian vibes, kitted out with retro furnishings, monochromatic styles and architectural grandeur. With its own serene terrace garden, cosy lobby bar and a shared kitchen, Witt Istanbul is a great place to unwind in homely luxury.

Another hip boutique known as Georges Hotel Galata also piques our interest, located in the city’s old European quarter in a 19th-century Parisian-style apartment building. Sat within a relatively down-at-heel neighbourhood, this place oozes urban chic, within walking distance of the fashionable Beyoğlu district. Discreet and understated, with exposed walls and salvaged wood doors, Georges Hotel Galata will woo you with its butterfly-inducing glass elevator and unmatched skyline views from the rooftop terrace. Those looking to be more independent can consider X Flats Tophane, a range of contemporary self-catering apartments in the historical locale of Tophane, just one kilometre from happening Istiklal Street. Enjoy the city views from your apartment window, while making use of the full kitchen and concierge services.

Witt Istanbul Suites

Witt Istanbul Suites

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The Grand Bazar | Photo: London Wood

The Grand Bazar | Photo: London Wood

Things to do in Istanbul

Fifty times the size of Manhattan, Istanbul is a beatific behemoth comprised of a series of distinct neighbourhoods which help to make Istanbul sightseeing far less daunting. Istanbul’s answer to Greenwich Village is the bohemian enclave of Cihangir where coffee shops and cats lie street side in the sun. Located in the space between the Sultanahmet quarter and Taksim Square, Cihangir maintains respect for ancient Istanbul while embracing modernity and hot nightlife after sundown. In addition to the many museums found here, a lively local activity is to visit the public gardens at Cihangir Mosque where tantalizing views of the Bosphorus Strait await.

In the picturesque quarter of Çukurcuma, one of the more obscure Istanbul points of interest may turn your head. Inspired by Orhan Pakuk’s novel of the same name,  the Museum of Innocence is an award-winning institution hosting various artefacts from the cultural and material history of Istanbul, a must-see for readers of the book as well as anyone interested in learning more about this bittersweet love story set in the surrounding streets. Set in a 15th-century build, Galata Mevlevi Lodge is an important site in Sufi culture, now acting as a museum. As well as the countless treasured artefacts on display here, such as musical instruments, Mevlevi clothing and calligraphy, the key selling point of Mevlevi Lodge is its weekly sema ceremony of whirling dervishes, a traditional and much-loved cultural dance, that needs to be seen to be believed.

Museum of Innocence

Museum of Innocence

Meiden´s tower | Photo: Batu Gezer

Meiden´s tower | Photo: Batu Gezer

Photo: Samet Kurtkus

Photo: Samet Kurtkus

Combining culture with a bit of (somewhat aggressive) pampering is the Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı, a historic spa built in the 16th century to serve the Ottoman navy. Since undergoing major restoration, the Kılıç Ali spa is now the go-to place for a hammam ritual, where, in between admiring the centuries-old architecture, you can get pummelled into a tender mess by traditional Turkish masseurs. After being beaten up by big men, retreat to the Belgrad Forest, perhaps one of the most cherished green spaces in the city, covering a patch of over 1,300 acres with walking trails, ponds and monuments. If a picnic sounds like a trip, pay a visit to Atatürk Arboretum, a nearby green space home to canopies of leafy greens and numerous ponds for reflecting on your Istanbul state of mind.

Family run since 1967, the Kadıköy Sineması is one of Istanbul’s oldest cinemas and the best place to catch a movie on the Asian side of the city. Nestled among the main shopping street of Kadıköy, dressed in original décor with its centrepiece ribbed ceiling, the Kadıköy Sineması regularly screens domestic, international and independent films. For a performance of a different type, the BomontiAda entertainment complex can provide. Istanbul’s most famous concert hall, relocated from Beyoğlu in 2015 to the site of the former Bomonti Beer Factory in the heart of the city, BomontiAda not only serves as an impressive Babylon-style venue for musical performance, but also hosts a co-working creative studio, a photography gallery, three restaurants, a food market and a brewery. A fabulous place to come for fresh local produce as well a fresh design, the best bit about BomontiAda is its super-modern Kilimanjaro restaurant and bar, where dimly lit interiors meet top-notch cuisine and cocktail accompaniments.

Balat | Photo: Antonio Sessa

Balat | Photo: Antonio Sessa

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The best way to view the sunset is at Moda Park with a convenience-store-bought bevvy and a bag of sunflower seeds along with Istanbul’s coolest students

What to see in Istanbul

Pick a culture, any culture, and Istanbul will likely be able to take you to it, without ever leaving the city limits. Go from Europe to Asia in a short ferry ride across the Bosphorus Strait from Eminönü dock to see the city’s oriental inspiration, or stop off at Üsküdar islet for a little bit of Greek history (formerly known as Chrysopolis, one of the earliest Greek settlements on the Bosphorus). While on Üsküdar islet look up to find Kiz Kulesi (otherwise known as Maiden’s Tower) a 30-meter-high structure overlooking the island’s charming old mosques and timeworn timber houses all among a maze of winding lanes. The 16th century Mihrimah Sultan Mosque and the 18th century Yeni Valide Mosque, in particular, are sights to behold!

Stay on the Asian side and head to the Kadıköy-Moda neighbourhood for a sunset like no other. But rather than fork out for a fancy rooftop cocktail, the best way to view the sunset is at Moda Park with a convenience-store-bought bevvy and a bag of sunflower seeds along with Istanbul’s coolest students. Alternatively, try cycling along the edge of the Bosphorus at Moda Sahili (Moda Seaside) before catching your breath at the popular tea garden. While the Anatolian side of Asian Istanbul has previously been overlooked in favour of the well-known areas of Sultanahmet and Beyoğlu, over the last few years Istanbul’s Asia has become an unexpected hotspot for hip bars, arts and culture initiates, cafés and live music venues, thanks to the population of liberal-minded, politically aware young’uns who live here.

Kiz kulesi | Photo: Bülent Kılıç

Kiz kulesi | Photo: Bülent Kılıç

While in the past Gülhane Park was an exclusive garden of Topkapı Palace, nowadays it is the social hub of picnicking locals who come to enjoy the views of the Bosphorus, Sea of Marmara and the Princes’ Islands on the park’s north-eastern parameter. In the park itself, you’ll discover a flowerbed-lined promenade and various important cultural institutions such as the Istanbul Museum of the History of Science & Technology in Islam and the Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar Literature Museum Library. And, just 100 metres downhill from the park’s main gates is the flamboyant rococo gate leading onto the former site of the Ottoman prime ministry. Kuçuksu Palace may not be Istanbul’s best-known palace but it can easily allow you a glimpse into the grandeur of sultan life nonetheless. Serving as a luxury summer house on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, take time to marvel at the intricacies and fairy-tale style of the exterior design without ever having to barge through throngs of tourists.

Basilica Cistern | Photo: Claudia Beyli

Basilica Cistern | Photo: Claudia Beyli

To enjoy a minute of serenity alongside a cup of Turkish tea, head to the city district of Arnavutköy, the perfect place to escape the tourists while remaining surrounded with beautiful Bosphorus views and colourful waterfront mansions foregrounded by local fishermen. Succumbing to ‘posh village’ vibes, Arnavutköy is deeply modern, multicultural and home to outstanding seafood restaurants and a number of çay bahçesis (or tea gardens). In one of the last places you’d expect to find romance, the Basilica Cistern will surprise you. Invite a loved one on a date to learn more about Istanbul’s historic water purification system. Constructed in the 6th century but lain forgotten for centuries, this cistern no longer stores water but instead features lights, music and decorative fish. While here, marvel at the impressive Byzantine architecture and repurposed Roman relics such as the upside-down head of Medusa at the base of one column.

While the journey may seem arduous, a visit to the restored Chora Church, set within the old city walls in all its Byzantine glory, is more than worthwhile. Take in the mosaic-adorned walls, glittering ceilings and stunning frescoes while learning about the structure’s long history of change, going from Byzantine beauty to Ottoman mosque before morphing into a modern museum in a neighbourhood of restored pastel-painted Ottoman houses. One place proving that Istanbul refuses to ruminate on its past glory is the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art, a cutting-edge art gallery at a new base in Karaköy showcasing a huge collection of Turkish modern art with a fast-changing calendar of exhibitions from local and international artists.

Istanbul Modern Temporary Space

Istanbul Modern Temporary Space

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The Turkish food scene is the result of a phenomenal mix of cultures and flavours coming into the city on the back of the global food and spice trade

Where to eat in Istanbul

Grub’s up in Istanbul, that’s for sure. Diverse and world-renowned, the Turkish food scene is the result of a phenomenal mix of cultures and flavours coming into the city on the back of the global food and spice trade. Get ready to dive in and try something uniquely delicious at Turkish restaurant Karaköy Lokantası, a popular lunch spot in the historic harbourside area of the same name. Serving up bestselling Ottoman palace classics such as hünkar beğendi (slow-cooked beef on creamy mashed eggplant), at dinnertime, this joint turns into a traditional meyhane (Turkish Tavern) presenting an outstanding meze best enjoyed with a glass of rakı (aniseed brandy). Another of Istanbul’s best local restaurants is Mikla, hosting exceptional food and service in a stunning waterside terrace setting, overlooking the Bosphorus. After dinner, move on up to the top of the Marmars Pera Hotel for bliss cocktails with 360° degree views and mellow DJ-spun tunes.

Also boasting top-notch views and tantalizing Turkish cuisine is Leb-i derya, a luxury dining experience set high up on the rooftops and presenting Turkish delicacies such as lamb snish roasted in herbs, fruits and pomegranate molasses. The pasta and salad dishes here are also fabulous, using the best fresh seafood and East-Asian marinades. For Mediterranean delights, Ulus 29 is this summer’s go-to restaurant terrace, serving up seasonal regional dishes using traditional methods and international inspiration. With over 4,500 wines to choose from and cocktails from the Teras Bar, you may wish to check out Ulus Club 29 for a boogie before leaving.

Photo: Louis Hansel

Photo: Louis Hansel

More cultural fusion can be had at Glens Istanbul & Tiraje Teras, where chef Bahadır Abul heads two restaurants of dual Turkish and Italian concepts. Turkish Tiraje Teras gets the best views, located on the top floor of Nish Palas in Nişantası, while the Italian Glens Istanbul is set on the ground floor. Choose one or come back for both to enjoy meticulously put together mezes and other dishes inspired by the Aegean region. The only way to beat that is to look to the city’s first Michelin awardee. This is Nicole Restaurant run by cordon-bleu trained chef Aylin Yazıcıoğlu, who swapped a PhD from Cambridge to focus on creating a divine tasting menu of French methods and Turkish ingredients, serving it up with boutique local wine and irresistible terrace views.

After the pomp of Istanbul’s best restaurants, opt for a more casual lunch at Cachette. A homely space tucked away in Sariyer, Cachette features elegant interiors of framed mirrors and curated décor with a kitchen focused on creating healthy, veg-heavy dishes, alongside a breakfast menu of champions. An alternative brunch destination is Kev Cafe, one of the newest additions to the busy Bademaltı Sokak in Moda. Welcoming and minimally decorated with an open kitchen, Kev Café serves a great range of coffees and drinks alongside a pancake-lovers breakfast menu with an additional few Turkish-themed surprises. One last casual eatery to consider is Havan’dan by Beff Gourmet, a classic family-run affair with a daily menu presenting soups, pies and slow-cooked rib burgers on Saturdays. The real prize here, however, is the dessert menu, spanning cinnamon rolls and white chocolate brownies.

Photo: Eiliv Sonas Aceron

Photo: Eiliv Sonas Aceron

Photo: Tracey Wong

Photo: Tracey Wong

Shopping in Istanbul

Popular Beyoğlu neighbourhood may be bustling with restaurants, cafés and tourists but it is also the locale of some of Istanbul’s most preferred shopping areas, such as Istiklal Street. One of our favourite places is the cobblestoned area around Galata Tower, Serdar-ı Ekrem street in particular, as this is where all the cool local designers are based. With neoclassical facades fronting clothing boutiques, antique and design shops, including Les Benjamins, Lunapark and Kashif Sofa, this area is also a perfect place to stop for coffee and watch the fashionable world go by. If you’re more of a grab and barter kind of guy, the Feriköy Flea Market is a choice alternative. Taking place every weekend undercover in Bomonti, this is where you can stock up on organic picnic produce (on Saturday) and rifle for antique finds or rare vinyls (on Sunday), before trying the gözleme from the old ladies at the entrance.

Those looking to get suited and booted when in Istanbul should go to Galata for Civan, a menswear haven for lovers of vintage-inspired clothing and past fashions. Based on a wooden house with palpable 1920s vibes, Civan sells anything from bow ties and plaid jackets to colourful button-down shirts and kerchiefs, with a tailoring service. When you’re after a more urban look Shopi Go in Nişantaşı is where you’ll find top brands such as Marni, Marc Jacobs and J.W. Anderson as well as skateboard and travel accessories. Another menswear joint to peruse is Bey Karaköy, a supremely hip offering with stripped back interiors to complement their collection of modern basics, leather backpacks and quirky socks. Over in Bebek, Tru Project is one of the best places to come for well-made basics, covering v- or crew-neck t-shirts, cashmere blend sweaters and everything in between.

Istanbul is not without its concept stores either. Souq Dükkan at Kanyon Shopping Center and Wunder in Moda Bostanı are two of the best. While at Souq Dükkan you’ll find locally designed products – from clothing and accessories to ceramics and LPs – in a lofty industrial space, at Wunder, the focus is on sneakers only. Here the walls are lined with a curated collection of sports shoes with a backseat clothing collection to match.

Photo: Mimmi Die Lesemaus

Photo: Mimmi Die Lesemaus

Istanbul shopping

Istanbul shopping

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The gay scene in the city is centred around Taksim Square with its gay bars, clubs and cafes providing a cosmopolitan atmosphere that peaks after midnight

Istanbul nightlife

While the numerous sun-drenched rooftop cafés and bars make day drinking an almost acceptable pastime, make sure to keep your wits about you until sundown to experience the lively side of Istanbul nightlife. The gay scene in the city is centred around Taksim Square with its gay bars, clubs and cafes providing a cosmopolitan atmosphere that peaks after midnight. Get a vantage point in the early evening at Litera Bar, a rooftop bar based atop the Goethe Institute offering spectacular views of Topkapi Palace and the Blue Mosque, as well as exquisite drinks and sleek glass design. An alternative sunset spot with a view can be found at Ravouna 1906 Bar and Terrace, on the 7th floor of Ravouna 1906 on Istiklal Street. Spread across four stories, this lounge and bar serves up yummy desserts and quality teas before the DJs arrive later on and the wine starts flowing.

An iconic establishment on Kadife Sodak bar street, Arkaoda played a key role in transforming the area into the city’s hippest neighbourhood. Featuring plush armchairs and dim lighting with solid music taste, Arkaoda is a great place to chill in the laid-back café by day and enjoy live shows and DJ sets by night. Towards the theatrical end of the scale is Böcek Cafe in Kadıköy. Lavishly decorated and the haunt of many local artists and creatives, Böcek Café has its own stage showcasing theatre and music performance, alongside a menu of vegan and vegetarian dishes, all-day Turkish breakfasts and fresh smoothies.

To hang out with the local gay community in intimate surroundings, come to Reset Bar. This Kadıköy-based dive bar is a good place to date or chat thanks to its low-key music, full bar and snack menu. On the same street is gay-favourite Liberta Cafe Bistro. As well as a pub atmosphere and great food, here you can make the most of indoor or outdoor seating and English-speaking bartenders. Make sure your stomach is fully lined with one last stop at Draft (Caddebostan). Although there are four locations, the Caddebostan branch is ultra-friendly and welcoming. While typical dance clubs are always an option for late-night jaunts, something a little bit different can be found as Nardis Jazz Club. Arguably the best jazz bar in all of Istanbul, at the foot of the Galata Tower, Nardis presents nightly live jazz sessions from local and international acts to a classy crowd of jazz enthusiasts. Make sure to book a table before rushing in for the soothing sax solos.

Photo: Vedat Zorluer

Photo: Vedat Zorluer

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