Note: This is the first entry in a series about our 2012 trip to Turkey.
When we began planning our trip to Istanbul, we realized that we wanted to stay in the Old Town’s Sultanahmet District. The district is within walking distance to most of Istanbul’s major tourist attractions: the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, the Hippodrome, Topkapi Palace, even the Grand Bazaar. We began and ended our trip to Turkey in Istanbul and stayed at two different hotels. We can thank Rick Steves and his Istanbul guide for helping us find these places.
Many of the hotels in the Sultanahmet District boast views of the Sea of Marmara from rooftop terraces and breakfast is usually included at almost all Turkish accommodations. The Grand Peninsula’s breakfast room opens to their beautiful terrace with views not only of the sea, but also the quaint, cobblestone streets of Old Town. The room itself was tidy and comfortable, with a western-style bathroom, radiant heat, and doors opening out to the street. We learned that it is appropriate to leave a tip for the folks who clean your room and the staff that assists with breakfast. You can book a small double room there tonight (high season) for about $80/night, including breakfast. We were there during the low season, so it was even a greater bargain for us. Many of the hotels accept U.S. Dollars, Euros, and Turkish Lira, sometimes giving discounts for cash.
One warning about this hotel (which is applicable to most hotels catering to tourists). We did not want our trip to be “packaged” in any way. We booked our first nights in Istanbul before we left the USA, but everything else we planned to book along the way. Upon arrival at the hotel staff asked where our next destination would be. We indicated we planned to buy bus tickets to Safranbolu. The staff asked if we’d like complimentary help in arranging the bus tickets. “Sure, that would be great.” But when we came down for the free help, a pushy travel agent greeted us, very intent on selling us a packaged deal. We had to be firm that we were not interested in booking any part of our trip ahead of time and that we would find our own accommodation. Interestingly enough, the next night, a different staff person directed us to a legitimate travel agent who helped us buy our bus ticket to Safranbolu on Metro, one of the many bus companies operating in Turkey.
Other than that little snafu with the pushy travel agent, we really liked this hotel and would stay there again.
We didn’t realize that our return trip to Istanbul would be during the “high season” surrounding Christmas. Apparently, many foreign tourists (like us) use their Christmas vacation to visit Istanbul, hence the high season. The Grand Peninsula was already booked (and prices had jumped) so we looked for other accommodations. We landed at the nearby Sultan’s Eye Comfort Hotel. I would describe this establishment as something between a hostel and a pension. Guests seemed a bit younger and rowdier, there was no rooftop terrace, and the place was clean, but not as tidy as the Grand Peninsula. It also was less expensive and included breakfast. We neglected to get a photo of the building’s exterior…it wasn’t all that memorable.
There were two restaurants near our hotels in the Sultanahmet District that we enjoyed. I should begin by saying that the food in Turkey is incredible. I can’t think of a single meal that we didn’t enjoy (however, we did pick up a loaf of anchovy bread at a bakery and that wasn’t so yummy).
Our favorite was the Cankurtaran Onbasilar Kebab House. We stumbled across this on our own as we were looking for the restaurant I’ll describe next. We noted it and went back. This place is a gem–so much so that we ate there a total of three times. The staff is friendly, the portions are generous (and delicious), and the atmosphere cannot be beat. During our second visit, a group of friends including a man with a bongo, started dancing and beating along to the Turkish music playing in the background. The staff offered us additional tea and a wonderful dip made from carrots (for free!) while we sat and enjoyed the scene.
Rick Steves’ guide described the restaurant we were looking for. We didn’t find the staff at Cankurtaran Sosyal Tesisleri as friendly but the food was excellent and well-priced. They seemed to cater to local families and less to the tourist crowd. One family at a table near us were celebrating some occasion and it looked like all were having a great time. Brian really wanted to go back to this one a second time, but it was a bit farther a walk for us and we didn’t get there again before we ran out of time in Istanbul.