Welcome to Istanbul, a city split across two continents. While its name has changed many times over the course of history, the characteristics which made it the capital of the world for centuries are still in place. Its location along the Bosphorus Strait, which connects Asia and Europe, makes it a critical juncture for global trade and transport links. With all that trade and transport comes diversity, development, and cultural exchange. Relics of the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman Empires now stand between glimmering skyscrapers and hip cafes.
With over 13 million tourists in 2018, Istanbul is one of the most visited cities in the world. The majority of those tourists arrive to see the awe-inspiring architecture, the deep cultural history, the bustling side streets, and the scenic waterfront. Remote workers come to Istanbul for many of the same reasons, only they stay for longer periods of time. Because despite being known as a tourist hotspot, Istanbul remains a modern megacity with everything a remote worker needs to settle in and set up shop for a few months.
One of the key factors driving remote workers to Istanbul now is that despite the city developing at a rapid pace, it’s never been cheaper to visit. The Turkish lira has dropped nearly 300 percent against the dollar in the last five years. And while prices have slowly risen (particularly in areas frequented by tourists), they haven’t come close to catching up, meaning remote workers can get everything Istanbul has to offer at an incredible discount.
That discount comes with a price, though. The country of Turkey is not having the best decade in its history. War in Syria has sent millions of refugees across the border. An eternally simmering internal conflict with the Kurdish population has resulted in both systematic repression and individual terrorism. A failed coup attempt has created an increasingly authoritarian and reactionary governing party.
But don’t get scared away just yet. As locals will tell you, Istanbul is an exceptional city, vastly different than the rest of Turkey. Recent municipal elections have driven that point home. Istanbul is a de facto city-state in all its cosmopolitan glory, a place of extreme contrast: east and west, old and new, rich and poor, classic beauty and postmodern edge.
When the call to prayer rings out and echoes along the steep and curved streets of this massive city, through the cafes, shops, mosques, and galleries, you can look out onto the Bosphorus and see why this place has been a major player in the events of world history—and why it still is.
Americans, Canadians, Europeans, and many others can enter Turkey for 90 days with no more than an e-visa. The process is simple and cheap. However, renewing that e-visa is not easy. And Turkey runs by the same rules as the EU’s Schengen Zone: you’re allowed 90 days every 180 days, on a rolling basis. This means that Istanbul is not a practical long-term destination for remote workers, but it does make a very attractive short-term base (while waiting for one’s Schengen eligibility to reset, for example).
Since most remote workers will be staying for, at most, 90 days, housing options are limited to short-term options like Airbnb. As a result, remote workers will be competing with tourists for accommodation and at tourist prices. But those who are looking to stay in a single place for a month or more can often work out a discounted arrangement with their host. Also, staying in a more personal setting like an Airbnb or a hostel means you’ll meet people right away who know the area well, which can be helpful in a city of 15 million.
Istanbul is well-connected. Between the metro, ferries, Uber, and your feet, it’s easy, theoretically, to move between neighborhoods. But, as is the case with all cities whose streets were laid out thousands of years ago, traffic can be a big barrier to movement. Plan ahead for it and learn to deal with it.
Despite what you may have read in the headlines, your number one safety concern in Istanbul will be nothing more than very boring tourist scams. A local man drops his shoe-shining brush and, 15 minutes later, you’re somehow paying for a shoeshine you never wanted. Someone offers to show you a very special restaurant where the food turns out to be not that good and the bill is ten times higher than the listed prices. It’s the same thing as in Paris, in Athens, in Rome. Exercise a standard level of caution, be respectful, and do your best to blend in.
Istanbul is an incredibly modern city, and, in today’s terms, that means it also has plenty of co-working spaces. Unfortunately, the majority of people using co-working spaces are also people earning dollars and Euros and the market has adjusted accordingly. If you’re working with tight deadlines, high volumes of data, and sensitive information, co-working spaces such as Workinton might be worth it, despite the steep pricing. But for everyone else, the city itself can be seen as one large co-working space.
Unless you’re in need of serious internet speeds and total silence, co-working spaces can seem redundant in a city like Istanbul. This is cafe culture on a level you’ve likely never experienced before. Turkey has its own characteristic tea, its own style of brewing coffee, and a unique addiction to having long conversations while people-watching simultaneously.
In the daytime, people might try to predict the future by reading the patterns in the bottom of their coffee cup. In the nighttime, you’ll hear the roll of backgammon dice and live music. Each street is packed with cafes that have plenty of seating and it’s not uncommon for people to stay there all day. That extends beyond people to cats, too: Turkey has a love for its local feline population, which is likely to drift in and out of cafes, looking for comfortable seats and tasty snacks, much like remote workers do.
Walking through Istanbul can feel like traveling through time. From the mosque-filled skyline of Old Town to the Galata Tower in Beyoğlu, to the markets on the Asian side, to absolutely everything in between, you’ll feel the swirl of history all around you. Where else can you see, in a single day, the remains of three different empires who changed the course of history?
To live in Istanbul is to live in a large, open-air museum. While this does mean you’ll occasionally be sharing the sights with a horde of tourists, being a remote worker means you’re free to make your own schedule, and you can tactically plan your excursions on non-weekends. Still, all this time travel is going to make you tired. End a long day of sightseeing with a hammam in a Turkish bathhouse. Practically sacred amongst locals, a hammam basically means getting the city scrubbed off of you, and then soaking in an ancient pool that looks more like a cathedral. Don’t miss out.
There’s a joke that the last vestiges of the Ottoman Empire are the backpacker-friendly doner kebab stands you find dotted across the world. But Istanbul is on an entirely different culinary level. You can find cheap and delicious handmade eats like pide and lahmacun (think Turkish pizza) on every corner in the city. Along the waterfront you’ll find an endless supply of fresh seafood, or if you’re on the go you can grab a balik ekmek made with fish pulled straight from the water. If you want a little of everything, you can order meze (think Turkish tapas) at one of the rooftop restaurants and spend the day watching the sun set over the Bosphorus.
Istanbul is massive, but most remote workers will spend the majority of their time on the European side of the city. Taksim Square and its surrounding area can be seen as the hub of Istanbul’s European leanings. Pedestrian crowds move up and down it in a constant stream that pays no attention to the time of day. The main thoroughfare twists for over a kilometer, with dozens of crooked side streets sprouting off of it like veins and leading to quaint residential nooks that are shielded from the noise.
From Taksim, you can walk down a sloping hill and towards the waterfront to find Karaköy. This is a slightly quieter neighborhood that’s full of trendy cafes and gastropubs. You’ll find people playing dominos or debating politics while sipping cup after cup of strong, amber-colored tea. And you’ll also find the occasional remote worker tapping away on their laptop and sometimes sneaking in glances of the coastline.
In between these two areas you have Beyoğlu, home to Galata Tower and a labyrinth of non-linear streets. Don’t be afraid to get lost in them. You’ll find your way back. Along the way, you’d be forgiven for occasionally drawing comparisons to San Francisco, with the steep hills, cool breeze, diverse population, and scenic views. Close to everything, Beyoğlu is an incredibly desirable spot to make your base in Istanbul. Just make sure you have a map downloaded when you’re coming home in the evening. The curved roads will spin your internal compass.
On the Asian side, Kadiköy is an up and coming neighborhood that’s a little more local—and a little more authentic—than its counterparts on the European side. You’ll still get the hip cafes here (they’re ubiquitous), but you’ll find the prices are a little cheaper and there are more signs of an average, daily life.
As a result, life on the Asian side can be a more immersive experience for a remote worker, but it can also be less convenient. Even though connections via ferry to the European side are easy, they can take a while (20 minutes travel time, plus waiting time for people to board and deboard). Most remote workers choose instead to live on the European side and then visit Asia as they see fit. And why not? It’s never been closer.
Sultanahmet, also known as the Old Town, is the area of Istanbul that was once known as Constantinople. Once the starting point of the Hippie Trail (an overland route that people took all the way to New Delhi), there’s little left of the ‘roughing it’ spirit that once existed in the 1960s. Now you’ll find tourist prices, English menus, and an atmosphere that’s a little more Disney Channel than it is History Channel. But you can’t afford to miss it. The Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia have been taking people’s breath away for centuries, and they’ll continue to for centuries to come. A day here isn’t enough to take in all that the Old Town has to offer, and you’ll likely come back more than once. Just leave your laptop at home. You’re not going to get any work done here.
For many tourists, Istanbul is merely the entry point to a more exotic and diverse part of the world. And, as a remote worker, there’s plenty to explore further.
And whether you’re looking to get away or planning a move to your next remote destination, Istanbul has connections to more countries than any other international airport. Istanbul is now what it’s always been: a central hub of the world.