Living in Istanbul: A local guide

Forming a bridge between Europe and Asia, Istanbul is a complex and vibrant city that only residents can begin to understand

Feature by Rhiannon J Davies | 09 Dec 2016

Istanbul regularly tops lists of the world’s greatest city destinations, famed for its Grand Bazaar, Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia – impressive sites that have fallen victim to their own success and now serve as tourist traps thronging with shoving crowds. The truth is, that while Istanbul is indubitably an incredible city to visit, tourists only ever get to scratch the surface of something truly exciting. While the same may be said of cities the world over, it feels particularly true of Istanbul; a city whose still beating heart lies buried beneath the clogged arteries of tourist hell.

After living in Istanbul for some time, you learn to see through the crowds, and nail the back street routes that let you avoid the worst of them. Once you get over the wonder, and beyond the clichés, you discover a city that has its share of problems, but that offers a chance to live between two worlds. Get lost in its historically cosmopolitan backstreets, cross continents in minutes, dance until daybreak in Beyoğlu’s hipster clubs, feast on the 24 hour street food, then head to a rooftop to watch the sun rise over one of the world’s most distinctive skylines; one that has barely changed for centuries.

Water, Water Everywhere

For newcomers to the city, the geography takes a little getting used to. The Black Sea sits to the north of the city, the Marmara lies to the South and the Bosphorus connects the two. Lying on either side of the Bosphorus are the European and Asian sides of the city, while the Golden Horn is an important inlet off the Bosphorus that divides the old (the Sultanahmet peninsula that once formed the entire city) and new city on the European side (cosmopolitan Beyoglu populated by Europeans in the early 1900s).

This unique continent-straddling geography is what gives Istanbul its strategic importance and is the reason for its momentous history. It also means that if you fancy it, you can hop on a ferry and cross from Europe to Asia just for a beer. If you’re especially lucky you may even spot a pod of dolphins on the way.

Getting Around

The ferries are probably the most romantic way of getting around this immensely choked city; Istanbul also tops the list of most congested cities in the world, and travelling anywhere by car is a frustrating exercise in patience, stamina and ability to withstand continual horn-blearing. Luckily Istanbul has a fairly reasonable public transport system consisting of a metro, tram, bus, funicular, train, metrobus, and ferry system. They don’t always link in an interconnected way but it won’t take you long to figure out what goes where. Then, you simply buy an Istanbulkart (like an Oyster card in London), top up and off you go.

It’s also much cheaper than London with most fares costing not much more than two Lira (50p). Taxis are useful for going further afield or late night journeys, but beware. Although I’ve encountered far more trustworthy drivers than otherwise, there are some unscrupulous types that will try and rip off foreigners – particularly if you hail a cab around Taksim Square. It’s much better to call one or get one from a rank. Bi Taksi is an app that allows you to order pre-paid reputable taxis, and Uber also operates there.

Challenging Stereotypes

When you tell people you live in Istanbul, you’ll regularly come up against the following questions: Do you have to wear a headscarf? Have you learned Arabic? Are you allowed to drink there? There’s an assumption that Turkey is in the Middle East and is an Islamic republic of some kind. It isn’t, and it’s not. Look at a map – the clue’s right there.

Turkey bridges the gap between Europe and Asia, and its culture sits somewhere in the middle, not as a mix of the two, but as a distinct Turkish identity. And while 97% of the population might identify themselves as Muslim, this is often a cultural distinction. You’ll meet people across the spectrum from religious conservative women in headscarves to short-skirt wearing, hard-drinking hedonists. And everyone in between.

Turks Take Their Food Seriously

One of the greatest jobs of living in Istanbul has to be the incredible range of Turkish food on offer. And no, I’m not just talking about kebabs. Although they may be the country’s most famous export, they are just the tip of the iceberg. It’s true that Turks are quite nationalist in their food choices but that comes from a pride in their culinary culture.

What’s more, it’s a country that’s still in touch with its seasons, and when the strawberries, watermelons, cucumbers, fresh chick peas, green plums, or sour satsumas come into season, you can be sure that’s what everyone’s eating. A Turkish breakfast is a long and languorous thing of beauty with tables laden with tiny plates of cheese, olives, homemade jams, garlic sausage, and pastries.

Likewise, the best evening meals in Turkey are those at its many meyhane (taverna-style restaurants) with a plethora of meze dishes and rakı (the local aniseed spirit) to wash them down. Live music fills in the gaps between conversations and tables regularly break out into song or stand up, click their fingers and let the mood take them.

Street food is another joy to discover; mussels stuffed with spiced rice, simit (sesame-seed bagels) spread with goat’s cheese, grilled mackerel sandwiches, buttery rice and chickpeas topped with shredded chicken and spicy chargrilled intestines in a crunchy roll are some of the delights on offer. And if you’ve got a taste for offal, the traditional hangover preventative is a tripe soup, usually consumed in a 24-hour soup joint at 5am, heavily soused in garlic vinegar.

A Plague of Hipsters

Hipster-orientated gentrification in the pursuit of a globally homogenised ‘cool’ aesthetic continues unabated in Istanbul just as it does in cities worldwide. Of course, it’s not all bad. There are now a range of micro-roasting coffee shops, achingly hip clubs and contemporary art galleries that you’ll most likely feel too intimidated to walk into. Karaköy, Çukurcuma and Kadıköy are some of the hottest spots. They make fantastic people watching opportunities when you want to spend a lazy day absorbing Istanbul’s newly embraced café culture, and are also great nightlife destinations if you're in the mood to see and be seen.

Craig and His List

When new to the city and searching for somewhere to live, craigslist becomes your friend. It’s basically the American version of Gumtree that serves as the main classified listings site in Istanbul. There are lots of English language posts where you can find fellow expats or English-speaking Turks looking for housemates. As you would anywhere, try and avoid going through letting agents (who will charge through the roof), and look out for personally placed ads.

Rent wise you can expect to pay between £250 (for a room in a nice shared flat) and £700 (for a three-bedroom apartment) if you're looking to live bang in the city centre. There are much cheaper rents available the further out you go, but if you want to absorb the city’s culture and buzzing nightlife, I’d recommend living in Beyoğlu – at least to begin with. Living here means that unless you’re going out with friends on the Asian side of the city, you can pretty much always walk home from a night out.

Jobs-a-Plenty... If You’re Not Fussy

Craigslist can be a useful place to search for jobs too, if you can see past the numerous ‘sugar daddy’ adverts that is. Teaching English is really the only option available to foreigners here legally – strict rules mean it’s nearly impossible to get a work permit to do anything else. That being said, most language schools won’t bother to get you a work permit because of the high turnover of staff and the costs involved. This doesn’t put off most newcomers though and almost every expat I know started off in one of these places.

No teaching experience required, although an online TEFL won’t hurt. You can just walk into the many franchised language schools like English Time, Wall St Institute, British English and be guaranteed to find a job. These tend to be badly paid, but the hours are flexible and it’s a way to meet people – fellow teachers and your students – on first arrival. If you have a recognised teaching degree, this gains you access to much better paid jobs in international schools and such like, where they are more likely to also invest in your work permit.

Untangling Turkey’s Red Tape

Visitors usually arrive in Turkey on a tourist visa, which allows you to stay in the country for a total of 90 days in a six-month period. After that you need a residence permit, usually obtained for a year at a time. If you work for an official school, they may well also sort out your residence permit along with your work permit. If not, it’s down to you to untangle the layers of bureaucracy – an achievable if painful task.

For this you’ll have to buy health insurance for the year (recommended anyway to avoid paying should you need to visit a doctor), open a Turkish bank account and transfer a certain amount of your hard-earned home currency into it – to prove that you can financially sustain yourself without the need for a work permit. It’s best to get the most up-to-date advice on this from fellow foreigners, but the Facebook group ‘Doc Martins Surgery For Expats in Turkey’ is an incredibly useful resource for such matters.

Sounds of Istanbul

Turkey is a country that has music at the heart of its culture, making Istanbul a music lovers’ paradise. Whatever you’re into, you’re likely to find it here. From hip-hop to jazz, dubstep to classical, techno to reggae; it all coexists here with an endless range of Turkish musicians keeping traditions alive and pushing boundaries with fusion sounds.

Beside the local scenes, it gets an incredible range of world class acts on the international touring circuit who play at venues such as Babylon Bomonti, Salon İKSV, Nardis Jazz Club, and Volkswagen Arena. There are also some great clubs such as İndigo, Pixie and Minimüzikhöl that stay open until the wee hours. During the warmer months, you’ll even find after-parties that begin at 5am and go through the morning. Turks love to party, and see no reason in stopping just because the sun comes up. Check Yabangee or The Guide Istanbul websites for English music listings.

Türkçe Biliyor musun? (Do you know Turkish?)

Learning Turkish might seem an unachievable dream when you first arrive, but it’s really not as hard as it sounds. Yes, it is completely different to English in terms of vocabulary, grammar and sentence structure. But, unlike English, it’s a wholly logical language that plays by its own rules, without exceptions. So once you learn a rule, you can be sure it applies every time.

It uses the Latin alphabet and is written how it sounds and vice versa. So once you pick up the pronunciation of the different letters, you’ll always be able to read a word correctly. There are a number of established Turkish language schools such as Dilmer, Tömer, and Concept Languages – for those that want to get beyond the basics. Turkish Tea Time is also a useful app and podcast series that breaks down the language in an easy to digest way.

Political Turmoil

Istanbul may have been in the news recently for all the wrong reasons, but that hasn’t dissuaded the thousands of expats that call the city home. A failed coup attempt, an increasingly authoritarian government, an alarming human rights record and a spate of tragic suicide bombings certainly don’t make Istanbul the most promising prospect right now. But plenty of expats continue to live there, relatively unaffected by the most recent goings on.

The city has form too; in the summer of 2013, the city erupted into a wave of protests over the proposed destruction of Gezi Park. These quickly escalated from an anti-corporate, environmentally-motivated peaceful protest to one united in its stance against the government. Foreigners joined the protests, despite being accused of being ‘agents’ and ‘traitors’ and we all got used to the sting of tear gas in the air. Yet, just a few months later, everything returned to normal and Gezi Park became a quite green space once more. Istanbul has a remarkably resilient ability to pick itself up and move on after tumultuous events, and its people are no different.