Istanbul sits at a crossroads of cultures and civilisations, an iconic Mediterranean city which bridges the continents of Europe and Asia. Originally founded as Byzantium in 657 BCE, the city blends both ancient history and progressive modernisation, making it a popular expat destination. It enjoys a storied history with periods of both Christian and Islamic influence, resulting in a melting pot of cultures, backgrounds and religions.
As with every city, there are ups and downs that come with living in Istanbul, so we've put together a list of pros and cons to moving to this Turkish city.
Lifestyle in Istanbul
+ PRO: Rich in history
Because of its prime strategic position along the Bosporus River, Istanbul has been a hub of trade and industry throughout the centuries. Serving as the seat of power both for the Eastern Roman Empire and later the Ottoman Empire, history and culture pervade its buildings and peoples. Expats will marvel at the epic glory of the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque, and be entranced by the magic of the Basilica Cistern. The Hippodrome of Constantinople harks back to ancient times, while the medieval stone Galata Tower in the old quarter dominates the skyline.
+ PRO: Fun in the sun
Expats who aren’t particularly fussed about history will be happy to know that there are plenty of other attractions that make Istanbul special. Among the most popular of these are the famed Bosporus cruises and yacht expeditions, a few of which travel far up the river to the Black Sea. The Princes’ Islands, a quick ferry ride away, is the perfect antidote for those tired of the hustle and bustle, with horses and bicycles the only permitted ways to get around these quiet and relaxed islands.
- CON: A few culture shocks
There are a number of culture shocks in Istanbul to be aware of. Firstly, expats should know that English is not widespread so it might be wise to brush up on a few basic Turkish phrases. The city has a more relaxed approach to timekeeping, and things tend to be less organised. Locals can be extremely friendly and engaging, to the point where some Westerners might see it as intrusive. Lastly, expats should be prepared to encounter squat toilets. While the Western-style toilet is pretty much everywhere, there are instances where this might not be the case.
Safety in Istanbul
+ PRO: Safe and welcoming of foreigners
Despite being an extremely busy and loud city, Istanbul is surprisingly safe. While expats should take all the precautions that normally come with living in a new and strange place, such as staying vigilant of pickpockets and using common sense by not walking down dark alleys after dark, they should be alright. That said, Turkey’s shared border with Syria may be worrisome to some. However, locals are still extremely welcoming to foreigners, and there is even a police tourism unit.
Cost of living in Istanbul
+ PRO: Quality of life isn’t detrimental on the wallet
It’s easy, and quite affordable, to enjoy a high quality of life in Istanbul, due to its relatively low cost of living. Supermarkets are good places to do grocery shopping, but expats in Istanbul will no doubt enjoy the quality ingredients and products found in the city’s famous covered markets, such as the Grand Bazaar. Restaurants and cafes in the low to middle tiers are relatively cheap and great value for money.
+ Pro: The choice is yours
Generally, accommodation is only slightly more expensive on the European side of town than on the Asian side across the river. Apartments with two or more rooms are available with good facilities and utilities. Household costs are pleasantly affordable in regular Turkish neighbourhoods, while it’s far more expensive staying in expat compounds.
- CON: Paying for your sins
Because of high taxes, alcohol and cigarettes are quite expensive. Electronic goods are also on the pricey side, so expats should try to make sure they bring along whatever they may need.
Working in Istanbul
- CON: Challenging job market
Working in Istanbul as an expat can be quite challenging. While the city is the centre of international relations and employment in Turkey, the state restricts the hiring of foreigners in various fields. Legal, medicinal, veterinary, pharmaceutical and mining opportunities are not available to international workers, but there is a demand for teaching English as a foreign language, as well as English speakers in the tourism sector.
Education in Istanbul
+ PRO: Lots of international schools
There are numerous international schools in Istanbul so expat families will enjoy a healthy choice. Most follow either the International Baccalaureate programme or the Council of International Schools system. Languages of instruction include English, French, Turkish and Russian.
- CON: Cost of private tuition
Tuition at these international institutions is predictably exorbitant. Turkish state schools, on the other hand, are free and allow kids to mix with and befriend local children.
Getting around in Istanbul
+ PRO: Good public transport
Public transport in Istanbul is pretty efficient and affordable. An Istanbulkart allows fare payment on services such as buses, ferries and trains.
+ PRO: Location, location, location
Istanbul sits on prime real estate when it comes to air travel. Situated on the doorstep of three continents, the city is but a quick hop from a vast array of destinations in Europe, Asia and Africa.
- CON: Terrible traffic
Traffic in Istanbul has been rated as among the worst in the world. Expats averse to using public transport can use taxis but, as in many major cities all over the world, drivers will often try to shortchange foreigners. BiTaksi is a useful ridesharing app, with payment by card available, while Uber also operates in the city.
Weather in Istanbul
+ PRO: Something for everyone
Istanbul has distinct seasons, so expats won’t have to worry about prolonged periods of hot or cold weather. But the city is perhaps most enjoyable in spring and summer. This also means its numerous historical attractions and museums are enjoyable come rain or shine.
► For an overview of life in the city read Moving to Istanbul
►To learn more about the country as a whole see Moving to Turkey
"Turkey is undergoing a difficult time economically and a lot of Turkish university graduates are unemployed. It’s not a good idea to come over expecting to find a job immediately so unless you have a solid job offer, make sure you have enough money to support yourself for a few months. Additionally, the types of jobs foreigners can legally do is restricted. Expats not employed by international companies usually work as English teachers and the good schools require their teachers to have proper qualifications and experience." Learn more about Lisa, an Australian expat, and how she's experienced life in Istanbul.
Are you an expat living in Istanbul?
Expat Arrivals is looking for locals to contribute to this guide, and answer forum questions from others planning their move to Istanbul. Please contact us if you'd like to contribute.
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