The World’s Great Towns, June 1997

By the Editors

The Numbers
Population: 5.7 million
Climate: Mediterranean, meaning warm winters, warmer summers
Number of McDonald’s: 66 and counting
Gestalt: Boom times in Byzantium

Süleyman the Magnificent slept here. As did Mark Twain. And probably Saint Paul. Which is to say that Istanbul is a town that accommodates. The jazzy modern collides with the storied ancient. Web-dudes, cell phones stuck to their ears, hustle down the cobbled streets past 500-year-old mosques, and some 400,000 new citizens each year
season this former capital of the Ottoman Empire with modern East Asian, African, and yes, American culture. Even Istanbul’s religion is hybrid — Islamic, but of the secular, Westernized ilk: Muslims comprise 99 percent of the Turkish population, yet one of Istanbul’s wealthiest residents is a Turkish-Armenian woman who runs a chain of brothels. Such polyglot laissez-faire
is manifested most famously on the city’s narrow streets. Everybody, from every nation, has a car and a different set of firm beliefs concerning rules of the road. Your first experience of an Istanbul intersection will never be forgotten.

What’s Out There
Hyperactives will love it here. In the city itself, joggers take to the shores of the Bosporus, the strait that divides the city in half. Sailors nose their craft up to one of the many local clubs, which host weekend regattas. Or, in Marmaris, south of town, you can charter a gulet — a wooden yacht — for a “blue voyage” along the Aegean or
Mediterranean resort coasts. Hiking clubs day-trip to the nearby Abant lakes or Princes’ Islands. Ulu Dag National Park, just 80 miles south, has inexpensive and powdery skiing December through March. For the ur-Turkish aerobic experience, however, succumb to the inevitable and go rug-hunting at the Grand Bazaar. The bouts of arm waving, shouting, and bluffed exits are marathon
and bracing for all.

Around Town
In many ways, Istanbul is three distinct cities, each with a life and character all its own. The flashy, Western side is stocked with young, well-heeled imports from Tokyo, London, Dakar, and New York. They swing through a world of sushi bars, bond trading, and pricey nightclubs, rarely brushing up against their less-prosperous immigrant brethren from Kurdistan and the Middle
East. Clustered in Istanbul’s Old Town, these new arrivals simmer huge meals outdoors and chatter in a dozen or so different languages or dialects per block. And then there’s the reward for those who can truly assimilate: the ancient city of graceful, wooden houses and residents whose ancestors have lived in Turkey for centuries. This is the Istanbul of A
Thousand and One Nights
. And with patience, it’s accessible. But you must be able to stomach raki, Istanbul’s potent, anisette-flavored brandy-cum-social glue. “Old-line Turks are very hospitable to people from abroad,” says a Brit who’s lived in the city for decades. “When you have three millennia of history to call upon, you can afford to be gracious.” One tip: If you’re
invited for dinner, make no plans for afterward; meals stretch until midnight, and the raki flows nonstop. Diesel-strength Turkish coffee won’t revive you by the end.

Living Quarters
In a city of homicidal drivers, it’s best to shorten your work commute as much as possible — a prospect that can be expensive here. The European side of the Bosporus, where many corporations — and hence jobs — as well as cultural attractions are located, has two-bedroom hillside apartments with views over the Bosporus for $1,500 and up. Your neighbors will be
old-money Turkish families. Nightcrawling Euro-singles might be better off opting for the neighborhoods of Cihangir and G’m’ssuyu, near the entertainment axis of Taksim Square; one-bedrooms with postcard scenes of the Old City run $500 to $750 a month. The more suburban-feeling Asian side of the city draws families with its roomy apartments, less frenetic pace, and
substantially lower real-estate prices, often 40 percent less than across the strait.

Nine to Five
Try to get paid in dollars and pay rent in Turkish liras, since Turkey has close to 80 percent annual inflation. Freelance computer specialists and stock market analysts can job-hunt at Istanbul’s burgeoning stock exchange. Setting up shop on your own, however, means trekking through jungles of red tape unless you have a Turkish partner. But there are job opportunities in banking,
technical writing, or that ever-reliable standby, English instruction. If you haven’t managed a work permit, prepare to duck out of the country once every three months to renew your tourist visa. That’s not a hardship: Greece is only an hour’s plane ride away.

Memorize This
Beyefenid, arabaniz cok muhtesem de olsa, yine de y’r’meyi terich ediyorum. (“I am indeed honored to be granted a ride in your fine automobile, but I regret to say I nonetheless fear for my safety.”)