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Living Like a Local in Istanbul, Turkey

Ben Lyons is a licensed Captain who has served throughout the world on the bridge of cruise ships and expedition vessels. He is currently CEO of EYOS Expeditions, which arranges luxury expeditions to remote and wild regions on superyachts. He is living in Istanbul for 18 months while his wife fulfills an overseas rotation for her job.

Q: What’s one thing most tourists don’t know about where you live?

A: How diverse Turkey can be. It is a mix of cultures, ethnicities and religions. There are deeply conservative and religious neighborhoods, and yet only a few miles away you’ll encounter a scene as Western as any street in New York. Yet despite their varying backgrounds, they are all fiercely proud to be Turkish.

Q: What’s the worst culture shock you experienced as you settled into your new home?

A: In general, we’ve found that life in Istanbul isn’t vastly different from life in New York — they’re both international, buzzing cities. However, the biggest change from life in New York is the lack of variety in foods; for instance, there are few opportunities for good Asian or ethnic food. Of course, pork products are harder to come by as well.

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Q: Do you find that living in a foreign country makes you a better traveler when you visit other places? If so, how?

A: Absolutely. Because you are used to being outside your comfort zone and expect things not to go perfectly, you become more adventurous and willing to seek things away from the tourist track. It gives you more ways to to connect with others; for instance, when we were in Amsterdam, our taxi driver by coincidence was Turkish. We practiced our budding Turkish with him and got a different perspective on living in Amsterdam than we otherwise would have.

Q: Which tourist attraction in Istanbul is most overrated, and where should travelers go instead?

A: The Grand Bazaar for shopping. While it is certainly amazing to see the Grand Bazaar and all of its chaos and motion, the locals actually do most of their shopping outside — and get considerably better bargains. The streets below with all the wholesalers are a great area to wander around in and get the same thing you’ll find in the crowded stalls.

For a more local experience, travelers should be sure to take a ride on Istanbul’s wonderfully efficient ferry system, which crisscrosses the harbor with (mostly) handsome vessels. Istanbul is a city intertwined with the sea, and the ferries are an integral part of daily life for so many of its residents. There are few better experiences than standing outside sipping tea while watching the city skyline and the constant buzz of the harbor slip past.

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Q: No one should visit Istanbul without tasting __________.

A: A traditional Turkish breakfast. We take out-of-town guests to Van Kahvalti Evi, our favorite cafe, and they are overwhelmed and delighted as plate after plate of spreads, tomatoes, olives, bread and çay tea are put on the table. We like to alternate savory with sweet; first a dish of red pepper and olive spread, followed by Bal kaymak, an outlandishly sweet combination of cream and honey. At some point, take a break from the spreads to make a sandwich with a salty string cheese that complements the juicy tomatoes and cucumbers that go on top.

Q: What’s the toughest thing about being an expat? The most rewarding?

A: The toughest and most rewarding are really intertwined; it must be the language and culture. It can be frustrating on a daily basis when you don’t speak the language and English is not widely understood. Everything from giving directions in a taxi cab to ordering in a restaurant can be a challenge. At the same time, when you start to be able to hold conversations or pick up the daily cultural rituals, or have the guy who tends the local vegetable stand come to know you, it is hugely rewarding.

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Istanbul Travel Guide
Getting Around Turkey: Transportation Tips
Where to Stay in Turkey: Lodging Tips
3 Ways to Travel Like a Local

By Sarah Schlichter

Deputy Executive Editor Sarah Schlichter's idea of a perfect trip includes spotting exotic animals, hiking through pristine landscapes, exploring new neighborhoods on foot, and soaking up as much art as she can. She often attempts to recreate recipes from her international travels after she gets home (which has twice resulted in accidental kitchen fires—no humans or animals were harmed).

Sarah joined the SmarterTravel team in 2017 after more than a decade at the helm of IndependentTraveler.com. Sarah's practical travel advice has been featured in dozens of news outlets including the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Budget Travel, and Peter Greenberg Worldwide Radio. Follow her on Twitter @TravelEditor.

The Handy Item I Always Pack: "A journal. Even years later, reading my notes from a trip can bring back incredibly vivid memories."

Ultimate Bucket List Experience: "Road tripping and hiking through the rugged mountains of Patagonia."

Travel Motto: "'To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world.'—Freya Stark"

Aisle, Window, or Middle Seat: "Aisle. I get restless on long flights and like to be able to move around without disturbing anyone else."

Email Sarah at sschlichter@smartertravel.com.

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