We traveled to Turkey the first week of July and spent about one week in Istanbul. Prior to our travel, we did a lot of research on tripadvisor, turkeytravelplanner, DK Eyewitness guide book and Frommers Turkey guide book. The DK Eyewitness guidebook was ok for learning the background of the places we visited but it's restaurant and hotel recommendations left something to be desired. Turkeytravelplanner, although useful was sometimes overwhelming and, in the end, we feel that its review of one of the hotels we stayed in was misleading. Anyway, here we go-
Istanbul is filled with history. We decided to stay in Sultanahmet so we could be in the center of it all. We enjoyed our visits to the many beautiful mosques in the city. We visited the hippodrome which includes the obelisk, Keiser fountain and other features, the blue mosque (referred to as the Sultanahmet mosque), there's a big park area with water fountains and we saw the Hagia Sophia. We also visited the Mehmet Pasa mosque which was close to our hotel. We visited the Basilica Cistern, Topkapi, Dolmabache Palace, did the Bosphorous Cruise (hiked all the way to the top to see the castle), walked outside the Istanbul University (it's next to Grand Bazaar), Grand Bazaar, Spice Bazaar, Eminonu Mosque and the Sulaimaniye mosque (visited the tombs there, even though mosque is closed for renovations it was still worth the trip). We walked across the Galata bridge, and walked along the Istiklal Cadesi street in Taksim. It's pretty easy getting around all the major sites in Sultanahmet. You can use the tram, the metro, or your own legs. Also, contrary to what I'd read before, you can even bargain with the cab drivers. We were able to go from Taksim back to Sultanahmet one night for just 10 liras (at around 11pm). Don't be afraid to approach a cab driver and try to bargain with him (especially if you're a group and sometimes going on a very crowded tram doesn't make any financial sense).
We also ate at Hamdi which is in Eminonu area (twice-the first time we had a pleasant experience but the second time, I went by myself with my two kids and they tried to rip me off). They added two items to our receipt that we hadn't ordered. I told them about it and they removed them. Their service was awful too the second time (their bread was old and stale, they took forever coming to us and they were not attentive at all). I'd still recommend that you go there to eat at least once so you can get some pretty tasty mezze and their kabob is ok (sorry but I've had some pretty good kabob in my life and there's, although tasty was good but not excellent).
We also ate at Devilli, which is somewhere else where you need to take a cab ride to. However, you can also call them and they'll pick you up! We discovered this when we were leaving. They took us back to our hotel for free. The prices are more expensive than Hamdi and, honestly, if you don't want to go through the small hasstle, you can skip it. I felt that their kabob was very similar to Hamdis. They have nearly the same mezzes too. Their service however was very good. The real treat is the view... you eat overlooking the Bosphorous.
We also ate at various "fast food" joints in Sultanahmet and off of Istiklal Cadesi street. Nothing that we ate was anything to write back home about. They were all mediocre food honestly including the doner. We also ate at Haci Abdullah which I had read about but it was awful with mediocre food and poor service. I can't recommend that place.
One thing that really bothered us about Turkey was that we always felt that restaurants were trying to pull one over us. It was strange to us how they serve the mezzes then give you bread (and charge for the bread baskets--- every single one of them without telling you that). The same thing goes for serving water. Also, we had several incidents in which the restaurant added menu items to our receipt that we had not ordered. This was frustrating and stressful. My daughter and husband both got severe diarahea and food poisoning as well (even though we were eating at recommended places). I had read in the DK book that hygiene isn't a top priority in Turkish restaurants and I had thought that was insulting. However, I have to admit, that's what I believe too.
Another ugly thing about Istanbul is that it smelled like trash/sewage in places, there was trash everywhere (few garbage cans) and it's annoying how shopkeepers (including restaurants) try to talk you into coming into their stores/restaurants (we'd leave places that were so pushy and never wanted to go into them).
Also, people do not stay in line. At the Dolmabache palace, it was remarkable and frustrating at the same time. We were in line (probably 10 people ahead of us) but as the time went by (they had stopped selling tickets because they said there were too many people inside) we found more and more people cutting in line and standing ahead of us. When the ticket person finally opened the booth, a rush of people from the back of the line, rushed toward the front to purchase their tickets. It was frustrating dealing with things like this.
The bad thing about Istanbul during the summer is that it was packed with people. The trams were filled with people.
We traveled with our three kids and found Istanbul not to be a child friendly place. I hate to say this because I really thought otherwise before our visit. On the Bosphorous cruise, a woman sat on my son's hand. He was reserving the seat next to him for his dad who had gone to buy some water. She first told him to remove his hand (in Turkish) but he told her that he was keeping it for 'baba' and he left his hand. She sat on his hand. On the same cruise, coming back, my daughter was keeping a seat for her father. She kept her purse on it and put her leg on the seat. Another woman came, removed her purse, and sat down (of course my daughter was protesting the entire time) and then her husband came and sat next to her (on a two seat row!). In other words, they had basically taken over the two seats (there was no room for my daughter who was practically falling over the edge of her seat).
Another good thing about Istanbul was the veggies. We purchased cucumbers, tomatoes, watermelon and figs from the supermarkets. They were fresh and delicious. My favorite thing though was the Magnum icecream...mmmmm.
A bad thing about Istanbul was seeing all the stray cats and dogs in the streets looking for food. They really need to do something about this in Istanbul. The dogs look so sad and depressed. Someone in the government needs to set up an animal control department (if they don't have one yet) and really get a move on it!
Before we left to go to Izmir, we took the tram and stopped at the second stop. There were a bunch of stores and restaurants outside. We ate at the first restaurant on your right. It was our best fast food restaurant place! Very good value for the money too and the service was superb.
We stayed at the Sultanahmet Suites for the first three nights and at Daphne for the remaining four nights. I can't recommend the Sultanahmet Suites. The room was a good size, clean and a good value. However, the hotel was located in a VERY poor area of Sultanahmet (I was really disappointed that turkeytravelplanner had not stressed how awful the neighborhood is around the Suites). We felt uncomfortable at night coming back to our room. Also, the room's bathroom had an awful sewage smell. We later discovered this sewage smell was not limited to this hotel only but it was awful! The suites were also located at the bottom of a very steep hill. Lots of energy to get to the top of the hill (which you must do to get to all the sites in Sultanahmet).
We liked the Daphne hotel's service. Their staff was very helpful and pleasant (even the guy at Sultanahmet Suites was a nice guy). We got two connecting rooms at the Daphne which was nice. One of the room's bathrooms had the same sewage smell though. It wasn't obvious the first two days but the second two, it was strong! They also had a breakfast which was ok. I didn't like the fact that the food was kept uncovered for so long though. Cheese, milk, yogurt---- these should be kept in refrigerated boxes or something to keep them from spoiling. Other foods should be covered (especially since all the windows are open and bees/flies/insects are flying inside). The rooms however were clean and nice. They had a small roof terrace with a decent view of the Bosphorous. We asked the hotel to give us a wake up call so we could make our flight to Izmir, but they never woke us up. Fortunately, we had also set our iphone alarm. At least, they had our driver ready to take us to the airport.
If you have any questions or want some honest advice, let me know! All in all, I'd give Istanbul a B-. There's some work the government should do to make Istanbul an A.