An Insider’s Guide to LGBTQ Istanbul

The Turkish flag flies over the Bosporus on the back of a ferry
The Turkish flag flies over the Bosporus on the back of a ferry | © Bradley Secker / Culture Trip

Freelance photojournalist Bradley Secker has spent eight years in Istanbul exploring the layered identities of the city and its people through a series of photo projects. He tells Culture Trip how his adopted city has changed in recent years and the best spots for LGBTQ travellers.

The Culture of Pride celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots.

Bodybuilders perform in a drag show at Istanbul’s Tek Yön nightclub

“My work focuses on a variety of topics, mostly about identity and how it shapes someone’s life. I’ve also looked at minority communities around Turkey and the region, identity politics and personality cults, politics and social issues, as well as migration from a more conceptual and humanising perspective,” Secker says.

Secker has made a study of identity politics in the region

“Every city has its problems, but Istanbul has been through some tough years recently, with terrorist attacks, a failed military coup and perhaps the outsider’s perception of instability,” Secker says. “The situation in Istanbul now is better than it’s been in years in terms of safety, lifestyle and transportation. As a transit hub, Istanbul is amazing for covering the surrounding region. There are tens of countries within just a few hours’ flight from the city.”

The geographical placement of Istanbul has left it open to influences from both Europe and Asia. And while there is an LGBTQ community here, Secker points out the differences between life in Istanbul and elsewhere in Europe.

Horse-drawn carriages wait for customers along the port on Burgazada, one of Istanbul’s Princes’ Islands

“I think it’s important to make it clear that Istanbul isn’t Berlin, and open displays of affection on the street aren’t generally welcomed – whether you’re straight or LGBTQ, you just need to be a little cautious. LGBTQ people always have a sixth sense for safety and awareness, so it’s important to have that finely tuned at certain points in Istanbul,” he says.
“Some younger Turkish LGBTQ people are very open, and the drag scene is picking up once again, in defiance of a more restrictive attitude towards LGBTQ life in some areas of the city. There are many Istanbuls, and each one has its own set of unwritten social rules. Areas like Beyoğlu, Kadıköy and Beşiktaş are much more open and welcoming towards LGBTQ individuals than some other more socially and religiously conservative areas of the city, such as Fatih. Walking around some areas of Istanbul I think some people would be surprised by the openness and visibility of queer people, and the presence of queer-friendly spaces.”

A male Zenne dancer performs at the Trans Beauty Pageant

After eight years in the city, Secker is firmly embedded in the LGBTQ scene. “Sahika Teras is a great venue run by Uzum, an incredible trans woman. Tek Yön is Istanbul’s most well-known gay club, and its clientele are a little more diverse than the younger hip types at Sahika Teras. The music in Tek Yön isn’t as good either, but it’s a good place to go if you want to get a good cross section of Istanbul’s gay communities.”
Some of his favourite spots have a broader appeal rather than focussing on a specific community. “I also recommend going to places like Arkaoda and BINA in Kadıköy, or sitting outside in the many bars in the surrounding area. These aren’t specifically queer spaces, but they are definitely LGBTQ friendly. There are also other gay clubs such as Cheeky, Love, SuperFabric and others, but I prefer the mood elsewhere.”

Many visitors are surprised by the visibility of queer life in the city

“The main event in the Istanbul LGBTQ calendar, and the most visible, used to be the Pride March, but since this has been banned by the Istanbul governor in recent years, the Pride Week events have taken up more focus. Themed parties, drag shows and other events are a regular occurrence throughout the year, but the summer is definitely the time for pre-Pride and more LGBTQ-friendly parties and events.”

Friends drink tea along the seafront

Istanbul remains a hugely popular destination for tourists from all parts of the world. Secker, who lives with his boyfriend and two cats in Kadıköy, has plenty of recommendations for visitors looking to experience different aspects of the city.

An artistic street in Kadiköy is filled with breakfast spots, cafés and street cats

“I love my neighbourhood, Kadıköy (on Istanbul’s Asian side), the most. It’s the perfect mix of relaxed and lively. There are plenty of streets filled with cute cafés, restaurants, bars, hipster shops [and] clothing boutiques, and the water is never far away, with a great view over to the historical peninsula of Istanbul where you can see the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace and Hagia Sophia. People often grab a beer on a sweaty summer evening and head down to sit on the rocks with friends. It’s never boring, and many artists moved to the area as it’s less expensive than Beyoğlu, and with more space.

The seaside prom walk on the coast in Kadiköy, looking out to Istanbul’s historic peninsula, the big touristic hotspot of town

I also enjoy the area around the Galata tower in Beyoğlu (on Istanbul’s European side), and the small streets leading up to the top of the hill (and tower itself). The area is much more touristic than Kadıköy, but its has its own charm as the buildings are generally older than those in Kadıköy.”

Small side streets around the Galata tower in Beyoğlu are a great place to buy gifts, get a bit lost and have a fresh juice or a coffee

One lesser-known highlight for Secker also offers the chance to get an authentic look at life in Istanbul. “I think visitors should spend time taking a boat to the Princes’ Islands and cycling around, or walking around some of the less touristic districts, where you can get a better sense of daily Istanbul life for the liberal, young locals.

A view of the Galata tower and the lower Beyoğlu neighbourhood

If you are visiting in a decent-sized group of friends, you can hire small cruising boats out for the day, and sail up and down the Bosporus, and stop off for an hour to eat lunch on board (bring your own food and booze) while taking a dip in the Bosporus, between continental Asia and Europe, and seeing the big city in the distance, highly recommend it.”

Swimming in the Marmara Sea off at the Princes’ Islands is a relaxing break from the chaos of the city

Pride 2019 marks the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in New York City and the beginnings of the international Pride movement. To celebrate, Culture Trip spotlights LGBTQ pioneers changing the landscape of love around the world. Welcome to The Culture of Pride.

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