1st – Stay in the Old City
Location – if your goal is to sight-see at their historical mosques, etc I would recommend staying at a hotel in the Old Town. We stayed at the Best Western Empire Palace and (just as many of the trip advisor reviews stated) it was in a great location. The room came with two complimentary bottles of water each day, free wifi in the lobby and a nice breakfast in the enclosed rooftop restaurant. Just a short walk up the hill and you are at the Archeology museum and then a few more steps to the Palace. Another great little spot near the main sites was a 2 year old property, Hagia Sophia Old City http://www.hsoldcity.com/en/index.html. Even though the outdoor café was closed due to the off season, it looked like it would be a prime spot for a drink and people watching in the summer. This 63 room hotel has reasonable pricing, fun accents like the TV behind the mirrored walls in the rooms and all the standard amenities. Even though I wasn’t staying there, I couldn’t help but take a tour of the property and the rooms at this hotel…so I thought I’d share my two cent review. 🙂
2nd – Don’t miss the major sites and experiences
Sightseeing – We visited most of the sites they mention in the standard tour guide for Istanbul. You must take the time to visit the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, #Topkapi Palace (and pay the extra fee to visit the Harem), the Basilica Cistern and walk through the Byzantine Hippodrome. We did not visit the Archaeological Museum, but our tour guide recommended it. We left off the locations that wouldn’t be a great stop in the colder season (like the Bosphorus cruise).
#Turkish Bath (Hamam)…not your everyday trip to the spa. If you are visiting Turkey for the first time, many will recommend experiencing the #Hamam, where you lay on a warm marble slab as they give you a body scrub and foam bath. Let me pass along some advice to those that are considering a first time Turkish bath experience. Bigger is not necessarily better. The bigger the spa the larger the marble slab which means the more people they put on it at one time! My friend Betty & I went to a small hotel Turkish bath, which reserves the room for just the two of you. Please note, you still need to be comfortable laying on a marble slab next to your friend with nothing on your body but a small towel they place over your lower girly parts. The woman will then proceed to toss several buckets of warm water on you, then scrub your body with a Turkish loofa (much like your mom would do if you were a little kid who had just jumped in a mud pond), all while she makes comments on what she thinks you ate too much of while scrubbing your belly (kabob, beer, Turkish delight) and while pointing out how much dead skin she is getting off of your body. Then on to your friend where she does the same thing and then tosses more buckets of water on you to wash off the dead skin before you flip over. For those germ freaks out there…that means you are laying in both you and your friends dead skin for a little while (now do you see why the larger spas are worse). This experience will leave your skin baby soft, but it does require you to let down your “personal space” guard as they will wash all of your “parts” and leave you feeling like you just left a bizarre one night stand.
3rd – Enjoy the bargaining experience when you shop
I feel fairly confident telling you that everything in Istanbul (aside from dinner pricing) is negotiable. Not just the stores at the grand bazaar, but every store that sells goods will offer you lower prices if you are willing to bargain with them. There are a few stores that have a sign that states “fixed prices” and even those stores will give a little, but any other store will give major price adjustments, so never pay the price they offer up front. I went to buy a scarf from a small store a couple streets away from the Blue Mosque and they had a sticker price next to it that read “120 TL” I ended up paying 35 TL.
The Grand Bazaar, with 4,000 shops is quite a sight to see and a must hit location. Please note, many standard items like ceramics, tiles, leather goods and jewelry can be found away from the bazaar and sightseeing locations at lower prices.
We found the best pricing for some of their classic products (tile, ceramics, jewelry and scarves) away from the major tourist areas. So don’t buy a scarf and ceramic plate at a store directly across the street from the Blue Mosque…it will be a lower price if you go to a store a few streets away. If you want a carpet, be very careful and shop around. I’ve heard stories of people paying $40,000 for a carpet that was worth $10,000. You can find a nice carpet for less than $1,000, so shop around.
We decided not to visit the Spice Market since the reviews are that it’s no longer the spice mecca that it used to be and is now more t-shirt shops, etc. We had a couple of great spice stores across the street from our hotel, so that’s where we shopped.
4th –Eat a kabob and savor the calamari
We found great spots to eat all over the old town. We did not make it out of the Old City, so we missed on out the great restaurants that are over in Taksim, but for our 3 night stay we were fine in the city. Turkey is known for their seafood in addition to the expected Mediterranean dishes like grilled chicken drizzled in honey, eggplant and lamb, don’t miss the calamari it is incredible. A great spot for dinner was the Medusa Restaurant, where we had the lamb kabob which was amazing and perfectly cooked. We also had dinner at the Panoramic Restaurant which had breathtaking views of the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. They also have a rooftop deck above the restaurant to expand for summer business.
5th – Dance the night away
This will be short, since I didn’t party at all in Istanbul. However, we were told by our guide (girl in her 20’s) and several waiters (which we didn’t trust until our guide confirmed it) that Taksim Square is the place to go for clubs, bars and restaurants. It is over on the Asian side (across the water) and is not too be missed if you want to hit the town. We decided to focus on touring all day, then shopping and eating all night.
6th – Avoid the street stalkers, aka carpet salesmen
The number one thing I would avoid are the random men in black jackets on the streets that try to stop you with the line “may I ask you a question” or “where are you from.” These are commissioned carpet salesmen who annoyed the crap out of me. You don’t know anyone in Istanbul, so don’t stop, just keep walking and say no. This is not rude; this is simply the only way they will stop following you. They will also try the “beautiful ladies” and other random fake compliments. Feel free to say thanks…as you continue to walk and say no to the follow up question that is certain to be related to stopping in their shop. Be strong ladies!
7th – Read up and be prepared
On the United flight to Istanbul our flight attendants seemed worried about two girls traveling alone after the recent events. They told us that the lady who was killed the previous week was on their flight. I had to remind myself that terrible crimes take place every day in Washington, DC, but tourists continue to visit. You just have to be smart when you travel, don’t talk to strangers, avoid off the beaten path areas at night and read up on the culture so you are prepared. In Istanbul there is a “call to prayer” five times a day. It takes a little getting used to if you are walking through an area with a couple of mosques as the call is pretty loud and they will turn off the sound of music or TV in a restaurant during the call. We noticed that about 99% of the workers in the Old Town (waiters, hotel staff, salesmen, bartenders, etc) are men. When we asked a salesmen at a jewelry shop why we don’t see women in these sales roles they stated that the Old Town is more “conservative” whatever that means. I point this out because it is a bit different to visit a town when there are only men. In addition, many waiters are very forward and flirt with just about every woman who comes into their restaurant…unless they are with a man. We had one waiter ask us “why did you come to Istanbul without your men.”