Hi, Friends -
The following is a report from my April 3-13 2012 vacation to Istanbul. Hopefully this information will be useful to anyone and everyone traveling to that city in the near future. Some of the information below will be most relevant if you are traveling with the Rick Steves' Istanbul guidebook like I did:
1) It is laughably easy to use the machines at Ataturk Airport to buy tokens for the Metro to travel into the heart of Istanbul. Signs for the Metro are both hanging from the ceiling and taped to the floor in the airport.
2) I stayed for nine nights at Hotel Sultan Hill. My very positive review about this hotel will be published by TripAdvisor shortly.
3) You will encounter MANY aggressive hawkers in the vicinity of the major tourist sites, especially the Hippodrome, Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, and Basilica Cistern. I was CONSTANTLY bombarded EVERY DAY by individuals looking to sell me books, hire them as a tour guide, go with them to a carpet shop, or go with them to a restaurant. These people appeared from seemingly out of nowhere, and to get my attention either complimented me ("I like your shoes"), acted like they were trying to be helpful ("The Blue Mosque is open now"), or had dozens of other "pick-up lines" to initiate a conversation with me. The behavior was cute for a day, but for the remaining time was COMPLETELY annoying and even disturbing at times. What worked for me was to avoid all eye contact with the person and ignore their questions and them completely. If I was reading my guidebook and they approached with their questions, I kept reading. If I was taking a picture and they approched with their questions, I kept taking the picture. If I was walking down the street and they approached with their questions, I kept walking. Usually they got the hint after 10 seconds and gave up. Some got angry and cursed at me in Turkish as they walked away. I'm making a big deal about this because these people are not interested in being your friend or really knowing where you are from, they just want your money, and they waste your valuable time if you're not interested in what they have to sell or offer. Also, I watched a lot of tourists (especially parents with small children) get wrapped up in uncomfortable conversations with these hawkers. Again, the best policy in dealing with these people is just to ignore them and continue with what you were doing before they approached. And trust me, they WILL approach.
4) The fountain in Sultanahmet Park was turned off and the ground had been torn up. It looked like water sprinklers were being installed.
5) The fountain at Hagia Sophia was closed for restoration.
6) Try cups of sahlep (a drink of milk, honey, orchid bud, vanilla, cream, cinnamon, and special spices) sold by vendors for 3 TL in the late evening in the Hippodrome. Look for the large brass kettle being pushed around on white 3-wheel carts. Sahlep has a taste and consistency of hot vanilla-flavored Jell-O.
7) Topkapi Palace: Arrive EARLY! Crowds mob the place by noon! The Kitchen Complex, Dessert Kitchen, and Kitchen Dormitory is closed for renovations until 2013. The Reception Hall (Throne Room) and Revan Pavilion are also closed for renovations.
8) Istanbul Archaeological Museum: In the Museum of Archaeology section, the Hellenistic sculpture section (featuring the statue of Alexander the Great) is closed for renovations until 1 September 2012. However, some statuary is in a temporary room to the left of the Bes statue.
9) A large department store (T-Shop) selling toiletries and other items is located in the immediate vicinity of the Cemberlitas tram stop.
10) The mausoleum of Sultan Mahmut II is closed for restoration.
11) Take time to visit the hans in the Grand Bazaar and meet the people, especially Mr. Kapik Usta in the Kalcilar Han, Osman's Carpet Shop in the Zincirli Han, Mr. Ayhan Usta in the Kizlaragasi Han, and Dr. Suleyman at Egin Tekstil.
12) The cemetary at the Mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent is possibly closed.
13) The weather while I was there was usually 75 degrees during the day and 55 degrees at night with partly cloudy skies. There were a few rainy days with high temperatures only around 50 degrees due to a low pressure system, though.
14) The famous pumpkin dessert at Kanaat Lokantasi may only be available on a seasonal basis (October through March?).
15) Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum: Photography (not flash) IS allowed. Several items (e.g., brass and bronze minaret tops) are not on display. The Ethnographic Department is not yet closed for renovations.
16) A great internet cafe is located near the Cemberlitas tram stop: Sarnic Internet Cafe, 150 feet down Boyaci Ahmet Sokagi (the street next to Burger King). Open from 9am to 11pm daily. 3 TL per hour for internet access.
17) New District Walk: Alkazar Theater (Alkazar Sinemasi) is closed. The price of simit has risen to 1 TL from .50 TL. Garanti Art Gallery is closed. Mado Cafe is no longer at #88 Istiklal Caddesi, it has moved to #117A. Rejans Russian Restaurant has been closed for a year. Istanbul Bookstore has moved from #191 Istiklal Caddesi to #146.
18) City Walls and Neighborhoods Walk: Emir Buhari Lodge is undergoing extensive renovations (new facade and roof). The atelier of Kobra Murat (outside the Panagia Blachernae Holy Spring and Church) is closed.
19) Sample Turkish Delight for free all day at the Spice Bazaar.
20) Beware of the birdseed scam at the Hippodrome. A kindly old woman in a headscarf offers you a cup of birdseed to feed the pigeons. As you finish dumping the seed on the ground, the woman then demands a few Turkish Lira to pay for the birdseed that you assumed was free!
22) Another Bosphorus Cruise option can be found at www.bogaz24.com. This cruise leaves the Bosphorus Cruise pier, goes along the Asian side of Istanbul to the second bridge (Fatih Sultan Mehmet), then goes along the European side of Istanbul to return to the pier. Cost 10 TL.
23) Don't shun street food! Good doner kebap sandwiches can be bought for as little as 2.5 TL away from the tourist strip.
24) A taxi ride from Hotel Sultan Hill to Ataturk Airport at 4 am in the morning was 40 TL.
25) Good meals were had at Lale Restaurant (Pudding Shop), Sultanahmet Koftecisi, Buhara 93 (EXCELLENT food!), Seyhmuz Kebap Evi (another EXCELLENT choice!), Kanaat Lokantasi, Yildiz Restaurant, and Sampiyon Kokorec.