Interesting Cities to Visit in Turkey
Istanbul may not be the capital of Turkey, but it is the biggest and most popular city to visit, and for good reason. It is where modernity most meets tradition in Turkey and is literally divided into both a European and Asian side, separated by a bridge across the visually impressive Bosphorus Strait.
The most famous attraction to visit is the Hagia Sophia, a mosque originally constructed as a Byzantine Basilica, which is one of the most gorgeous buildings in the world. Other must-dos include visiting the aptly named Blue Mosque (the runner-up for best building in Istanbul), shopping at The Grand Bazar and diving into Istanbul’s lively—yet discreet—gay nightlife.
The city bears the moniker “The City of Tourism” because, well…the resort city is the place to be in the summer. Found in the middle southern part of Turkey, it’s the ideal location to absorb some Turkish sun and wash in the azure blue waters on Antalya's two stunning beaches, Konyaalti and Lara. Between bouts of sunbathing, Antalya holds a few other notable locations to explore, such as Hadrian’s Gate (named after the famed emperor), Hidirlik Tower and the region’s landmark: Duden Waterfalls. The nearby ancient ruined city of Olimpos is also worth visiting, as is staying in the famous treehouses and bungalows in the valley beside it. Antalya has great nightlife, but there isn’t much of a gay scene – with bars opening and closing all the time. That said, it is there for the intrepid; just start at Athena Bar and ask the staff to point you in the right direction.
Bodrum is a quintessential Turkish town on the west coast of Turkey, with its whitewashed houses lining the coast and standing out from the dry landscape. The coastal town is smaller than Antalya but far more relaxed in its vibe. It is more common to see flamboyant members of the LGBTQ+ community on its streets – still without showing public displays of affection, however. The beaches are equally as beautiful as those in Antalya but there is a little less to do. The best sights being Bodrum Castle, its famous windmills and the ruins of the Mausoleum of Mausolus – once one of the seven wonders of the world. The gay scene is once more clandestine, but Bodrum includes a few gay-friendly establishments—like Kavalye Bar—and a men-only beach that’s popular with male gay locals.
This is the actual capital of Turkey, found in the central region of Anatolia. There are no beaches here, but the cosmopolitan capital is brimming with culture. There’s a wealth of museums, temples, parks, theatres and castles to traverse. Located about 200 km outside of the city, Hattusa is worth a visit, as a picturesque UNESCO ruin and one of Turkey’s biggest archaeological sites. However, in the city, the most prominent must-see of Ankara is the looming gigantic hilltop mausoleum complex that overlooks the city, Anitkabir. Herein lies the tomb of Mustafa Kemal - Turkey’s much acclaimed founder.
Interesting Attractions to Visit in Turkey
Hot Air Balloon Above Cappadocia
There is little more iconic—and found on many screensavers—than the sight of hot air balloons bobbing gently in the wind over the rocky landscape of Turkey’s Cappadocia. Found within the Central Anatolia region, Cappadocia is littered with ruins and unique rock formations, including the thin spires known as “fairy chimneys''. Gazing down from a hot air balloon amplifies the sense of awe, which hangs over the land and includes the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Goreme National Park.
Have an (In)famous Hammam Massage
You can’t visit Turkey without having a cleansing Hammam massage. Cleansing but certainly not relaxing, as the rough massage takes no prisoners. However, no pain, no gain and afterwards, prepare to feel lemon fresh and born anew — that said, the massage is slightly less unforgiving on women than men. There are many Turkish baths found around the cities offering the massage, or you can simply ask at most hotel spas - but the traditional bath houses tend to provide the best and most authentic experience.
Delve into the Ancient Ruins of Ephesus
Turkey has lots of ancient ruins and archaeological sites, but none as epic as the remnants of the once great Greek city of Ephesus near the Southeast coast of Turkey. Take a walk around what was once one of the biggest Roman cities in the Mediterranean and see the likes of The Library of Celsus, The Odeon and The Temple of Artemis — named one of the seven ancient wonders of the world.
Bathe in the Thermal Pools of Pamukkale
Also down in the Southeast of Turkey is the natural wonder known as Pamukkale — translating as “cotton castle”. The region takes its name from the ‘travertines’ here, which are odd white cotton candy-colored stone terrace formations — built up from the chalk dissolved in the thermal water pools found there. You can even swim in the thermal pools, just as the Romans did.
Paraglide Over Ölüdeniz
Translating literally as “dead sea”—or officially as “blue lagoon”—Ölüdeniz is a stunningly beautiful sandy bay with turquoise and aquamarine waters that are unmovable no matter the weather. It is also one of—if not THE—best place in the world to paraglide, due to the steady winds in the region and unrivaled views of the beach and waters below. Snorkeling and scuba-diving in the crystal-clear waters of the bay are also popular choices. As are the cruises on wooden gulet yachts along the coast, ranging from standard to luxury and in length from a day to a week. There is no better way to find a private bay all for yourself.
Hike Up Mount Nemrut
Climbing Mount Nemrut is no easy feat—it is the highest peak of Mesopotamia—and can take two days for the full hike with a village stopover. However, it is possible to just visit its most famous sites, such as at the mountain's peak. Upon the summit lies one of Turkey’s most recognised UNESCO sites and the funerary mound of King Antiochus I – surrounded by the toppled remains of ancient statues made in his honor.
Turkey excels in food! Of course, there’s the beloved kebabs—everyone’s favorite late-night alcohol absorbent—but Turkish cuisine offers so much more. Meat holds a prominent place in the Turkish diet and comes in a range of flavors. One popular dish is kofte, balls of beef and lamb served up in various ways – such as in a casserole or pie. Then there’s meze, Turkey’s version of tapas, featuring a collection of dishes often served before a meal and can include meatballs, yogurts, dips and of course warm fresh bread. Meza is a great way to try a range of national and local delicacies without committing to a full meal.
As for desserts, there’s baklava – a yummy pastry filled with nuts, honey and syrup or the popular sweet, Turkish delight. Known throughout the world, the version found in Turkey is far tastier than the artificial version found in shops around the globe and comes in a variety of flavors, ranging from dusty rose to pistachio.
Safety Considerations for LGBTQ visitors to Turkey
Turkey has had a turbulent time with regards to LGBTQ+ rights, with an ongoing tug-of-war between the country’s modernization and its conservative government within a predominantly Islamic society. Being gay is legal, but same-sex marriage is not recognized. Trans people have the right to change their legal gender, but no laws protect them from discrimination. Turkey is very much a country in flux.
There is no legal protection for any LGBTQ+ people against violence or discrimination, and the possibility of public displays of affection could be considered “offenses against public morality,” leading to harassment and possible arrests. This can be confusing, as men are often seen holding hands and showing affection — but this is part of friendship within Turkish culture and not to be confused with LGBTQ+ visibility. Overall, it’s best to use discretion in public and to check for gay-friendly accommodations online beforehand to avoid any uncomfortable moments and seek out other gay-friendly establishments when possible.
LGBTQ+ Travel Tips & Events
Turkey has a lot of cultural dos and don’ts, but Turkish people tend to be very forgiving to tourists with respect to following them all. Turkey is progressive for a mostly Islamic country, but showing too much skin away from beaches or resorts is sometimes considered shameful, especially outside of the main cities and attractions. Additionally, the mosques require you to remove your footwear as a sign of respect, and women are expected to cover their head and shoulders upon entering.
Haggling is part of every sale and takes some getting used to but can be a lot of fun when you get the hang of it. The currency is lira, and you should not expect to get change for under 1 TL – it's hard to find that little change, and it is considered rude to ask . Also, tipping isn’t mandatory in Turkey – not to say it isn’t appreciated, though!
Pride marches do take place around Turkey but have been subjected to a lot of strife over the last few years. You can still take part, but be aware of what you are getting yourself into. Also, in March/April many Turkish people celebrate Ramazan (Ramadan), which can be a great opportunity to see some colorful festivities as long as you remain respectful of religious customs. During the summertime in Istanbul there are lovely open-air music festivals to enjoy while exploring the city. Across Turkey, many other quirkier events take place throughout the year, with highlights including Kirkpinar Oil Wrestling, Istanbul Tulip Festival and Cappadocia Balloon Festival.