Istanbul, Turkey Report of what it's like to live there - 08/10/21
Personal Experiences from Istanbul, Turkey
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
Yes, although spent significant time overseas prior to this tour.
2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?
Washington DC. There are direct flights on Turkish Air from DC to Istanbul; if you're taking a U.S. airline, you have to connect in western Europe. The Turkish Air flight is by far the quickest and easiest being direct to Istanbul.
3. How long have you lived here?
4. What years did you live here?
5. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
Housing overall is beautiful, with varying plusses and minuses. For security reasons, there are no houses, only apartments, but most families live in two-story apartments with nice sized rooms and smaller balconies. For our four person family, we have a 4 bedroom apartment with 3.5 bathrooms. The apartment complexes all have nice amenities - most have some sort of gym, outdoor (and maybe indoor) pools, some have cafes, all have indoor garage parking, most have green space and playgrounds. At least one complex has a full on Turkish hammam spa on site.
Singles/kidless families live in more urban-style apartments on top of malls, metro stops, etc., so less green space and more close shopping. Some locations are better than others; a few of the complexes are within a three minute commute to the Consulate, some are 20-30 minutes. Most families live in closer-in apartment complexes, with the singles being a bit further away. The Consulate is located far north of the city center, and neighborhoods get nicer the further north you go. Most families were pretty happy with the housing. A few singles I knew did not like the apartments they were in due to location, as they were in kind of an urban island further away from "stuff". We found the kitchen to be large by international standards, and while we had sufficient closets, storage for larger items like suitcases, Christmas decorations, etc., was pretty non-existent (and GSO won't remove furniture once you have it). We made our fourth bedroom into a catch all storage unit/pantry to make up for it.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Everything is available here, which makes that part of life pretty easy. There is a Costco equivalent with a few American brands or similar Turkish ones, and the main grocery stores are very well stocked. The things you can't get are some pre-made/packaged foods, ground coffee is not great, little cheese options outside of white feta/goat cheese, no Mexican spices, few or no pork products. Feminine products are available but the quality is very poor, there is no turkey meat, and finding produce out of season is more challenging (winters can get a little repetitious produce-wise for that reason). Those particular about paper products will find typical lesser quality toilet paper and paper towels.
However, there are delicious and cheap spices, open air farmers' markets, and the more boutique (and expensive) grocery stores generally have the stuff that is harder to find (some pork, different cheese, US cookies, etc). When you do get produce it's delicious, and everything is very organic - you don't have to bleach anything, but you do have to wash a variety of bugs/slugs/sand off the produce. There is a small and inconsistent commissary that gets orders from Ankara every two months or so. You can request specific things in advance, so people put in orders for Thanksgiving turkeys and stuff like that. Overall grocery shopping was very easy. You can't drink the tap water, but we had a scheduled delivery set up for our filters.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
We shipped things in advance so we'd have them upon arrival - paper towels, tp, cleaning supplies (the Turkish ones are very smelly, as is the detergent), shampoo (see aforementioned smelliness), diapers, coffee, maple syrup, and so on. I regularly had Amazon deliveries for some things I was particular about, like gluten-free muesli, Dunkin' ground coffee, some vitamins, tampons, brownie mix, and branded cold medicine.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
There is an Uber eats like delivery app that has a wide range of food options available. Istanbul being an international city means there are way better restaurants and a much larger variety of take out than in Ankara. We ordered good Chinese/Thai, good pizza, decent kabobs, and the seafood is amazing. We found traditional Turkish food to be heavy, with a reliance on fatty meats and rice and little vegetables, which was a surprise to me (I wrongly assumed it would be Mediterranean-ish). When we went out to eat we shied away from Turkish restaurants and stuck to Italian or seafood or pizza.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
We had zero problems with bugs, and I generally did not hear of anyone seeing or having bugs. I think not being on the ground floor really helps. We saw an occasional ant on our balcony but that's it. Some mosquitos in the summer time, but nothing as bad as DC.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
The DPO was great, and Amazon deliveries usually took a few weeks but were very reliable. We used local postal facilities once when my kid left a beloved toy at a resort. We were shocked that the resort found the toy, and actually mailed it back to us and it arrived a few days later. People don't usually use the local post though.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
There is a Filipina nanny mafia, and we absolutely loved our housekeeper/nanny. She came recommended from another Consulate family. Help is generally $1000-1500 a month for full time. The nannies are generally live-out, but I heard of one or two that had live-in. She did everything: watched kids, got homework done, cleaned, did laundry, went shopping for us, and ordered our water. She spoke fluent Turkish, which was a lifesaver more than once in terms of helping us with local phone calls. There are also nannies who cobble together part time work, and I know families/singles that took that option. Some people have written contracts with their nannies, but we just spoke through agreements with her and it worked out fine. In general, people don't hire Turkish housekeepers, as we heard they were less reliable and more expensive.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
Tons of gyms everywhere, at costs pretty similar to the US (anywhere from $60 a month and up). The Consulate does not have a gym, so if you want to work out you have to join one or build your own gym. There are personal training studios, CrossFit studios, yoga and spinning classes, boutique gyms, and more general Gold's Gym types. The Turks are generally active, and on the weekends local parks are packed with hikers, runners, soccer players, and kids. The Bosporus has a very wide sidewalk running along it all the way from downtown Istanbul to way up north. I ran along the Bosporus, and there are a multitude of people using that to walk and run and workout with the workout stations along the way.
4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?
Credit cards are widely accepted, and you need a Turkish bank account to pay internet and phone. We only got cash from the Turkish ATMs using our Turkish debit cards. Overall using cards felt very safe, although cash is still widely used and accepted.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
I think so, although we never used them. It is a Muslim country, so you will hear the call to prayer depending on how close you live to a mosque.
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
This was one thing that surprised us. There is almost zero English spoken on the local economy outside of the downtown tourist areas (which we don't live or shop or work in). This made life extremely challenging the first six months. NOTHING is in English in stores, and shopkeepers, cashiers, taxi drivers, kids' school bus drivers, administrators, apartment complex guards, pretty much everyone you interact with, only speak Turkish. On top of that, in my opinion, Turks are not overly friendly, welcoming to foreigners, or helpful. They will ask you a question in Turkish and instead of trying to help you as you mime out/use Google translate, they will stare at you silently in an annoyed manner while you fumble (then call you yabanja "foreigner" in a disdainful tone).
We had some real stumbling blocks starting out here - food shopping was really tough in trying to read labels, taking my kids to the doctor was hard because none of the nurses or support staff spoke English, dealing with school administrators was tough, organizing little things like water delivery was overwhelming, etc. We eventually adjusted and learned a few basic words, but were at a real detriment for a while. I would definitely recommend taking survival Turkish before coming. It would have made a huge difference in our daily life had one of us had it.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Oh yes. Istanbul is hillier than San Francisco, and many of the sidewalks are stairs, or straight up and down slippery slides. The roads are similar. There are a few ADA compliant locations, but very very few. Getting around would be tough.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
The metro is clean, safe, and affordable, but as the Consulate is further north, getting there via public transportation (metro) is pretty difficult. Taxis are fairly available and abundant, although at peak times can be tougher/impossible to find outside of metro stops. Taxi drivers will, about 30% of the time, refuse to take you somewhere or once you're in the taxi, refuse to take you to your final destination if traffic picks up or the driver loses interest. Uber is available but very unreliable, and the chances of your car actually showing up are a straight 50/50. Negotiating the price beforehand is a smart thing to do, but see previous comment about language barriers. I often relied on my phone to show the drivers a location, but even then at times it was difficult if I wasn't going to the Consulate or a major mall. All in all though, the metro is easy to use and taking a taxi somewhere is more or less a reliable (ish) option.
2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?
We brought a mid-sized SUV and purchased a 2WD sedan locally when we got there. The roads are fairly well-paved. However, the city is extremely vertically hilly in places, and the inner neighborhood roads are about 1 to 1.5 car widths. The pavement is mixed (maybe with marble?) which makes it super slick when it rains (which it does all winter long and during the summer. The roads are slick enough that even AWD slide in the rain. Driving is pretty orderly on the main roads, especially compared to some other countries, but people generally have the whoever-is-most-aggressive-goes-first rule. Street parking is haphazard and all over the place. The parking spots are smaller, and garage parking can be difficult to squeeze cars into. Our car got dinged up but it was very cheap to repair and repaint. You see the typical overseas brands (skoda, VW, mazda, BMW) with some very very expensive cars mixed in. Most locals seem to have sedans to mid-sized SUVs.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Consulate was great about installing it before we arrived. It was pretty fast, and rarely went out. Home phone and internet were pretty cheap.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
We opted to keep our international calling with team mobile and got a local phone when we got there. Both worked equally well.
1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?
Yes, there are tons of well-fed and kept street dogs, and stray cats. We don't have pets but many Consulate families do, or adopt street dogs/cats when they arrive. Doggie day cares (with pick up services) are available, and most people with pets seemed happy with the care.
Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:
1. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Consulate is business/business casual. Turks dress more conservatively than other Western Europe countries, and about half the women are in head scarves. As a woman, I felt comfortable in skirts at my knee and tank tops, but never wore shorts (even when running outside or in the hot summer months). In the touristy areas you will see all manner of dress, from belly shirts to mini skirts to completely covered women. I felt most comfortable wearing pants that covered at least to my knees. In the resort and beach areas, however, there were plenty of bikinis and shorts.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Yes and no. There is petty crime, and there are areas of the city (further from where we live and work) that I would not want to go solo, especially as a woman. In addition, the terrorism threat is still something to consider. Finally, Istanbul is an earthquake prone area. We had a few small earthquakes when there. While the Consulate and housing is well built, many schools/day cares/other places are not, and it was a worry. A large earthquake could cause a massive security and humanitarian disaster, and has in the past. Day to day though we felt extremely safe.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Medical care, for the region, is excellent. Compared to western-level care, it ranges from adequate to terrible. Routine things are easy to take care of between the Consulate RN and local doctors, many of whom speak some level of English. Many prescriptions are over the counter and cheaper than in the US. If you stray from routine care, that is where it gets dicey. We had two minor emergencies there that involved emergency room visits. While the issues themselves should not have been life threatening, they turned life threatening quickly when the doctors and nurses were unable (in both ability and regulatory terms) to adequately address the issue. None of the nurses, triage staff, or administrators spoke English, and few of the doctors did. In one instance, my child almost died while we begged nurses, via Google translate using spotty hospital WIFI, to administer life-saving medication. An actual doctor only saw my child twice in the space of 4 days in the hospital, as most care is administered by nurses.
The situation was repeated, to a lesser degree, when we had to go into the ER for another minor issue in the middle of the night. Both of these experiences were at the private, Consulate-recommended "American" hospitals. I had other friends who had similar experiences - routine care was great, but emergencies were painful, lengthy, and complication-ridden experiences with at times long-lasting physical after-effects that had to be remedied at later dates at US medical facilities. These experiences very much moderated my opinion of the available medical care. Many people chose to give birth, get plastic surgery, and have other elective services completed in Turkey, and for the most part I think they go well; however, I would urge caution in assuming you are going to receive Western-level care and cleanliness.
3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?
Air quality is pretty decent, especially when compared to other places. The winter is not great and the air can have a burning smell as people burn material for warmth. We ran air purifiers in each room in our house and that solved any asthma/allergy issues (which multiple people in our family have). With the windows closed and air purifiers running, the interior air was great. The summer is beautiful.
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
Due to how great the grocery shopping is, it was easy to navigate food issues for our family when cooking. Eating out was more challenging, but solely because of the language issue. If I ate out with a Turkish speaker, Turkish restaurants were very willing to navigate food allergies. Gluten-free products are readily available in all grocery stores.
5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?
Not that I know of. The challenges associated with not knowing the language can get frustrating, and the abruptness of some Turks was wearing. Overall Istanbul is a fairly easy city to live in though.
6. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
We thought the weather was great, but some people get worn out by the winter. It is generally a few degrees more mild than DC, in both winter and summer. Summers are warm and get humid in August, and it's warm enough to go to the beach and pool all summer. Winters can get very dreary for some (although we love the cold rain!). It hovers around 38-42 degrees and rains sometimes for days straight. It rarely snows - maybe once a season for a dusting to a few inches, but when it does the city shuts down as the mountainous roads everywhere are basically impassable.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
The American school has two locations: one about 20 min from the Consulate that does to grade 3, and the other one that goes from kindergarten through high school that is an hour away in the morning and 1.5 in the afternoon. We opted to send our kids to one of the British schools nearby, and were happy with the education. The families who sent their kids to the far American school said the commute was very wearing on the kids and affected kids' desire and ability to do after school activities, including homework. Sitting on a bus for 2+ hours a day was not great for them, which is partly why we went with the British school.
2. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?
There are a few nice preschools, one of which we used and loved. They are expensive - for my one kid, we paid $1600 a month, and others are around $1200. I don't think the schools provide after school care; our nanny met our older child from the bus daily. The preschools had English speaking teachers , but one challenge we didn't anticipate was that my kid had a hard time making friends as none of the other kids spoke English as their native language.
3. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
Yes, although it can be very difficult to find group classes that have English instruction. We eventually found a karate class for my kids but everything else we looked at was in Turkish.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
Huge. Istanbul is a huge city, which has positives and negatives. We met some nice parents through the preschool and British school, and met other countries' consulate employees. In general we had more international friends than US friends, which was nice. Morale (pre-covid) is generally good.
2. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?
There is so much to do - language barriers aside - but if you can't find something to do here, you're not looking hard enough. The CLO has trips organized, travel within the country is cheap and easy (before COVID), and there are so many gyms, clubs, bars, restaurants, parks, etc.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
Great for families/couples . The schools were good, housing great, lots of green space, and Turks LOVE kids, so even high end restaurants will have separate kid play areas. They are very accommodating for kids. It was easy (albeit a bit wet at times) to play outside year round. Single men love it; single women had a harder time as there is definitely a sense of machismo in Turkish men. It is a large Consulate and huge city, and housing can be spread out, which does make it a bit harder at times - however, we just made friends outside the Consulate circle.
4. Is it easy to make friends with locals here? Are there any prejudices or any ethnic groups who might feel uncomfortable here?
It took a bit of time but we eventually made friends with other expats and Turks. Meeting parents via birthday parties and that type of thing was great. Turks are pretty prejudiced against Arabs, and particularly anyone who remotely looks like they're from Syria (due to the refugee situation). As said before, Turks are not generally warm or welcoming to foreigners outside the tourist areas in general interactions, but we found Turkish families one on one to be much more approachable.
5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
Seems to be, but not sure.
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Turkish men can be dismissive, inappropriate, and demeaning towards women, but not significantly enough that it impacted my quality of life as a woman. Women do work in Turkey but most higher level positions seemed to be filled by men. Arabs and women practicing certain sects of Islam would have a harder time - Turks are vocally prejudiced against them.
7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Istanbul is a beautiful city. Travel is easy and cheap inside the country, and there is so so much to do. Living there you can visit the major tourist areas on off times, which makes them much more palatable. Food is great, weather is great, shopping is great. The all inclusive resorts in Antalya are beautiful for a beachy vacation.
8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Everything. Hidden gems would be driving north towards the Black Sea and stopping for outdoor traditional Turkish breakfast on the coast.
9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Oh yes. Custom made stunning leather jackets, custom made suits for men, rugs, scarves, jewelry, handicrafts, gems, and on and on. If you like to cook, spices are fragrant, potent, and cheap. The Grand Bazaar also has some vendors that make really quality knock offs of designer coats and bags, which are a fun purchase. There are also cheap off market clothes shops, which sell great Turkish cotton kids' clothes. The Consulate hosts vendor days and you could spend tons of money at this post shopping.
10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
Food, ease of travel, shopping, great housing, lots of outdoor activities.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
How difficult life would be without Turkish, and the medical care is very much hit or miss. We were told over and over again how excellent the medical care is, without the qualifier of "for the region." Maybe that was naïve on our part, but moderating my expectation on that would have changed our calculus a bit. I would also have spent significant time learning basic Turkish so the initial months weren't so painful.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
I think so - maybe with more mental and medicinal preparation. The hospital experiences, which were traumatic, really colored our experience.
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Rugs and spices.
4. But don't forget your: