Deciding where to live in Istanbul is an important choice. There are a lot of things to take into consideration, such as the commute time between your home and your university, areas compatible with your daily routine, and what kind of experience you expect to have while in Istanbul. Istanbul’s neighborhoods are diverse and vary not only in terms of their history but also their day to day pace of modern life. Therefore it’s recommended that you actually walk through a few neighborhoods in order to help decide which area is suitable for you.
Istanbul is Turkey’s largest city or ‘il’. ‘İl’ can be divided further into districts called ‘ilçe’ and then an ‘ilçe’ can be divided into neighborhoods called ‘semt’. Istanbul is an ‘il’, and its various districts Beşiktaş, Beyoğlu and Kadıköy are ‘ilçe’. Examples of a ‘semt’ in Istanbul would be Cihangir, Nişantaşı, Galatasaray or Etiler. Sometimes the names of an ‘ilçe’ and ‘semt’ can overlap, like in Beşiktaş or Kadıköy.
Istanbul is no doubt an expensive expat destination and it shows especially with the prices of an average apartment’s rent. Before you even start looking, it should be noted that rents can range tremendously depending on location, type of accommodation, and the extent of any kind of view or outdoor space. Houses and apartments with a view of the Bosphorus are always more expensive. Istanbul has many furnished accommodation options, which cost more than unfurnished ones. The most common ways of finding a room are through real estate agents (‘Emlakçı’ in Turkish), newspapers, and online rental sites (Hürriyet Emlak, Sahibinden, Facebook and Craiglist). Be aware that like any other big cities in the world, you might come across people or agencies that may not be fully trustworthy. If at all possible the best option is visiting the accommodation that you have discussed over the phone or online. Never sign for an agreement or contract if it’s not in a language you understand. Don’t forget that many people earn their living renting flats to exchange students and the prices they offer are always higher than normal.
The center of the Asian side, Kadıköy, is located along the Sea of Marmara and faces the historic peninsula on the European side. It has been one of the fastest growing districts in Istanbul for the past 25 years and has great shops, markets, and entertainment which make it so popular. However Kadıköy is still much more peaceful and tranquil if we compare it to the chaotic European side. Like Taksim, Kadıköy is overflowing with hundreds of restaurants and bars. The only difference is that after 2am only a few groceries and bakeries are open. In other words Kadıköy usually goes to sleep at night. Here, retirees live with young people in harmony. Kadıköy is a middle class neighborhood and has a more local feel. It is definitely less expensive than the European side. As an added bonus, it’s a transportation hub which means it’s quite easy and cheap to get to other parts of the city. Reaching the European side takes around 20 minutes by ferry. The low apartment rents make Kadıköy the best neighborhood for students. Moda, just to the south of Kadıköy, is more expensive than central Kadıköy because it’s close to the action but far enough on the outskirts to remain quiet and relaxed. While not overpowering, Moda has a bit of an artsy vibe as well. Retirees usually live here so it’s not really a student area. Even a little noise can cause a big problem here. The seaside in Moda is a refuge for locals with large rocks where you can sit, drink your beer, and gaze upon the Sea of Marmara.
Bağdat Avenue is located in Kadıköy, on the Asian side of Istanbul. The street is approximately 14km long. Bağdat Avenue begins in Bostancı and extends to Göztepe. The avenue is considered to be one of the best shopping streets in the world, like Hooftstraat or Ginza streets. If you walk along the avenue you will see numerous luxurious cafes, pubs, restaurants serving international and local cuisine, luxury car dealers, shopping malls, department stores, fashion garment stores and elegant shops offering world famous brands. This area is always alive. All the stores are open every day of the week. The area surrounding Bağdat Avenue is an upper-class residential area however it’s still cheaper than some comparable neighborhoods on the European side. It’s also cheaper than central Kadıköy, Moda or Bahariye Avenue. It takes 20 minutes to reach the center of Kadıköy by dolmuş. It’s not difficult to go to Taksim or Beşiktaş either. If it’s not rush hour, you can reach Taksim in 30-40 minutes by dolmuş.
Tarlabaşı is like the unwanted child of Beyoğlu district. If you mention that you live in Tarlabaşı, locals will look at you, crinkle their nose, think for a short moment, and then want to know if you’re nuts or what. Tarlabaşı is considered to be the “bad part of town” and is five-minute walk from Istıklal Avenue. It’s originally a Greek and Armenian neighborhood but today it has become more diversified and includes different ethnic and social groups. There are Kurds, Turks, Romans, transsexuals, sex workers, drug dealers and (sometimes illegal) foreign migrants. It’s the dirtiest, most rundown and cheapest neighborhood but it’s also within walking distance of Istiklal Avenue and all of the Galata hotspots. Generally, it is home to poor and conservative but family-oriented environment people. The neighborhood has become safer recently however it is still not for everyone. For example, it is dangerous for a single woman to live here due to the uncomfortable level of attention/harassment she would receive from the local guys. But there are changes on the way. The urban renewal program is demolishing several blocks and replacing them with upscale apartments and shopping centers. For now Tarlabaşı still feels like another world but soon it will lose all of its remaining characteristic features.
Beşiktaş is a lively, diverse, centrally located neighborhood which is populated by both students and middle class families. It’s located on the European side close to several Bosphorus neighborhoods such as Bebek, Arnavutköy, and Ortaköy as well as Nişantaşı and Beyoğlu. It has great access to public transportation. You can easily take a trip to the Asian side via ferries (Üsküdar & Kadıköy) and get around on the European side by buses, mini-buses or dolmuş. With its weekly market, shops, cafes, restaurants, and bars, this modern Turkish neighborhood is a very happening place. The most charming features of the neighborhood are its new and low-priced apartments. It’s a very safe area to live. The worst aspect of this neighborhood is, sadly, the traffic jams. During rush hour taking a bus to Taksim will take a very long time whereas after 2am it only takes 5 minutes. But keep in mind, nowadays traffic is a problem all over Istanbul.
When you travel to Istanbul, you usually hear about the historical peninsula and Beyoğlu which are two major areas in the city. At the mouth of the Golden Horn between these two neighborhoods, Karaköy is one of the oldest and most historic neighborhoods. Today it has become an important transportation hub but also offers shops, cafes, restaurants, art galleries and boutique hotels. All these modern additions are juxtaposed with a number of monumental Ottoman constructions. This highlights Karaköy as a historical, yet modern neighborhood. It currently has just the right mix of tourism and local culture. Both tourists and locals use this place as a favorite hangout. The area is great for shopping at local boutiques. You may find creations by Turkish designers or come across little hipster boutiques. Several art galleries have also appeared in recent years, leading to a vibrant art scene. In Galata, you’re always close to Istanbul’s nightlife in nearby Şişhane, Asmalımescit, Tünel, and the greater İstiklal Avenue. There are no big supermarkets in the neighborhood. Instead, there are small markets that offer a variety of foreigner-friendly products. On a final note, Karaköy is quite hilly but expats, students, and locals still flock here for many reasons.
Mecidiyeköy is where you find the everyday life of Istanbul’s business population. Its streets are dominated by large skyscrapers, modern shopping malls and apartment blocks. Worse than that fact that the neighborhood is a concrete jungle, are the traffic jams which drive people crazy. Moreover it’s always crowded and very noisy. Mecidiyeköy is considered to be a “Second Manhattan” of Istanbul with almost 50 skyscrapers, following Maslak. Europe’s largest shopping mall, Cevahir Istanbul, is located here. There are also many others shopping malls. The best thing about Mecidiyeköy is its central location and its proximity to all the major transport links Istanbul can offer such as metro, metrobus, bus, and dolmuş lines. They all make transportation connections excellent. For example getting from Mecidiyeköy to Taksim takes 15 minutes at most by metro. Going from Mecidiyeköy to Kadıköy takes a maximum of 20 minutes by metrobus. That’s the reason people endure living here…
Fener – Balat
These neighborhoods are poor but rich in history. Balat and Fener hold many rewards for its residents are visitors. Situated along the south side of the Golden Horn with amazing views and places for entertainment, the area was historically a melting pot of Jews, Greeks, Armenians and Muslims. When you enter the Balat- Fener region you’ll notice that the roads gradually turn into a narrow labyrinth, the slopes gets steeper, and the chance of losing your way gets higher and higher. Meanwhile you’re surrounded by colorful old houses, often with laundry lines hanging above, and children playing soccer on the narrow streets. It give you a different feeling that you can’t quite find in any other neighborhood. As you walk through the streets you will pass mosques, churches and synagogues, presenting Ottoman culture. You might be interested to know that St George’s Church, headquarters of the Patriarchate of Constantinople and unofficial headquarters for Eastern Orthodox Christianity, is in Fener. It’s very close to Ahrida Synagogue in Balat. Historically, Fener was Greek and Balat was Jewish. The multiethnic character of both Balat and its neighbor Fener was lost during the 20th century. The colorful Ottoman houses were ruined. The neighborhoods have long been some of Istanbul’s poorest ones. After the areas were added to the UNESCO World Heritage List, a program was developed with the European Union which has since restored nearly 100 old houses and shops in Fener and Balat. The region is now preferred by artists, designers, journalists, foreigners, historians, Turkophiles, and of course its old residents who are poor but family-oriented. There aren’t many tourists to speak of and the streets are quiet. Fener-Balat is considered to be the center of Istanbul in terms of transport and location. It is 10 minutes away from Taksim or Eminönü by bus. There are also ferries from Fener port to Üsküdar. One very charming feature is its low rent prices. It’s very close to Kadir Has University and convenient for Bilgi University students because of its location between Taksim and Eyüp.
Eminönü is the true heart of Istanbul. It’s always busy and crowded because it is the main historic portion of the city, containing most of the tourist attractions. Landmarks, mosques, churches, ancient ruins are at every corner of this neighborhood. It’s like a big open air museum. Some of the main attractions include the Grand Bazaar, Hagia Sophia, and the Blue Mosque. In order to live here, you have put up with the daily tourists, noise, and countless souvenir shops. There’s not much to do at night. Since it’s such a touristy area, the shops and restaurants are expensive. The houses aren’t cheap either. Not many “real” Istanbulites live in this area though. The best advantage of living here is that you can easily and quickly travel to any part of the city.
Cihangir is one of the most popular districts for the foreigners and Turks in their 20s. Quiet and residential, Cihangir has attracted some of Istanbul’s most well-known artists. Many famous opera stars, novelists, painters all call Cihangir home. The area is always home to an interesting mix of crowds in its local restaurants and bars. The bustling social scene, the great atmosphere and its proximity to Taksim Square are the best aspects of Cihangir. The streets are steep and the buildings are average however you need a good amount of luck to find a reasonable deal on an apartment.
Kurtuluş is a little-known neighborhood just around the corner from Taksim. Originally, it was one of the oldest settlements developed beyond the city walls in Ottoman Istanbul. Its name was Tatavla until the big fire in 1929 and had its own annual carnival. Today, the Greeks are all but gone though there’s still considerable Armenian population. Asian, African, and Arab immigrants are commonly seen in Kurtuluş, making the neighborhood a little more diverse. It’s not as popular as Cihangir, but Kurtuluş is a practical place to live. The backstreets are relatively safe at night. The main street Kurtuluş Caddesi and Ergenekon Caddesi have a good range of retailers for your weekly shopping trips. Rent isn’t cheap, but it’s not as expensive as other central areas either.
Bakırköy is on the coastline of the Sea of Marmara. It was one of the first neighborhoods was outside the city walls in Ottoman Istanbul. Today it is a middle class neighborhood close to Atatürk International Airport. It was home to Greek and Armenian populations and famous for its large houses. Nowadays there is little left but a few churches and Greek or Armenian schools that are still functioning. But the history is not what makes this district so charming. Bakırköy is home to a number of large shopping malls and business centers. The seafront is a great place to stroll and drink çay. The area seems far away from other popular areas but looks can be deceiving. You can reach Taksim in 25 minutes by dolmuş, Kadiköy in 25 minutes by ferry or 30 minutes by metrobus, and Sultanahmet in 25 minutes by train.
Üsküdar is a charming district on Istanbul’s Asian side. It’s a large and densely populated district bordered by Beykoz, Ataşehir, Kadıköy, and Ümraniye. It feels somewhat more authentic and thanks to its history the area has something of an exotic air to it. Modern complexes don’t exist in the center of Üsküdar; they’re off in the surrounding areas like Acıbadem or Kosuyolu. By taking a short walk to Üsküdar center, you can find a plethora of local markets and restaurants. Üsküdar is known for being on the conservative side so there’s not much nightlife. Its residents are mostly retired or people who commute to the European side each day for work and school. Thanks to its well-developed transportation system people who live in Üsküdar are able to avoid the dreaded traffic jams as they drink their tea and watch the sea go by from the comfort of a ferry. Üsküdar also has the Marmaray railway, buses, and dolmuş lines. The rent is not as expensive as Kadıköy or comparable neighborhoods on European side. Due to its accessibility and prices Üsküdar has a large student population.
Photo Credits: MacPepper