A sultan’s summer palace, a waterfront mansion, a dilapidated rakı distillery, traditional Ottoman-era wooden homes, even a prison: in this city with centuries of history, just about every kind of building has been converted into a hotel, sometimes with spectacular results. Small boutique places can be found down nearly each of the Old City’s narrow cobbled streets, while larger establishments line Taksim Square, nearby Talimhane, and Meşrutiyet Caddesi as it runs down to Tünel Square.
The big question:
Big or small isn’t the key question facing the visitor, however, but rather Beyoğlu or Sultanahmet? The city’s two top draws for tourists couldn’t be more different, so choose carefully. With Istanbul’s biggest attractions laid out at your feet in Sultanahmet, the Old City has long been the traditional staging ground for sightseers – and a magnet for carpet salesmen, tour operators, restaurant touts and unscrupulous cab drivers. Personally, I can’t get away from there fast enough, although I certainly understand the appeal of being surrounded by history, especially for visitors trying to pack a lot of sightseeing into a short amount of time.
In the last decade, my neighbourhood, Beyoğlu, has cleaned up and become a serious competitor for tourists’ attention, offering fewer sights but some of the liveliest nightlife and best people watching I’ve ever experienced, along with excellent restaurants, bars, and cafés; lower-key shopping experiences; and easy transit connections to the rest of the city. If it’s a beautiful, peaceful retreat you’re after, head to the waterfront – either up the Bosphorus or out to the Princes’ Islands.
Things to consider before booking:
- In this old and crowded city, certain amenities you might regularly expect to see elsewhere will be hard to come by at any price point. Elevators, pools, and parking are often scarce, for example, and rooms – and, especially, bathrooms – are generally on the small side.
- Hotels jack up their prices in summer, when any Istanbul resident worth his or her salt has fled to the beach to escape the city’s sticky weather. Spring and autumn are much better bets.
- Breakfast (often a buffet) is generally included in room rates, but don’t expect bacon and pancakes. Most hotels offer some variation on a traditional Turkish breakfast, featuring cheese, olives, tomatoes, cucumbers, bread, honey, jam, hard-boiled eggs and maybe some lunch meat (beef-based, of course; Turkey is a Muslim country and most locals eschew pork). Tea is the drink of choice and coffee addicts may have to settle for Nescafe.
- From the incessant honking to the pre-dawn call to prayer to the late-night revelry, Istanbul is a noisy city. If you have trouble sleeping, be sure to ask specifically for a quiet room, usually one of the ones away from the street.
- Many hotels offer a discount – 10 per cent is fairly standard – for paying in cash. Bargaining further is almost always an option, especially during slow times.