Istanbul is a spectacular city where the east and west collide. This is evident through the food, the buildings, such as the Hagia Sophia, and quite literally in the geography where there is a European and Asian side of Istanbul. Istanbul is fairly easy to navigate and the Turkish people are extremely friendly.
As I prefer to do almost anywhere I travel, I booked an Airbnb.com near the Galata Tower outside the Old City, which is much less touristy. The first thing we did when we arrived was to walk up Istikal Caddesi (the main street) to Takism Square. Along the way you can take in the Balik Pazar (the fish market), Nevizade Sokak (one of the busiest restaurant strips in the city), shop, drink a Efes Pilsen (local beer), and eat Baklava and Turkish delights. This street is packed at almost all hours of the night. It is a must do.
The must do sites are as follows: Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, climb the Galata Tower to see a view of Istanbul, the Grand Bazaar, the Spice Market (only the Iranian saffron and somuk are worth buying), Topkapi Palace (the best portion is the Harem, which I believe you have to pay extra to see but is worth it), shopping at Arasat Bazaar (nicer bazaar and easier to navigate), and Chora Church.
You must take ferry up the Bosphorus Strait to Anadola Kavagi to tour the ruins of Yoros Kalesi (kind of a hike uphill). On the ferry ride you can get off in the towns along the way. We ate fresh seafood in a town called Sariyer on the way back. Also, you MUST get the yogurt the kids sell on the ferry. Make sure to put the sugar in it!
Also, everyone needs to experience the Turkish Bath. It was quite an exciting/uncomfortable/slightly terrifying experience. We went to Cemberlitas Hamami. You first choose what services you would like (such a body scrubs, massages, bubble bathing, etc), then you literally have no idea what is going on the rest of the time. I was just taken from one place to another by yelling Turkish women, who were demanding me to remove my clothes, scrubbing me with a turkish exfoliating cloth, then an interesting bubbly cloth, then shooed me off to another room where I was lathered in oil and given a massage (while the ladies chatted to each other the whole time). By the way did I mention there were many other naked women all around. We literally laughed about this experience the rest of the trip. It’s not a bad experience, just an interesting experience.
Now to the important part, what to eat!!!! Some great restaurants include Furreya Fish, where you must get the fish roll, Kasap Osam Doner where you should get the isketer doner, Otantik for manti (my fav) and a turkish pancake (then finish dinner with an ice cream cone from the place right outside), and Filibe Kofteisi to get the meatballs. We also took a cooking class in Istanbul which was a highlight. We learned how to make five dishes of ethnic Turkish food. The classes are offered at Cooking Alaturk and reservations are a must.
And by the way, if you don’t like cats this city might not be for you:)