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3 days in Istanbul, enroute to Tanzania. Need reccomendations.

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We are planning a trip to Tanzania and Rwanda and looking at flights on Turkish Airlines in early Sept, 2013 going from Los Angeles to Istanbul and staying over 3 nights before flying on to Kilimanjaro in TZ. (we are a couple ages 60+). Just couldn't resist this chance to see Istanbul for the first time. Don't know if we will get another.

That gives us one evening, two full days, then one morning in Istanbul. I haven't yet starting researching Istabul but do want to go to the Grand Bazaar, the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace and Hagia Sophia. We would want to have easy access to those sights at a minimum. Will probably also take a guided tour. Would probably want to make use of the historic trolley. Do you have any recommendations as to what neiborhood to stay in for character and convenience? Also, would a day trip to Ephesus be adding too much to that short amount of time? I have booked the Hotel Almira based on reviews, but having second thoughts due to the 'hill climb' some describe to get from the hotel to the tram? I think I'd like a nice rooftop terrace or balcony view, but didn't realize the Sultanamet area was hilly.

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    There is so much to see in Istanbul, I personally wouldn't take one of those days to travel to Ephesus, as great as it is. I don't think you need a guide, all the major sites are easy to locate.
    Here are some notes from our visit:
    We had read that cabs can try to take advantage. Make sure they have a meter and it’s on, or negotiate the price first. That certainly was the case when we got off the ship, as they all asked for ridiculous fares for our hotel, which was 5 minutes from the ship. We had to pay 20 lira, and it should have been 10 maximum if they used the meter. All other cabs used the meter. Be aware that most will not speak any English. Have directions to the hotel printed in Turkish if it’s a smaller hotel. Once you are at your hotel, carry one of their cards with their address so you can show the driver. You will need to get Turkish lira from an ATM as soon as you arrive so you can pay the cab, tip people.
    The tram is a good way to get around, especially across the golden horn. There are machines at the stops that sell the tokens, which cost 1.50 lira ($1). Most restaurants in the most touristy part are not worth eating. Near the sights of Sultanahmet is Hamdi Restaurant (Tahmis Caddesi, 17 Kalcin Sokak, Eminonu), overlooking Galata Bridge and the bustle of the ferry terminal at Eminonu. We had the hotel make a reservation so we could have a table upstairs and on the terrace. We had a very spicy pizza with ground lamb and spices, there’s lots of kebabs. If you don’t have a reservation, get there around 12:30 as by 1:00 it’s very crowded.
    – Here’s a quote from our friend: Balikci Sababattin, Sultanamet
     The ONLY other place in the area worth going to. My turbot was perfectly cooked, the mezze was inventive and all the fish amazingly fresh. Avoid all other places like the plague. Each time we didn't, we regretted it greatly! I won't even bother listing them.
     Balikci Sabahattin is a fish restaurant popular with the local crowd. Shouldn't have any trouble getting a table during the week. Outside dining, wonderful fresh fish.

    Sofyali 9 is a wonderful little restaurant in a small old stone house just off the main road in Beyoglu, on a pedestrian-only street. It is an area just full of restaurants. Worth finding. They serve hot and cold meze followed by grilled or roasted fish or meat. Great service. Great food. Suprisingly inexpensive. Reservation might be necessary. Stop in for one for later in the week, or call if you speak Turkish. A large tray of cold appetizers is brought to your table for you to make your selection. They cost 6-10 lira each.
    After dinner at Sofyali 9, we walked a couple of blocks to the large pedestrian-only street, Isiklal Caddesi. You will be at the end of the line of the old-time tram. Climb aboard with about 3 lira for the 2 of you and ride the length of it. You will pass foreign consulates, lots of shops, and huge crowds that are fun to watch. At the other end you will get off at one of the largest squares in town.

    Our favorite place to eat was the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art (cl on Monday). Pretty crowded for lunch on Sunday, but OK during the week. Take tram to the Tophane stop. Walk ahead about 2 blocks and look for a very small sign for the museum. You walk through a parking lot and see a warehouse-like building on the water front. Tell security you are going to the restaurant and they’ll point you towards the elevator. There is some seating overlooking the water. Very thin, crisp crusted pizza was a good starter. On one visit I had fried lamb meatballs, on another a delicious perfectly grilled pounded chicken breast with orzo with fresh mushrooms and sautéed spinach. All dishes served around us looked fabulous.

    Do visit the Blue Mosque, but you must visit some other mosque that is less touristy. You will be asked to remove your shoes and be provided a plastic bag for them. Women must cover their legs, not be sleeveless and cover their head. I had a light shawl tucked into my bag. Men should not wear shorts. Don’t enter a mosque during prayer time, but you are welcome any other time.

    There is free wifi in the Sultanahmet streets. It’s great if you have an iphone.
    The Grand Bazaar becomes overwhelming fast. The streets leading up to it are also filled with shops and seem to be gathered by specialty. I found the Spice Market more fun, loved seeing all the displays of dried fruits, spices, etc. We heard a lot about their aggressiveness, but we didn’t encounter it. You will be approached by agents of rug shops as you approach big tourist sites, these you should ignore and not engage in conversation at all.

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    I've been a tourist and academic visitor in Istanbul several times and my experience with cabs has been entirely negative. I have a return trip planned next year and will arrange for a private transfer to and from the airport. (I wish I could remember or find the excellent company I used in the past.)
    The taxi drivers often use roundabout routing if you have insisted on using the meters. Moreover, the meters run during long periods of standing in very slow Stambuli traffic.

    But, what is most disturbing, is the suicidal driving habits whenever there is an empty space in the road. These were best described by one of our colleagues, a Neopolitan psychiatrist, who claimed that these drivers would cause GI problems (except he did not use those words) among the drivers in his native city.

    BTW, as your time is short, I recommend you stay on the Sultanhamet side of the Golden Horn. Most of the sights you will want to see are in that area. You might also be amused by my ancient post about the "Best Carpet Tout in Istanbul."

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    Agree that you should stay in Sultanhamet. I've just returned from Istanbul - fabulous city! I stayed at the Hotel Erboy and highly recommend it. I've written a review for TripAdvisor and here is the link.

    The hotel is one half block from the tram station (no hills) and one block from Topkapi Palace. The rest of the major attractions (Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Hippodrome, Basilica Cistern, Istanbul Archeological Museum) are within five blocks of the hotel. Extremely convenient. Also the harbor where you can take a cruise up the Bosphorus is maybe a 5 minute walk away, and the trek, again, is not hilly.

    Ephesus could be done as a day trip, but being that your time is limited, I would leave that for another time. Believe me, there is so much to see and do in Istanbul that you will not be bored at all.

    Last, if I remember correctly, if you stay for three nights or more, the Hotel Erboy will provide one way transport from the airport to your hotel. I would go to their website for details.

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