A couple of years ago a friend of mine in London went to Istanbul, Turkey for Thanksgiving. It sounded like fun to visit Turkey for Turkey weekend. So we spent Thanksgiving of 2012 in Istanbul and Ephesus, Turkey. Although, we did not celebrate Thanksgiving in the traditional sense our weekend was full of new adventurous experiences. We entered a fascinating world of palaces, mosques, sultans, the glories of Constantinople, markets, spices, rugs and delicious Turkish food.
Once again I share our hotel, restaurants, tour companies, and places we visited in the hopes that it will help you plan your visit.
Airport Transfers and Taxis
I had read before the trip that taking taxis was a tricky thing in Istanbul. There are many articles talking about taxi driver scams.
I decided to arrange for a private car transfer from the airport to the hotel. The hotel offered to arrange the private car transfer but they wanted 35 – 40 Euros each way depending on the time of day. When I was researching tour operators I came across a highly rated company in Tripadvisor who operated a private car service as well. They charged us 38 Euro round trip for our airport transfers. The airport pickups and transfers were timely and smooth.
If you do take taxis, make sure they have operating meters. You can also ask your hotel approximately how long and how much the taxi fare will be.
Where to Stay
One of the challenges in my opinion is deciding what neighborhood of Istanbul to stay in. You can stay in the Old Town, Sultanahmet. Many of the major sights are located here. You can easily walk to them from your hotel. This is a very touristy area during the day and quiets down in the evenings. And although, there are plenty of adequate restaurants in Sultanahmet, you’ll find that they are pricier and not as good as some of the city’s renown restaurants located in the newer parts of town. You can choose to stay in the New City, districts like Elmadağ, Nişantaşı, and Etiler. Or you can stay in Galata with neighborhoods like Beyoğlu, Istiklal Street, and Taksim Square. The challenge in staying in these newer areas is that you’ll need to take a taxi to the Old Town for sight-seeing, and there is a lot of traffic congestion in Istanbul. However, a benefit of staying in the newer parts of Istanbul is, as I mentioned earlier, many of the top-rated restaurants are located there.
We found a hotel in Sultanahmet with family suites. They were able to accommodate 4 of us in a suite that had a small bedroom and living room. As some of you may know, it is a rare occurrence in European hotels to be able to fit a family of four into one room. The hotel was the Best Western Acropol Suites and Spa. The hotel is rated as a 5-star hotel. It had a great location, a friendly staff and family suites. However, we felt that the hotel was more like a 4-star hotel due to its finishes and quality of breakfast. We found ourselves taking taxis at night to get to our restaurant destinations. Although, some of the traffic we encountered was horrific, the delicious food was well worth the taxi rides.
We are finding it really worthwhile to book private tours for the family. Not only are we on our own schedule, we are able to do “skip the line” at the attractions, and we have the benefit of a private knowledgeable tour guide. In Istanbul, we booked with a company called Private Tours In Istanbul that received excellent ratings on Tripadvisor. Our tour guide picked us up at the hotel and we spent the day visiting the main sights of the city.
We spent our day in the Old Town. Our first stop was spent exploring the Hippodrome area. It was once the sporting and social center of Constantinople. We then visited the spectacular Blue Mosque. It is called the Blue Mosque because of its intricate and beautiful interior decorated with blue colored mosaics.
We visited the Hagia Sophia museum that was originally built as a Christian church and then converted into a mosque. In the conversion process beautiful mosaics of saints and Christian scenes were covered with plaster. When The Hagia Sophia became a museum, a restoration project tried to uncover some of the hidden treasures.
We also visited the interesting and large Topkapi Palace, the primary residence of the Ottoman sultans.
We stopped to see the Rustem Pasha Mosque famous for its decoration of Iznik tiles.
Our teen children’s absolutely favorite places were visits to the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Market.
Another must see attraction in Istanbul is the Basilica Cistern, a water reservoir built underground. It is the largest of hundreds of cisterns that exist in Istanbul. There you can see dozens of columns that were brought over from the Temple of Artemis (located in near Ephesus).
Where to Eat
I recommend you make reservations for all of these restaurants.
Meze/Mezze: selection of small dishes served in the middle east and Mediterranean countries, much like tapas.
Hunkar 1950 in the Nisantasi neighborhood: This was by far our favorite restaurant. Hunkar 1950 serves traditional Turkish food. Our reservation was for 8:30 and we found that by then the restaurant was out of some of the meze and main dishes we wanted try. But there was still plenty to pick from. The staff was also very friendly. We recommend you get up from your table to look at the meze selections.
Kosebasi in the Nisantasi neighborhood: This restaurant also serves traditional Turkish food. Although, we did enjoy our food we felt a bit rushed in selecting our mezes, and were not offered a lot of explanation even though we asked.
There were plenty of local clientele at Hunkar and Kosebasi always a good sign to us.
Khorasani in the Sultanahmet neighborhood: On our third night we had reservations for the Borsa restaurant at the convention center. But since we were tired we decided to go to a local restaurant rather than take a taxi again. We walked to the Khorasani one of the local Kebab houses. Like other of the local restaurants they serve the rugby ball-shaped Turkish bread. Originally we were going to be seated upstairs but it was extremely smoky since their oven/grill is located there. We chose to sit outside even though the weather was rather cool. The heaters and blankets kept us warm. It was an adequate meal, but definitely not as high quality as the previous restaurants and definitely pricier for being in Sultanahmet.
Borsa located at the Convention Center in Harbiye. Although we did not make it to this restaurant it was in our top choices to visit.
Sultanahmet Fish House: This restaurant gets very high ratings. However, when we went, our meal was included as part of our all-day private tour. When we arrived at the Fish House we were not shown the full menu. Instead, we were given a choice of fish or chicken. My husband and son thought the fish was just o.k. The chicken was atrocious. For a restaurant that prides itself in good cuisine, they certainly don’t know how to make chicken, and should not even include it as a choice. We saw other tourists arrive and since they were on their own, their meal choices looked more appealing than ours.
Kosk Café and Restaurant in the Grand Bazaar: We were tired and needed a break. We sat down at the Kosk Café in the Grand Bazaar. We ordered doner kebabs, made with the meat from a vertical spit. It was fun to sit and watch people go by but the food was not that good. We could have had much better doner kebabs elsewhere.
Otantik in Taksim Square Area: We spent an afternoon walking in the Taksim Square area. We had a wonderful snack of Turkish pancakes at Otantik. They also served wonderful meals.
The Bosphorus, also known as the Istanbul strait, is the body of water that separates Istanbul’s European side from the Asian side. A novel thing to do in Istanbul is to take a ferry from the European side of Istanbul and visit the Asian side. We had done this on previous trip and chose not to do it on this visit. It’s also nicer to take boat rides on the Bosphorus during nicer weather.
Day Trip to Ephesus
We took a day trip to the ancient roman city of Ephesus. For this we hired a private tour company. The car picked us up at our hotel at 5 a.m. and drove us to the airport for a 7:00 a.m. flight to Izmir. The flight was 50 minutes long. In Izmir, we were picked up by our driver and tour guide and drove 45 minutes to Ephesus. We visited the amazing ancient city of Ephesus, the last home of the Virgin Mary, and the Temple of Artemis. We then took a return flight back to Istanbul and were back in our hotel by 7pm. The City of Ephesus is one of the most beautiful and best-conserved ancient cities in the world and it is well worth the visit. It ranked as one of our children’s highlights of our trip to Istanbul.
The Keepers of Ephesus