Living in Istanbul: Advice from a Local

Dr. Jessie Voigts's picture

I just returned from a trip to a place that I can't seem to let go of, and ALL THINGS TURKEY are calling to me. This is when I reached out to one of our Wandering Educators, Emily Johnson, who lives in Istanbul (lucky!) for some Istanbul goodness. Even more luck: Emily's our new Istanbul Editor, and will share more as time unwinds (yay!).

Emily notes:

I'm an American expat living in Istanbul, Turkey. I teach English at a private university which I commute to intercontinentally by ferry. A commute which is probably the calmest part of my day, where I am able to stare out at the majestic panorama of Ayasofya and all of her historic surroundings. It's the part of my day which gives me a chance to remember why I moved to this chaotic, often very stressful city. I'm an observer, and Istanbul - Turkey - and the complex region as a whole, gives me an amazing opportunity to do just that. 

See? We need her! I asked her for top tips on living in Istanbul...and here's what she said...

Please tell us about living in Istanbul - what led you there?

I moved to Turkey on a bit of a whim – in search of some much needed reprieve after completing my graduate studies in Poland. I originally moved to Antalya, a picturesque Mediterranean town in the south of Turkey, but decided Istanbul was more my pace. Four years later, I am a bit shocked to say, Istanbul is my home. I came for many things: for a job, for love, for the magical history which is ever-present and the incredibly complex political and cultural environment of the region. I suppose the things which led me to Istanbul are the things that are also still keeping me here.




What surprised you most about living in Istanbul - and is there anything that continues to surprise you?

Hmmm, having not really been prepared, I suppose a lot of things were pretty surprising. 

Something that really stood out was the amazing trust people have that others won't steal from them. For example, on an average day you will see: fresh produce waiting outside closed restaurants in the morning hours, flowers from flower stalls left barely covered and unattended during the nighttime hours, minibus drivers with money kept out in plain sight, not even in drawers. The list goes on, but generally, all these things are left untouched. Despite their being tremendous poverty in this city of near 20 million, there remains remarkably little crime. Of course it exists, but on a  pretty small scale, considering the size of the city.

The diversity of the neighborhoods was also a real surprise.  Every neighborhood is like its own little world and  the people and atmosphere can vary astoundingly. One neighborhood can be very religious and conservative, while a neighborhood five minutes away can be the epicenter of liberal, secular, night clubbing, drunken mayhem - and it somehow all works. You can have a very poor neighborhood right next to a street laden with Ferrari and Lamborghini  drivers. It's a little bizarre.

I could really go on forever with this one – the mad expansion of the city, the incredible treatment of the copious amount of street animals, the food, the attitudes, the list is vast but will have to be saved to share in a broader realm at a later date. 

Bosphorus Bridge sunset.

Bosphorus Bridge sunset


What cultural aspects of living in Istanbul arise for you?

Wow, again, there are many. I suppose the most obvious would be the call to prayer or the Ezane five times a day. However, it’s something that you get used to so quickly and just becomes another noise in the city - even at 5am  - you just learn to sleep through it.

One thing that is harder to get used to, however, is the consistent lateness. And this goes for everyone, from students to business men. You just have to learn to take it in stride  - everyone always runs late. They blame it on the city; with its insane traffic and unpredictable public transport problems – but one thing that is NEVER unpredictable in this city is there is ALWAYS traffic, so I never know why people can't just factor that in to their planning. Coming from a culture that holds punctuality right up there with the ten commandments, it takes some getting used to.

Blue Mosque.

Blue Mosque


How does living in Istanbul affect your identity as a global citizen? 

Living in Istanbul has definitely changed me. I have found that many others, as well as myself have developed a real love/hate relationship with this city. We pine for a chance to get out of the madness of the city but we always come back – and often find ourselves somehow missing the chaos of this mass metropolis.

Maiden Tower, sunset.

Maiden Tower, sunset


Getaways from the big city - where are your favorite places to visit?

One of the best parts of living in İstanbul is being able to easily escape it. There are so many great places to go and relax away from the buzz of the big city. The closest way to get out of the city is the Islands (Adalar), about 45 minutes by ferry from the city and into the Marmara Sea. Also close are Ağva and Şile, two great Black Sea coastal towns about 1.5 hours out and are charming, quiet, and very relaxing. You can stay in a small hotel or camp on the beach. They are relatively cheap and a great escape from the city. The Marmara coast also supplies a lot of really cute towns for a weekend getaway.

My favorite however, would have to be Bodrum in particular, and the Aegean coast in general.  (More on those later).

Adalar Islands

Adalar Islands (above and below)

Adalar Islands


What tips do you have for easing into a life well-lived in Istanbul?

Relax. Breathe. Connect with people that have lived here for awhile and have them hold your hand through the integration process. It’s a big, intense city and there are a lot of things that can catch a newbie off guard. While there are many amazing things to experience here, there are always the negative sides to any place and Istanbul definitely has its share. 

at a fountain in the middle of Üsküdar.

at a fountain in the middle of Üsküdar


Is there anything else you'd like to share with us?

Explore! Don't panic. Enjoy Istanbul for the chaos and calm that it manages to somehow balance and don't be afraid to let it change you. And remember, the best way to keep your sanity, is to take as many trips out of the city as possible.

çay and nagile, Istanbul.

çay and nagile





All photos courtesy and copyright Emily Johnson