From a distance, Turkey may seem a little problematic — both for the LGBT people there, as well as LGBT travellers interested in visiting.
For a local perspective, we spoke with Mustafa Korkmaz of Everyday Turkey Tours — a travel company for LGBT people visiting Turkey.
Why did you decide to establish an LGBT travel company in Istanbul?
I was gay and out since 1993. Despite some difficulties, I’ve been happy about who I am since early childhood.
I like to work independently as much as possible, and I wanted to work in an environment where I didn’t have to hide who I am. After working in a bank for a few years, I went to work as a manager in a gay bar. In 2002 I started publishing Istanbulgay — a gay travel guide to Istanbul. So it felt like a natural progression into the tourism industry.
What are some of the challenges in running an LGBT business in Turkey?
We started Everyday Turkey Tours in 2006, and we’ve never really had any problems. We have our names, photos, and contact details on the website.
There are lots of gay bars and clubs in Istanbul, many of which have been operating since the mid-80s. When I was managing a gay bar in the late-90s, we did have some issues with local authorities, but these days LGBT people seem to be more accepted by wider society, despite our conservative government.
It can depend on the type of business, for example if you’re running a bathhouse where men are having sex, it’s likely that the security forces will raid you and close the business every couple of years. They don’t arrest the clients, it’s not illegal for men to have sex with each other, but they close the venue for a couple of weeks.
What’s it like being a gay man in Istanbul?
It really depends on who you are and where you live. If you live in central Istanbul, or one of the wealthier neighbourhoods, things are a bit more Europeanised. If you live on the outskirts of the city, or one of the poorer neighbourhoods, it will be more conservative and things can be really hard. But that’s a generalisation — Turkey is a land of contrasts, and full of surprises.
We don’t hold hands, or kiss in the street, but Turkey is a socially conservative country.
What advice would you give LGBT travellers planning to visit Turkey?
Turkish people are very hospitable and nice people. In general, you’ll feel welcome and as safe.
Most Turkish people speak less English than in other European countries, but people who are working in the tourism and hospitality industry will generally speak English and other European languages, so language isn’t really a barrier for visitors.
The crime rate in Istanbul is quite low, but you still need to be cautious, as you would in any city. The most common issues is robbery — it’s unlikely that you would be targeted in central locations, or gay bars and clubs, but you might be at risk if you went somewhere with someone you didn’t know, or if you were carrying cash when cruising in a park. It’s best not to go cruising in parks, this can be quite dangerous.
Don’t agree to go to a local guy’s place. If you want to hook-up with a local guy, use your hotel, or a public venue such as a hamam or a sauna.
Avoid the tourist-hustlers who usually hang around Taksim and sometimes around Sultanahmet districts. They’ll try to take you to some scam clubs to rip you off. Your bill can be up to several thousand Euros, depending how far you follow your basic instincts instead of your logic. If you’re in these neighbourhoods, steer clear of anyone who is instantly too friendly, no matter what their stories are.
There are some unscrupulous taxi drives who may try to over-charge tourists. Ask your hotel to call a reliable taxi company, or ask up-front how much the trip will cost. Try and use smaller banknotes to pay the fare to avoid any issues with getting the correct change.
The location of your hotel in Istanbul is really important. Avoid staying in hotels that aren’t in the city centre. Public transport isn’t easy to use, and there’s always a lot of traffic. You can waste a lot of time and money trying to get across town. The districts in Istanbul that I’d recommend are:
- Harbiye, Taksim, Beyoglu, or Galata — These are good neighbourhoods if you want to be close to night-life, shopping, and busy restaurants, cafes, and bars. It’s this precinct where you’ll find almost all of the gay bars and clubs.
- Sultanahmet-Sirkeci-Beyazit — This precinct is best if you want to be close to the historical sights. Most hotels around here are boutique hotels. It’s not far from Taksim.
- Laleli, and Aksaray — These are central neighbourhoods and the hotels can be cheaper, but they’re generally of lower quality and the area isn’t as nice.
Where do you like to go out in Istanbul?
Before midnight, I’d go to Pinokyo, Haspa, or Chianty — they’re all fairly similar. Durak Bar attracts the bears.
On a Saturday night, I’d go to Superfabridc, or Love Club — they’re European-style gay clubs with good music and air-conditioning, but higher prices. Tekyon is a popular club with more of a local feel.
If you’re at a gay bar or club, you’ll probably be approached by local rent boys — you obviously need to be a bit cautious in that situation.
For women, there’s only one lesbian club, Gia Club.
Which is your favourite cafe in Istanbul?
I go to Arjin Cafe, or Espresso Lab. They’re both gay-friendly.
Which is your favourite restaurant in Istanbul?
For a special occasion I’d go to Besinci Kat. Otherwise, I eat in a number of simple, local restaurants.
Which is your favourite hamam in Istanbul?
Firuzaga, and Davutpasa would be the ones I’d recommend if you wanted to experience a hamam. These are not gay-owned, and they’re not identified as gay venues, but the overwhelming majority of their clients are gay. If you go in and ask them if it’s a gay hamam, they’ll probably say no. They’re not particularly luxurious. The entrance fee is about USD$15, and massage services are extra.
If you’re looking for an escort or a rent boy, then the best option is Aquarius Sauna. The owners are very friendly. The services of the rent boys are described as massage. It’s best to agree on the price of the massage in advance.
Which dating or hook-up app is the best one to use in Turkey?
There are dozens of hook-up sites in Turkish, but they’re not very easy for foreigners to use.
Hornet is the most popular app, since Grinder was banned by the government.
Most people on the hook-up apps will be able to speak English. If you’re not looking for a rent boy it’s best to clarify that early on, so you’re not wasting time chatting with someone who would need to be paid.
Normal safety rules apply, be cautious, meet them in your hotel or at a public venue, conceal your valuables.
What are some of the places or sights in Turkey that you would recommend to LGBT travellers?
Istanbul is the capital of gay life in Turkey.
I think Bodrum could be considered as the Mykonos of Turkey. There aren’t as many as gay venues and nude beaches there, but it is a very gay-friendly and liberal town in general. It’s a popular summer vacation destination for Turkish LGBT people.
I also like less commercialised places such as Butterfly Valley in Fethiye, and Olimpos in Antalya.
Other popular summer towns and cities such as Marmaris, Alanya, and Kusadasi are also places where LGBT travellers can feel very comfortable.
If you’re into history, then Cappadocia would be top of the list, then Ephesus, Pamukkale, and Nemrut Mountain.
Turkey has a lot to offer — plenty of sunshine, beautiful beaches, history, and very hospitable people. It has both Eastern and Western influences — it’s a unique part of the world.