Here’s a list of some organizations that helped me find a job, apartment, and friends in September 09. I’m not terribly active in any of them any more, so the information might be a bit dated, but hopefully at least somewhat helpful.
– For finding & furnishing an apartment: Craigslist and its Turkish-language sister Sahibinden.com, easiest navigated using http://google.com/translate are the easiest, though of course you could use an agent (called an emlak – I have no experience with them). The Facebook groups Buy, Sell, Swap in Istanbul Turkey and Expat’s Saver @Istanbul have an eclectic mix of home goods, often at rock-bottom prices. You can also sometimes find things through Couchsurfing, PAWI, and the forums (see below).
– AlumniTurk.com is a networking site for those that have graduated from universities in the US. It wasn’t around when I first got here, but I’ve been to some events subsequently as they’ve had very interesting high-profile speakers (Minister of Finance, the American Ambassador, Minister of EU affairs etc). Mostly Turkish, and sometimes the speakers present in Turkish, but if you don’t speak the language it’s still worth it if you’d like to connect with the professional Turkish crowd. Mostly a bit older (30s predominantly). If the job board ends up going active I would imagine would have very good listings.
– Zero has reasonably comprehensive listings of concerts, exhibitions, and other happenings. A pocket-sized book is published every month and can be picked up for free at most of the ‘hip’ spots in Beyoglu. Along the same lines, lecool used to have excellent recommendations for the hot concerts/films/exhibitions, but it’s lately been very sparse – maybe a staffing/funding issue. The magazines Time Out and The Guide are hit or miss, but may be useful at the start just for the fact that they are so comprehensive.
– Professional American Women of Istanbul (PAWI) – if you’re an American/Canadian/Mexican woman. Free, but you submit an application to join. They organize seminars (‘how to figure out your taxes from abroad’ etc) and social gatherings (sushi night, walk in Belgrade Forest, etc) and have a pretty active Google Group which is a great forum to answer questions (where to find a cleaner, a good OBGYN, etc). I don’t usually consider myself a women’s group kind of woman, but this has probably been the best resource during my time in Istanbul and I’ve met some wonderful people. Monthly meetings, including an annual meet-and-greet with the US Consul-General at his/her house, plus a few social events. Age group is mostly 23-45ish.
– International Women of Istanbul (IWI) and International Professional Women of Istanbul (IPWIN) – same lines as the above but more international and fee-paying. IWI is very Junior League/Rotary Club-esque – from my limited impression it seems to be mostly trailing spouses (ie, those who came over for their husbands’ jobs and don’t work) and runs lots of charity events. Dues are around 100 TL a year and they organize events, day trips etc, age group is mostly 30s-50s. IPWIN (just a separate mailing list within IWI) has had some great events recently, offering networking nights with most of the top diplomatic brass, useful briefings (how to work legally in Turkey, how to incorporate a company, etc).
– The Sublime Portal (sublimeportal.com) is another online forum along the lines of mymerhaba with a much more active user base. Some friends that have gotten involved say it is quite cliquey and the one time I met anyone from the group in person – impromptu stop at one of their weekly ‘Thirsty Thursday’ gatherings – seemed to confirm that impression. Regardless the forum has a lot of insight into the expat experience here, organizes some events, and has an active job board as well. Free, all ages but the ones that show up at gatherings seem to be mostly 30s-40s long-term expat types
– Internations – a sort of facebook for expats, it’s along the lines of the forums but much more user-friendly. Despite the fact it is nominally for expats, it’s more than half Turks, including a fair few men who think it is a dating service and not a social network. However, they organize events at some really great bars/clubs and attract a decent crowd of professionals, generally 25-40 years old. Cover is usually 15 TL for events (which includes a free drink), or you can join for 3 or 4 euro a month to get free entry. I’ve generally found Internations events a bit too meat markety, and so avoid them, but some of my best friends met each other at Internations.
– Friends of the American Research Institute in Turkey (ARIT) – . A dues-paying organization that sponsors lectures (free, generally with a cocktail hour after), day trips guided by scholars (60-200 TL, with discounts for members), and academic-focused weekend to week-long trips abroad (650-4000TL), as well as scholarships for students. Their day trips are fascinating but the lectures can be hit or miss. The crowd is generally older professionals (my friend invited me by saying ‘we need more members under 40’; average age is probably 55), with a smattering of grad-school types, generally really interesting people who have been in Turkey for decades and so have wonderful perspective. Membership 70 TL for the year and you most definitely don’t need to be American – in fact I think it is more than half are British or Turkish.
– Pub Quiz – is really popular among the 20s-30s English teacher/yuppie set. You can find the group on Facebook – quizzes are Thursday nights at 10, almost always at a bar called Funky Teras just off Istiklal in Taksim. The quizzes are usually clever, but I have also been to some terrible ones. You can show up even if you don’t have a team – you’ll be added to one, so it’s a good way to meet people. Buy-in is 5TL and if you win you take the pot home. There’s another pub quiz at 8pm on Thursday nights organized by Internations people, but I’ve never been.
– Square Peg Theater Troupe – ‘Istanbul’s premier ex-pat theater troupe’ puts on original comedy shows and is always looking for more talent. Performers are predominantly from the English teacher crowd, and the shows can be hilarious though decidedly not family-friendly.
– Couchsurfing.org is a great resource if you know how to use it: be open to overwhelming friendliness and be understanding of people that are just plain overwhelming. The ‘Istanbul’ group is very active and organizes drinks, day trips, etc, etc, and is a good place to air questions (‘good jogging route in Beyoglu?’). There are also apartment listings in the ‘IST – Flat/Flatmate…’ subgroup. The website is predictably dominated by hipster backpacker types (which is not a bad thing). Unfortunately, meetups tend to be dominated by Turks Who Want to Get In Foreign Girls’ Pants, who are tedious. Free, weekly meetups for drinks plus a ton of other impromptu activities like day trips and parties, age group 18-40ish (mostly 20-somethings)
– Foreign Press Club – if you can make an argument that you are a member of the foreign press, or actively trying to become one, you can email the head of club and ask to join the mailing list. Actually being a foreign correspondent doesn’t seem to be a stringent requirement, considering I’m a member. In addition to being the best way (short of personal recs) to find a fixer, translator, driver, relevant AV cable, etc in Istanbul, there are monthly drinks nights and occasional talks/conferences arranged just for the group.
– Istanbul Modern and the Pera Museum have good weekly newsletters of their goings-on, including film screenings and exhibition openings. You can subscribe on their websites.
If you try any of these out and form vastly different impressions from me, I’m curious to hear how they are these days.
This article from The Guide: Istanbul (in which my brother and I are both profiled) has some additional tips. Also, my friend Kaan runs a Q&A forum called Atdaa that aims to be a comprehensive place to get answers about Turkey, both for visitors and those who live here.