In January 2017 I got myself a job on the great İstiklal Avenue of Istanbul, and moved to Turkey’s former capital. The job, I was not too keen on in the end – but the city is very special. I am not sure that with 6 months of living there I can quite give an off-the-beaten-path, live-like-a-local, insider’s perspective on the metropolis… but since this is a place I have visited many times before, and will visit many times to come, I think I can round up some sound advice for you!
Finding a place to live
If you have a family and a fancy company and a fancy salary, this does not apply; but otherwise, read on. I found my first apartment through my personal network (ask a friend in Istanbul if they know anyone renting out a room), and the second via some Facebook pages. Whether you are a student or not, join a couple of groups with ‘Erasmus’ and ‘flats’ and ‘Istanbul’ in the name. Rooms are advertised almost hourly. Of course half of them are dodgy and if you get a bad feeling about it then just do not bother – but a load of them are legit as well.
It is possible to find something as cheap as 200 EUR per month, but this will probably be on a side of Istanbul nowhere near the centre (assuming that is where you like to be). In the centre prices can definitely also go up to about 600 EUR per month however. I ended up paying between 280 and 350 EUR per month for my various apartments, all within 30 mins of Taksim square. The first being on the low end of my budget and the second on the high end; but that one actually had a view over the Bosphorus which is worth infinite money really. Oooh the sunrises! Bills are all very affordable as well; gas is meant to be expensive, but I was never hit over the head with anything I thought was ridiculous, even in winter.
Public transport in Istanbul is just fantastic. There is a tram / metro line from Atatürk airport through the centre. You buy an ‘IstanbulCard’ and then top it up occasionally. I probably spent around 20 TL (5 EUR) a week on it; one ride costs 1.60 TL (at the time of writing) and if you switch trams it will charge a lower rate. This also works on a lot of busses and the ferry. It is super convenient, and trams (but also busses and ferries) depart frequently. I love it. From and to Sabiha airport you have to take an airport bus, but this is fine too – it costs about 15 TL (3 or 4 EUR) and also departs frequently. Then there is the dolmuş; a little mini bus. For example, there is no tram between Beşiktaş and Taksim, so you can take one of these for 2.5 TL (0.5 EUR). These are great, and likewise frequent; however, you kind of need to know where they leave from and where they arrive. It is usually not quite in the centre of wherever you want to be, but around the corner. Just ask someone! Taxis are affordable as well, but drivers are not always reliable. They are easiest to use if you speak 10 words of Turkish (to sound confident, not because they do not speak English!) and know exactly where you are going and how to get there.
Istanbul has a bunch of large supermarkets that cater to foreign tastes. Most neighbourhoods will have a Carrefour, or something similar. However, you will also find the cheaper and Turkish-er Şok dotted around the place. I recommend that you just go in without expectations, and see what looks cheap. For example, I usually eat bananas (muz) with my breakfast, but for reasons I cannot work out, they cost double or triple what all other fruits cost. On the other hand, green peppers (biber) are basically used in every standard Turkish meal. Do not try to buy French cheeses. But do buy delicious Turkish yoghurt. Get into eating rice and lentils! But pasta is fine too. I even managed to make a nice creamy sauce with broccoli once a week (whereas in Erbil, where I am now, I can buy neither cream not broccoli). For lunch, pick up some ready-made çiğ köfte (little vegetarian lentil ‘meatballs’). Fresh milk is not really a very popular thing in Turkey, so get used to tea the Turkish way (as opposed to British). I spent around 60 TL (15 EUR) per week on my shopping, getting everything I felt like getting except for European cheese. I am pretty happy with that!
Odds are that next door to the Şok there are also a baker, butcher and vegetable stall. My vegetable man was not actually cheaper than the Şok but he was super friendly and his tomatoes were definitely tastier! Plus, the staff at Şok were always keen to practice their English with me, whereas I prefer to practice my Turkish with Mr Vegetable Man!
If you go out in Sultanahmet or Beyoğlu you will probably pay the same for food as in Western Europe. Most mid-range places you will end up spending 10-15 EUR on your meal and drink. Oh btw note that alcohol is very expensive in Turkey. Better to drink at home haha. (And even then, it is still expensive.) Some of my favourite places are:
Tria Elegance in Sultanahmet
Ask for the rooftop terrace or do not bother going! (Go arouuuund the building (past a bakery) and then into the hotel reception.) The view is fantastic, the mezze are delicious, and the staff is some of the friendliest in Istanbul.
Sırevi, also in Sultanahmet
If you need to choose one among the hundreds of expensive touristy places, go with this one. They have a good range or vegetarian options and also, if you pick your night right, occasional live music.
Atlas, off İstiklal in Beyoğlu
A little bit hidden, and thus more quiet! This has some interesting archaeology in the floor, and again some less-Turkish options such as a good avocado salad, and pizzas.
Helvetia and Galata Kitchen, off İstiklal around Galata
Both have very good vegetarian options. You just go up to the counter and pick a couple, and they make a plate for you. At Galata Kitchen, ask for two half portions; they will also bring bread and water and for 12 TL you will have a really decent lunch! (Whole portions and meat both cost a lot more!). I am mentioning the two of these together because they are both very small, but very similar; so if one is full, then check the other!
My preference is actually falafel from Falafelköy anyway. It is this tiny place just off İstiklal run by Syrians, and a wrap costs only 6 TL : ) Perfect for lunch! Or if you are hungry, 2 for 12 TL is not going to break the bank is it. If you go there, tell them I say hi!
However, my favourite thing ever is Turkish breakfast. I love it so much I taught myself how to make it. I actually wrote out a list of my favourite places in Istanbul for someone the other day, so let me copy that here!
Van Kahvaltı in Cihangir, Beyoğlu
A huge breakfast with a dozen plates of vegetables, cheese, delicious cream and honey and various other delicacies. Do not forget to order some menemen (scrambled eggs) and fresh orange juice! For only 30 TL (less than 10 EUR).
Privato in Galata, Beyoğlu
A bit more pricey at 40 TL, but with unique Turkish ‘village’ dishes, including various types of pancakes. Plus, this little place looks very attractive, if you are an instagrammer!
Naga Putrika in Moda, Kadıköy
If you are visiting the European side of Istanbul then this is somewhat of an expedition (c. 1 hour) but it is worth it! Here you can choose between several regional breakfasts, including Anatolian and Kurdish.
Bonus: the entire Beşiktaş ‘breakfast street’ (head toward Sinanpaşa Mah. and have a wander)
Things to do
Besides visiting the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia and obviously the Archaeological Museum there are a dozen more things every tourist in Istanbul should do; and yeah just because they do it, does not mean that you, as a newly knowledgeable local, should not do it! I mean I really love the Grand Bazaar. It is my favourite in the world (followed closely by the old bazaars of Damascus and Aleppo…). Here are some things I like to do in Istanbul:
Fatih market in… Fatih
This is specifically a Wednesday (morning) market, so do not miss it! The streets will be filled with all varieties of affordable undergarments you ever wanted to buy. And stop by a Syrian bakery whilst you are there please! I have been hunting for my favourite biscuits (barazek) for months and apparently this is the only area where you can get them.
Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı, across from the Tophane tram stop
Mmm do you really want to treat yourself? : D This is my favourite hamam: its rehabilitation won the Europa Nostra Award for cultural heritage last year. Pro tip: Book an early slot, so you can hang out and drink cool drinks for hours after your bath!
The Prince’s Islands
Visiting these is really not as complicated as it looks! Either walk up to the ferry dock at Eminönü (left-hand side, if you are coming from the Grand Bazaar), or take a ferry to Kadıköy and look for signs that say ‘Adalar’. The journey will take between 1 and 1.5 hours. If you manage to take a cheap ferry from Eminönü you can even use your IstanbulCard fyi! Büyükada is the biggest and most popular island. Avoid it if you hate crowds of (albeit local) tourists; but go there for bigger attractions, such as hiking up a mountain and visiting the St. George monastery! Heybeliada, the second biggest island, has excellent private beaches, if you happen to visit on a beautiful day. And then the smaller islands, Kınalıada and Burgazada, they are known for their specific Armenian and Greek communities. Maybe you can even visit both of those in one day. There you are, several weekends worth of activities!
Wow, this was a lot, wasn’t it? I could keep writing for another couple of days. Maybe I will do a follow-up blog post on living in Istanbul! Are there any questions you need answered?