As a city that spans two continents and has more than 14 million residents, Istanbul offers so much variety that, residents say, you can always find a spot fit for your mood. “You can walk from the most vibrant party scene to a completely different laid-back, serene atmosphere,” said Huma Gruaz, founder and CEO of Alpaytac Marketing Communications and Public Relations Agency, who was born and raised in Istanbul and now represents the Turkish Embassy in the US.
Take the neighbourhood of Kurucesme, located 10km north of the city centre. It is the place to go for a hopping party scene along theBosphorus, the strait that separates the city and continents – yet, Gruaz said, walk 100m north from Reina, one of the city’s most popular nightclubs, and you can be at Mavi Balik, a tranquil restaurant serving up fresh seafood and views of the Asian continent.
Locals also are known for their warm hospitality, making Istanbul a welcoming destination for newcomers and natives alike. It is a tradition for shop owners, for example, to start conversations with customers over a glass of tea. And that tea often leads to friendship. “From that point on, every time you walk past that part of the market, you'll be remembered and invited to come in and share another glass of chai with the same shop owner,” said Karin Hazelkorn, an American management consultant who lived in Istanbul for more than a year and considers the city her favourite in the world. “Even times when I've been away from Istanbul for three or four years, I will be instantly remembered when I stop by again.”
Where do you want to live?
The first decision for anyone considering a move to Istanbul is whether to live on the European or Asian side. While the European side has a more frenetic, business-like pace, focused around the banks, stores and corporations based there, the Asian side (also called the Anatolian side) feels more relaxed, with wide boulevards and much of the activity focused around the waterfront. The Anatolian side also feels more residential, with more traditional neighbourhood living and fewer hotels and tourist attractions.
Locals say that Nisantasi, on the northern, European side, can provide the best of both worlds. “It feels a bit like [New York City’s] SoHo, with a W hotel and high-end fashion boutiques, but you can still find the old ‘Stamboul’ men wheeling cars selling ayran [a frothy yogurt drink] and cobblers repairing a worn heel,” Hazelkorn said. (Stamboul is a historic, Arabic name for the city.)
On the Asian side, Kalamis is a favourite for its beautiful marina sunsets, not to mention its close proximity to downtown Kadiköy, the cosmopolitan, waterside district in the southwest, and Fenerbahce Stadium, where diehard football fans gather for games.
Neighbourhoods get calmer and more exclusive the further down the Bosphorus and closer towards the Black Sea you go. Expats say they enjoy Bebek, Emirgan and Tarabya for their magnificent views of the strait. Americans often live in Gokturk, 30km north of the city near the Belgrad Forest. “Mid- and upperclass families choose to live in this area because it’s relatively safe and has an excellent school system,” said Huma. The area also feels quite American, with popular chains like Starbucks and Le Pain Quotidien.
What do you want to live in?
Istanbul has housing options in every shape and size. Because family plays such an important role in Turkish culture, it’s relatively easy to find two- or three-storey single family homes. “Whole families may choose to live together, even when their children are grown and married,” said Samir Bayraktar, the CEO of NAR Gourmet based in Istanbul. “In these types of houses, there are sections within the house which can be used by different generations.”
Those looking for something with historic flair can look into the mansions dotting neighbourhoods such as Caddebostan, the summer resort area that was built on the Marmara Sea in the 1800s, before the city grew up around it. The homes, mostly occupied by wealthy families, reflect 19th-century, French-influenced Ottoman architecture and are usually decorated with antique furniture and Ottoman divans.
Meanwhile, a Turkish real estate boom has lead to an influx of high-rise apartments built within the last decade, all across the city. These apartments and condos tend to lean toward a more modern style, with contemporary exteriors and clean-lined furnishings.
Where can you travel?
Because Istanbul has such a large geographical footprint, covering more than 5,300sqkm, residents say that some of the best opportunities for exploration are right in the city.
Though crowded with tourists, for example, the neighbourhood of Sultanahmet remains a popular place for locals looking to connect with Old Istanbul. Originally built as a Christian basilica by the Roman Emperor Justinian I in the 6th Century, the Hagia Sophia was converted to a mosque after Istanbul’s 1453 invasion by the Ottomans. Today it is a museum. The Blue Mosque, known for its interior blue tiles, is still a working mosque; its impressive architecture includes six towering minarets and nine domes. The Four Seasons Sultanahmet, housed in a neoclassical prison from the early 1900s, continues to be a sanctuary for visitors and locals alike, drawing both with the restaurant and terrace within the hotel’s meditative courtyard.
Away from the congestion of the city, Princes’ Islands can be reached by ferry from the southern coast. Motorised vehicles are banned, so transportation is by horse and cart. Many locals have summer homes here, drawn by the beaches and tranquillity.
The rest of Turkey is worth exploring, too. To connect with the outdoors, locals often head to the seaside villages and mountain outposts along the Black Sea, where the mountains are heavily forested and hiking and rafting are favourite sports. Cappadocia, in the central highlands, has some of the world’s most bizarre landscapes, with its natural stone chimneys sculpted by residents into cave dwellings and rock-cut churches.
Many European cities can be reached in under four hours by plane (Parisis a three-and-a-half-hour flight, Rome two and a half, and Athens 90 minutes), with tickets anywhere from 630 to 850 Turkish lira.
How much does it cost?
In cost-of-living rankings, Istanbul usually comes in at the midpoint; it was listed as the 79th-priciest metropolis out of 214 in the 2013 Mercer Cost of Living Study. But residents find the city is an expensive one, with restaurant prices and other living expenses comparable to European capitals such as Rome, Paris or Berlin. In an expensive area like Taksim (a popular area for nightlife and shopping on the European side), expect to pay about 2,600 Turkish lira for an 85sqm space, the resource site Expatistan.com reports. That said, the more suburban the neighbourhood, the more affordable and larger the housing gets.
Cost aside, it is a city that leaves its mark on all who live there. “Istanbul has a magnetic allure to it,” Gruaz said. “I have lived in the US for more than 20 years, but I still say Istanbul when people ask me where I am from. The city just becomes a part of you – whether you live there or not.”