After a week in Istanbul, here are some random notes I have accumulated, along with some tips for anyone who might visit in the future.
Look for the white beans in a red sauce. If you see it, order it with rice. It's amazing. Many restaurants have it. Erzincanli Ali Baba next to the Suleyman Mosque is supposed to be the best. Really fantastic - don't miss it.
There's a nice cafe / Nargile bar at the end of the Hippodrome (go to the last obelisk and bear left down the hill). Great spot to chill for a little while. Backgammon, hookahs, food, desserts, etc. Another large Nargile cafe (no food) is located on the tram line near the Grand Bazaar.
There are cats everywhere. No one seems to mind.
Turks (especially men?) drink a lot of tea. Whenever there’s a break for anything, there seems to be a young man bringing tea on a small hanging tray. Tea is almost always served in glasses, not in paper or plastic cups, even if it means a taxi driver has to leave his glass on the curb for the tea server to come back later to pick up.
Most tourists learn from their guidebook that shoes should be removed before entering the mosque, but it took me a while (and a couple angry stares from locals) to learn the details. As you enter, there is an area for removing your shoes - but it’s only a large area to accomodate tourists. The right way to do it is to take off your shoes just before you step onto the carpeted area. Your last step on the marble (or cement) should be with shoes, and your next step onto the carpet should be with socks or bare feet. Likewise on exiting - Turkish Muslims will walk to the edge of the carpet, drop their shoes onto the marble, and step into them. Walking on the marble in socks means your socks are no longer clean. Even when trying to do this correctly we got stares and comments from locals.
I found the Turkish language difficult because it is not Latin based - so words sound nothing at all like English. I tried to learn one word per day... please, thank you and check please. If I knew someone planning to go to Istanbul, I would suggest that they learn 4 or 5 basic words like this in advance.
A tip for Turkish pronunciation - when you see a C or an S with an accent below the letter that looks like a small squiggly, it makes the sound a CH or SH. So ҫay (tea) is pronounced chai.
I discovered that if you go anywhere at all off the beaten tourist track, few people will speak English. Google translate or a Turkish-English dictionary is critical. If I was coming back here, I would make myself a cheat sheet on an index card with words I would need over and over again: beef, lamb, vegetarian, chicken, water, salt, sugar, sweet, salty, where is, please, thank you, excuse me, bathroom, etc.
As this is a Muslim country, no one serves pork, and most restaurants do not serve alcohol.
The touristy, pretty restaurants down by the Sultanhamet tram stop are way overpriced and the food is just OK, but they're still pleasant. The menus are in English, they serve alcohol and the waiters are helpful. It's a good option for a first night in Istanbul. We tried three and Bodrum was by far the best.
If I were coming back, I would look for a hotel near the Eminonu tram stop. It’s centrally located for access to the Old City, New City, Asia, Bospherous Cruise, and a ton of restaurants and street food options. If I wanted to choose a location purely based on atmosphere, I would pick Kadikoy on the Asian side, especially in the Moda neighborhood.
I have heard more easy listening 80’s music in the last week than I’ve heard in the prior decade. Lionel Ritchie, True Colors, all the hits. For some reason Turks seem to think this is the perfect mood music for touristy areas.
Even in the touristy parts of town, the city does not seem as touristy as Rome, Amsterdam or Paris. I see at least 50% locals on the tram, in the Sultanhamet area and even at some restaurants. Of the tourists, only a small percentage of them are Americans - many are Turks from elsewhere in the country, and many are Europeans. There seem to be a ton of Germans here, and I’ve encountered some locals who speak German as their second language.
In any busy city block, there is typically an open doorway somewhere that leads to a tiny area for tea in an alley or hallway. Tea is usually only 1 TL (about $0.50) and this is where tea for all the local shops comes from. It’s a lovely experience to find these little spots and sit for a few minutes to peoplewatch, and the locals there seem pleasantly suprised and amused that a tourist has found it. This is one of the most local and authentic experiences I have had here.
The tram takes either tokens or a tram card. Tokens are 3TL and can be purchased at a token machine at any tram stop. Cards can be purchased for a few TL at any newspaper kiosk (ask your hotel for the nearest) and recharged at a different, larger machine next to the token machine. If you use the card, rides are only 2TL each.