by Carlos Melia
Usually people ask me, Carlos, which are the upcoming destinations in the world, were should we, as members of the LGBT community go? Most of the times this includes destinations either in Europe or Asia, that have no connection to the Muslim world. But all this is about to change, since new options are becoming more and more welcoming, interesting, sophisticated and open minded around the world, and Turkey is without a doubt one of them.
For years I have wanted to come to Istanbul, one of the most significant cities in history, and always for different reasons, in an unconscious mental choice outbidden by more traditional destinations. But since I kept hearing over and over about how fabulous and upcoming Istanbul is, I had to see and experience it myself, and there I went for five days of wonderful surprises.
Istanbul, the largest city of the former Ottoman Empire, is a true example of tolerance and openness on progress, literally a bridge between cultures, the perfect combination between East and West, a new take into Islam and the Muslim World.
Istanbul is full of contrasts and cultural shades, a transcontinental city, with over a third of their population living in Asia, but its commercial and historical center in Europe. One of the busiest waterways in the world, the Bosphorus, linking the Sea of Marmara with the Black Sea. A secular state, with no official religion, but over a 98 percent of Islam predominance.
The city is not only divided by the Bosphorus stretch, into Asia and Europe, but into several districts, each individual and showing an alternative way of living, architecture and lifestyle. My favorites were Galatasaray, Edirnekapi and Ortakoy, which I felt best show Istanbul’s soul. Then the trendy, chic and hip area of Nisantasi.
The Ottoman Turks captured Constantinople in 1453 and renamed the city Istanbul and made it the capital of the Ottoman Empire and the Caliph of Islam (as in the “Vatican” of the Sunni Islamic world). 1453 marked the end of the Byzantine Empire (the eastern half of the Roman Empire when it fell) and the rise of the Ottoman Empire, so there is an amazing blend of East meets West in the architecture. Mimar Sinan (1489-1588), who was the most famous Ottoman architect in the 15th century, and the chief architect for Suleiman the Magnificent (1520-1566), whose reign and cultural patronage defined Istanbul as the greatest city in the Islamic world.
Istanbul is up and coming, and to my point of view, maturing to becoming in the next year or so, into one of the top and most sophisticated global destinations. Here are some insight TIPS on where to stay, dine, wine and must dos and sees.
The House Hotel
Ultra chic and modern design, boutique traditional Turkish architecture, ideal locations and bespoke customer service. Three locations in town: Galatasaray (my favorite) 19th century mansion located meters from Taksim, offering magnificent views to the old city. Nisantasi, luxury boutique located into the posh area. Bosphorus, 19th century landmark in Ortakoy, overlooking the lovely Bosphorus. My choice of hotels when traveling to Istanbul.
(video) My Suite at The House Hotel Galatasaray
(video) My Junior Suite at The House Hotel Nisantasi
The W Istanbul Hotel is the center of the historic Akaretler Row Houses, an upscale neighborhood filled with restaurants, cafes, and design & art galleries. W guests can explore the authentic and local area of Besiktas and the upscale shopping district of Nisantasi. My recommendation, book one of the Cabana Suites, a lovely outdoor space for you own private enjoyment. Remix your holiday in Istanbul. Sip a signature cocktail and party in our chic W Lounge, experience Traditional Turkish mezes and kebap in our new restaurant Okka, and cozy up over delicious, small plates at Minyon. Linger in Sip where its all about conversation over oh-so-refreshing cocktails.
(video) My Cabana Suite at W Istanbul
The Sofa Hotel
Member of the Design Hotels, located in the posh area of Nisantasi. Frankie, the rooftop bar and restaurant, was my favorite hang out venue during my visit. The Sofa, designed by renowned Turkish architect Sinan Kafadar, reminds you, subtly, that you are in Istanbul without throttling you with Ottoman styling.
(video) My Suite at The Sofa Hotel
Alternative options for are: Kumru Hotel, boutique property for the budget conscious, Ciragan Palace by Kempinski, with stunning views of the palace and the Bosphorus stretch. A fantastic brunch spot. The Istanbul EDITION, trendy, young and modern with a brilliant 3 floors Spa by ESPA, including a Snow Room.
Turkish food is much more than just Kebaps, and I was greatly surprised by the excellent quality of their local wines and their over 200 clasees of cheeses. Seat down to enjoy great meals, overlooking sunsets, the Bosphorus or the mosques. Or be more active and take part on many of the local Cooking Classes. I personal suggest Asitane, for being the one featuring true Imperial Cuisine and techniques.
At the rooftop of The Sofa Hotel, in Nisantasi district, with open panoramic views of the city, a sophisticated ambiance, music, drinks and crowd. My favorite restaurant spot in Istanbul.
Traditional Imperial cuisine. The only restaurant in Turkey that still practices the old recipes and techniques of the Ottoman palaces, found at the Topkapi Palace after years of research . A premium Turkish cuisine experience.
Others, I have not tried personally but came highly recommended to me are: Mikla Restaurant, best view on Istanbul. The cuisine is also very interesting at it is fusion Turkish and Scandinavian. Nu Teras, Turkish and Intercontinental cuisine. Fridays and Saturdays after 11PM becomes a club with the coolest crowd. Munferit, contemporary Turkish cuisine revisited mehane and typical meze. Topaz, lovely restaurant in an ultra sleek modern highrise building with fabulous views of the Bosporus. It overlooks the minarets of the New Mosque next to the Dolmabahce Palace. During your day time visit to the Blue Mosque or Hagia Sofia in Sultanhamet, a must stop spot is Nar Lokanta
MUST DO & SEE
This time I only had time to explore the European side of Istanbul, so I am planing to return soon to further discover this captivating destinations, and also further explore Turkey heading to Izmir, Cappadocia and Bodrum. Keep one thing in mind, TRAFFIC in Istanbul is a big issue, so have your own car and driver, or even better, so as l did and get your own limousine by Inter Limousine. Below is the list of my top Must See and Do.
(video) My Limousine in Istanbul
Istanbul culturally and architecturally it goes down as one of the greatest “imperial” capitals in the world, with all the grand state architecture that comes with it. Located in the district of Sultanahmet, Blue Mosque (ca 1610s) with the 6 minarets, is the most famous mosque in the Sunni Islamic world. Avoid Fridays, since it is the day of the prayers and hard to get in. The mosque is popularly known as the Blue Mosque for the blue tiles adorning the walls of its interior. Dress accordingly.
(video) Carlos Melia inside the Blue Mosque
Hagia Sofia Museum
It was built in the 530s AD as The Basilica of Orthodox Christians and ruled over by the Patriarch. It remained the largest interior space in the world until the Great Crystal Palace at the Great London Exhibition of 1851. Famous in particular for its massive dome, it is considered the epitome of Byzantine architecture. Walk all around the first floor as well as the second floor gallery to check the roof top views. It’s jaw dropping.
Topkapi Palace and Harem Exhibition
An amazing compound of buildings overlooking the Bosporus. This palace of the Sultans is as unique and distinctive to classic Turkish architecture as Versailles is to French or the Forbidden City is to Chinese. Walk through the Imperial Gates, follow the tree-lined path and the next door with the tower turrets, to get inside the palace. I strongly recommend the Harem section, that in the old times was only meant for the Sultan, the women and the Eunuchs.
Bosphorus Private Yacht
Sail in style along the Bosphorus stretch and enjoy either from the European or Asian side, the best views of Istanbul, its architecture and life. Sail from the Sea of Marmara towards the Black Sea, this popular commercial route. Approximately 2 hours, or you can plan your event, lunch or dinner on board. Hosted by Inter Limousines.
(video) Private Yacht along the Bosphorus
(video) Private Yacht along the Bosphorus
Stroll along Istiklal Avenue from Taksim Square, and see how happening and live Istanbul can be. Live performances, trams, markets, bazaars, and lots of people flocking. Stop or walk by Tunel Gecidi, a covered street full of local Turkish restaurants and cafes.
(video) Streets and Sounds of Istanbul at Istiklal Avenue
(video) Streets and Dances of Istanbul at Istiklal Avenue
Kapalicarsi Grand Bazaar
Covered Bazaar just west of the Sultanahmet. Ordered built by the Sultan in 1450s. One of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world, with 61 covered streets, and 4,000 shopping stalls – you could spend hours in here.
I did not make it to the Golden Horn, but if you have time, this is another must do during your visit to Istanbul. Take a waterway or sailing in private along the Golden Horn, inlet of the Bosphorus dividing the city of Istanbul and forming the natural harbor that has sheltered Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman and other ships for thousands of years.
HAMAM TURKISH BATH
A visit to Turkey and Istanbul, without a proper tradition Hamam experience, is not a visit. There are plenty of options to choose from, even full gay ones, but recommended by my local friends, I came to the Ayasofa Hurren Sultan Hamami, just across the Hagia Sofa Museum and in front of the Blue Mosque. I must admit, one of the sexiest experiences of my life. Beyond the striking beauty of the baths architecture, the whole ceremony of the Turkish Bath is intriguing since the moment your walk into the bath.
Built in 1556, Ayasofa Hurren Sultan Hamami, by Mimar Sinan by order of Hurrem Sultan, wife of Suleyman the Magnificent, near Hagia Sophia in 16th century, at the location of historical Zeuksippos Baths that was destroyed in 532 year completely.
Building is in shape of classical period Ottoman baths and is a kind of double bath with 75m length. Women and men sections were built on the same axis in this bath for the first time, which was a new thing in Turkish Bath architecture.
For and approximate cost of USD 35 per person you will be bathed and pampered in the most stunning traditional ways for approximately 35 minutes plus the pre and post relaxing time. Basic package includes: Turkish Bath, traditional bath-glove application, relaxing bubble massage, head and neck massage, Ottoman sorbe. Steaming rooms, lying on top of the heated White Carrara marble bed, looking at the locals, and learning how they behave and what they do. The bath and massage itself is beyond relaxing and sexy. MUST Try experience.
(video) My experience at Ayasofa Hurren Sultan Hamami
Now if you are looking for a regular Spa option in Istanbul, I would strongly recommend the Spa managed by ESPA at the trendy The Istanbul EDITION Hotel.
(video) Carlos Melia introduces the ESPA Spa in Istanbul
(video) Carlos Melia introduces the ESPA Spa in Istanbul - Part II
DRINKS, ROOFTOPS & SUNSETS
One of the amazing and most relaxing activities to do in Istanbul, is to enjoy, drink in hand, sunsets over Europe/Asia with the most beautiful panoramic views of the Bosphorus, the domes of the Mosques and one of my favorite districts Galatasaray. Some of my top options are 360, Nu Teras, Bleu Lounge at the Ritz-Carlon Hotel, recently renovated to a more modern take and Mikla Restaurant, featuring ranking the highest on views, crowds and drinks.
Istanbul is slowly developing and progressing as the new friendly LGBT destination in the region, with an interesting take into the Muslim world, based on their secular status. Last Sunday they hosted the PRIDE Parade with an estimated presence of 20,000 people. The neuralgic Gay Friendly area, I would say is over Taksim Square and along Istiklal Avenue. Local tell you all the time, being gay is not an issue, just do not practice public displays of affection, especially if you are a local. I did my tour around the gay venues that have been popping out for the last two years, and this is what I recommend.
The first openly Gay Cafe and Bistro to be opened in Istanbul, over 3 years ago in the area close to Taksim Square. The venue is run by this lovely couple Anil and Sakir (see the video interview I did with them Frappe Istanbul). Popular among locals and foreigners. Live shows, karaoke and more.
(video) Carlos Melia interviews the owners of Frappe Istanbul
Sugar & Spice
Bistro located off Istiklal Avenue. Trendy spot close to Taksim Square. Features and indoor and outdoor seating area.
Very popular among locals. Special nights including Bear Parties. Mostly crowded on the weekends.
Special thanks to Aristo Tours, expert local professional destination management company. Their friendly team who planned my whole stay in Istanbul , and took excellent care of me. I strongly recommend them for your next visit to Turkey.
Unfortunately I left Istanbul over 6 days ago, on my way to London, but I will be back soon to explore more of this upcoming destination. Reporting live, now from England, where I am touring along Bath, Costwolds, Stratford upon Avon and back to London to take part at the World Gay Pride. Till next adventure in full luxury. Happy PRIDE everyone. Carlos Melia
Carlos Melia is a Travel Expert, Blogger, Niche Marketing Consultant, Jetsetter, and Bon Vivant, who travels around the world discovering what's new and cool in Luxury Travel and Hospitality. His reviews on hotels, restaurants, destinations, and attractions, based on his own experiences as an OUT Gay Traveler can be found at www.carlosmeliablog.com