First of all a thank you to all who helped me with the planning of this trip (for a year now). Especially the airline tip and Hotel Niles thumbs up from Enigma. Turkish Air was great and the Hotel Niles was perfect.
Immediately before our departure we started panicking about the Turkish Airlines cabin baggage policy. We never check bags (long story) so when we read ONE BAG ONLY we took that to mean no personal bag allowed in addition to the small duffle. We needed both! We stressed for nothing so to clear two Turkish Air things up for any others who may be confused: You are allowed one cabin bag PLUS a personal item (mine was a handbag the size of a small backpack.). The other clarification: Yes, the cabins are warm. Dress prepared for that.
Our trip over was pleasant and uneventful. The food was fantastic and the free alcoholic beverages are a very nice touch. Upon landing the passport control line was very long - it took us about an hour with some rude folks cutting in front. Still, no fault of the staff just a crowded Tuesday. We had our preprinted evisas so the process was smooth and upon exiting we walked out to find the Hotel Shuttle for the first part of our trip - Renaissance Polat in Yesilyurt. Shuttle was there waiting and it took 15 minutes to be at the hotel's door.
The Renaissance Polat is a beautiful property and a perfect choice for conferences or airport location. The rooms are large and comfortable, the staff very friendly, an amazing pool and wonderful views of the Sea of Marmara and really good food. Of course, drinks are very expensive but we were on the club level so took advantage of the wine and beer free happy hour. The hotel offers a very convenient shuttle to/from city center or Taksim - 10:30 departure from hotel and 4:30pm return. I used this two days while there and it worked perfectly for me.
After three days at the Polat (upon conference ending) we switched to Hotel Niles in the Beyazit section of the old city. This was PERFECT. Walkable to all sites or an easy tram ride. I loved this location as I felt we were getting to see all bits of Istanbul including a side of real life. It was a safe and friendly area but a tad off the beaten tourist path so we had breathing room. The hotel itself is lovely and had a gorgeous rooftop terrace. I will do a separate review for the hotel but I highly recommend this property. Now to Istanbul....
I used TA for my planning so you can imagine I hit the same things as everyone else so I am only going to mention my very top picks. ALL of Istanbul and Sultanhamet was gorgeous to me (especially at twilight) but I fell in love with the area around Galata Tower and the market streets in Kadikoy. Just strolling around and stopping to have a beverage while people watching in these two areas was perfect.
Our other highlights were: The Suleymaniye Mosque, climbing Galata Tower, having a beer under the Galata Bridge while watching the sunset, a fish sandwich on the Karakoy side of Galata Bridge, the six hour Bosphorus trip up to Anadolu Kavagi (this was the most special of days and so glad we took the full trip), hearing the call to prayer from the Hotel Niles rooftop terrace (and all the other times we heard it), the smells of the Spice Bazaar, Sultanhamet Square at twilight, the many rooftop restaurants, the very friendly people and the many wonderful ways to eat eggplant!
Our least favorite: The Grand Bazaar. But you gotta do it, right? Since it was near our hotel we used it as a "cut through" many times so definitely saw our share of it. It just isn't our thing but we are not shoppers - we are walkers, drinkers, eaters and Istanbul certainly did not disappoint. Walking up cobblestone hill after cobblestone hill I had no guilt eating my share of breads, desserts and other treats.
We hope to return one day. Istanbul jumped to the top of our favorites list even passing my longtime loves of Venice and Prague. It is an interesting, mysterious, beautiful, gritty city that quietly won me over with each moment there. I am in awe of those of you who live there and jealous of those of you like busyretired who have the best of both. You have chosen well. Thank you again for your help and for sharing your world.