Living in any big city takes some adjustment and every city has its own quirks. For this post, I’m going to walk you all through some of the need-to-know life hacks about visiting or living in Istanbul.
The first thing everyone needs to know about living in Istanbul is that you CANNOT drink the tap water. Technically, it is clean and fairly safe, but if you don’t want to be indefinitely dependent on the nearest wash closet, you should stick to buying bottled water.
This was an annoying concept for me to get used to as I hate having to use so much plastic and contribute to the tremendous amount of waste produced in the city, but there is really no way to avoid it. Luckily, there are recycling programs here and you can have 5 gallon water bottles delivered to your home that you can use to refill smaller bottles.
Speaking of delivery: one of the greatest perks of Istanbul is that you can have almost anything you want delivered right to your home. Nearly every type of restaurant has a delivery program. You can have groceries and even alcohol delivered right to your door!
Now, an important note for party animals. If you plan on doing a bit of drinking during your stay, I highly recommend stocking up at duty free before leaving the airport. Since Turkey is an Islamic country, alcohol prices are very high and outside of Istanbul, it can be very hard to find a bar. Actually, during my travels around Turkey, I’ve found that there really aren’t any bars at all outside of the extremely touristy destinations.
Another important note, not very many people in Turkey, and even in Istanbul, can speak English. I’ve tried my best to learn some Turkish but I have a really hard time learning languages and Turkish is particularly difficult. However, any attempt to speak in Turkish always makes the locals happy and with some patience and a friendly smile, I’ve always been able to communicate what I want or need.
Actually, a lot of the linguistic confusion I’ve experienced has come from the people who do speak a bit of English. I once asked someone for directions on how to get to a specific area in the city and being Turkish, they were enthusiastic to help. Unfortunately, they were a little confused on the difference between right, left, before and after, so I spent the better part of the day completely lost and confused. In all, I learned that if you are asking for directions, it is best to try and ask more than one person.
Personally, I think one of the best life skills that can be learned in Istanbul is how to cross the street. It sounds a bit funny and arbitrary, but I have never seen streets that are so chaotic. I’m not sure if you all are aware but upwards of 17 million people live in Istanbul and nearly a third of them own a car. That’s more than 5 million cars driving around on any given day! The traffic here is insane, so good luck trying to get anywhere in a reasonable amount of time, especially during rush hour.
So how do you cross the street with so many cars buzzing about? Well, I must admit, it takes a bit of courage and determination. Of course, you should try to wait until there is a break in cars and you can get across at a quick pace, but sometimes you have to play a game of chicken with a taxi driver, walk out in front, and hope they stop. It all sounds a bit dangerous and maybe it is, but I have never seen anyone been hit by a car nor have I ever had a close encounter myself. So with a little bit of training, you can find a way to cross any street in Istanbul.
Now, onto walking the streets of Istanbul. Generally, the streets are very safe and while there are definitely pick pockets and purse slashers, I’ve never had any problems. Nonetheless, there are constantly people trying to scam foreigners. When walking down Istiklal Street, the hub of nightlife in the city, club promoters regularly try to lure you in by promising free drinks and special prices before ripping you off once you get inside. I had a friend tell me a story about how he had to pay to leave such a club because he hadn’t spent enough on drinks while there. So, I advise looking up some places to go out first and not giving in to the skillful smooth talkers in the streets.
Similarly, the beggars in the streets have their own ways of being deceitful. On multiple occasions I’ve seen a father out with his children, using them to play on people’s sympathy. The father, dressed in perfectly normal and clean clothes, will hide behind a corner or a car while his child, wearing dirty, tattered clothing, goes up to people begging for money. It is really one of the most despicable things I’ve witnessed here, but sadly is something that happens quite often.
I have one final note, particularly for those students who are interested in studying in Istanbul. When deciding on where to live, I highly recommend renting an apartment versus staying in a student dorm. While dorms have their perks of being conveniently located near campus, they are actually quite secluded from the rest of the city. My first semester, I stayed in an apartment-style dorm and really hated it. I had very antisocial flat mates, hardly met anyone else in the building, and was so far from where anything fun happens that I felt I wasn’t enjoying my experience to the fullest.
I now live in an apartment with three other exchange students who have become my best friends. Renting apartments in Istanbul is very easy and actually very cheap. I currently pay half of what I was paying to stay in a dorm. It takes a bit more work to set it all up but is completely worth it!
Oh and where can you find the best places to eat? My next post I’ll go over all the best foods and where to find them so stay tuned!