Eighth trip to Istanbul

I found Istanbul as interesting as ever on my eighth trip to my favorite city. Istanbul is all about the people in the streets, both past and present. If you are not too timid, you should stay where the Turkish people are — bustling about the streets in the Sirkeci district (pronounced Sirkajee). From there you can walk anywhere you would want to visit.

If you go off-season (October through April) you will have a choice of hotels with no need to make reservations. May and November are excellent times to go because there are few tourists and the weather will be great. It is still cold in April. My last visit was in May of ’02.

In the Egyptian spice market, near Sirkeci — Istanbul, Turkey. Photos: Guertin

Don’t accept posted hotel prices. Ask for the “best price,” as it should be about half as much out of season. Two of us stayed in the Hotel Fahri (No. 1) in the Sirkeci district, paying $22 for a double room with TV and shower and including a full buffet breakfast. The Fahri (No. 2) is located in the same block and slightly cheaper, but the rooms are fine. Breakfast there probably will not be buffet.

Don’t be put off by the crowded, busy streets in Sirkeci. You’ll get used to them quickly. Enjoy drinks and snacks served outdoors a couple of blocks away in Ibni Kamal Street. Meals are also available on this street in the many restaurants. The restaurants don’t look like much but serve tasty food; try lentil soup and other dishes from the many delights visible in their display windows. Prices here are very low. Soup and bread sell for a dollar and a plate of rice with stew for $2-$3.

For the best Turkish restaurant food, walk five minutes to the very busy Konyali Cafeteria near the Galatea Bridge. You can spend as much as $10 if you get a full tray, and you will be glad you did.

Lodging, food and drinks in Ibni Kamal are about half the price you would pay in the nearby Sultanahmed district where many tourists stay. My favorite restaurant in Sultanahmed is Baran #2 on the main street, up the hill near the end of the Sultanahmed trolley platform. (The same owner has a café by the same name [Baran #1] on the opposite side of the street, but they do not serve much food there.) A dish of rice with stew will cost about $4-$5 here in Sultanahmed, and the atmosphere is a little more upscale than that of Ibni Kamal Street. Tell Hodar, the tout who stands outside Baran #2, that Dede says “Hello.”

Lodging in Sultanahmed is okay but expensive for what you get. Above all else, don’t ever make the mistake of staying in the Taksim district all the way across the Bosphorus. The cheapest lodging there will cost $70-$125 and you would be far from everything you came to see.

Vendor selling roasted chestnuts on a Sirkeji street — Istanbul.

You can see most of the city by yourself on foot; just follow a guidebook like Lonely Planet. Everything is within walking distance of Sirkeci. Still, if you can afford to hire a guide you will benefit in two ways.

First, when someone explains things to you, you will see more than if you were on your own; on your own, you walk past things without attending to them because they have so little significance to you. Second, your guide will be your friend. You will come to know a Turk, and through him you will meet other Turks during your tours with him.

A group tour is okay for the Sultan­ahmed area, but a private guide is essential if you want to experience the rest of the city.

The best agency to use for city tours is Les Arts Turcs (Incili Cavus Sok. No. 37/3, Alemdar Mah. SultanAhmet 34400, Istanbul, Turkey; phone 90 [212] 511 2198 or 511 2296, fax 90 [212] 511 21 98, e-mail info@oldistanbul.com or visit www.lesartsturcs.com or www.oldistanbul.com/newtours. html).

In a third-floor office, it’s located in Sultanahmed near the Underground Cistern. The two brothers who own the company are very flexible and accommodating. Their goal seems to be to make your stay in their city a memorable one rather than to make money for themselves. Prices are reasonable; we paid $25 per person on half-day tours, but prices will vary with the season and the market at the time. (We went not long after 9/11, so it was a buyer’s market for tourism.)

Les Arts Turcs has many interesting tours, such as historical sites, mosques, whirling dervishes, baths, ethnic areas, cemeteries and districts outlying Istanbul proper, or they will customize a tour according to your interest. Stop in and have a glass of tea and talk with them and see what can be worked out. You’ll be glad you did! You can always just go back to using a guidebook on your own.

Enjoy Istanbul!

Gainesville, FL