In the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s, visitors could choose among a sparsely populated category of hotels that included decrepit aging blocks, guesthouses with dubiously reliable electricity and plumbing, and the rare restored standout. Prices remained criminally low, as all but the most coveted rooms (such as those in the Four Seasons) sat vacant. But what a long way Istanbul has come lately. With tourism numbers soaring and room rates skyrocketing, hotels are popping up like mushrooms, while older properties are turning up again like shiny new pennies. Now you can expect solidly progressive and decidedly competitive amenities that more often than not include Wi-Fi, plasma TVs hooked up to satellite connections, and free airport transfers. It's also rare these days (but not altogether unheard of) that your morning shower runs cold or that the backup generator fails in a blackout. In spite of the hotel build-in-Istanbul or bust mentality, the city is experiencing something it hasn't before: full occupancy.
Choosing a Neighborhood
For someone new to the sprawling mass that is Istanbul, one of the first questions to ask is "where's a good place to set up base camp?" I used to unreservedly direct my readers to the historic bulls-eye that is Sultanahmet, where old dilapidated homes converted into "Special Category" hotels created the perfect gateway to an authentic past. But three very important developments in the past few years have caused me to change my mind.
First, because of unrelenting demand, hotels -- the majority of which are run by people with absolutely no experience in hospitality -- formerly charging US$20 for a room now charge 150€ and up, for absolutely no added value. Let me put this into perspective: The luxury five-star Ceylan Inter-Continental has advance purchase Internet rates from 120€ with a Bosphorus view. Second, given the enormous profit margins that a hotel can bring in, it seems as if everyone has gotten in on the act -- transforming what was a market of family-run houses into a sea of mass-produced, soulless "boutique hotels." Finally, and most disappointingly, the hassling by carpet salesmen and their ilk has reached new levels; one time several hotel guests I encountered opted for the safety of the hotel lobby rather than brave the irritating and stressful storm of harassment by salesmen flooding the streets of the tourist areas. It is therefore with a heavy heart that I recommend this neighborhood only with the admonition to stay vigilant (for formal and informal crime), or just roll with it. (For short stays of 2 days or so, I guess I just recommend that you bite the bullet.)
The good alternative is to base yourself in Beyoglu, where hotels are managed by people schooled in hotel management (and not carpet sales), and the food and nightlife are better anyway. Plus, with the new, efficient transport system connecting Taksim and Sultanahmet, you can spend the day wandering around the Old City, and in under 20 minutes, be back in time for a decent meal.
Along the Bosphorus -- Those who choose to stay along the Bosphorus area are generally not the type of people concerned with price tags. These are the deluxe properties of Istanbul, offering staggering views, staggering meals, and staggering prices. Plus, the location isn't very central. Recognizing this, many of these properties offer shuttle-boat service to the key points of the city (or anywhere you want to go, if you're willing to pay). If you can manage it and don't mind sitting in a little traffic (you can't go everywhere by boat, after all), the trade-off of convenience is more than balanced by the serene and spectacular experience of staying on the Bosphorus.
The Asian Side -- Similar to staying in the hotels along the European side of the Bosphorus, by choosing this part of Istanbul as your base, you will be trading both convenience and cost savings. But if staying along the Bosphorus (on the European side) is serene and spectacular, the hotels of the Asian side are even more so, because they benefit from the slower pace of this primarily residential grouping of neighborhoods, and because from this side of the Bosphorus, the views include many of the first-tier sights you came here for. The hotels listed provide scheduled boat-shuttle service to the European side.
Near the Airport -- Frankly, there's really no need to stay near the airport, no matter how early or late your flight is, unless your destination is a conference. The only potential exceptions might be if you're flying on a holiday, if it's snowing, or in the event of unexpected delays both on the road to the airport and at the gate. Road tie-ups can drag a drive to the airport from Sultanahmet from 10 minutes to up to an hour. Traffic will be worse if you're staying around Taksim, along the Bosphorus, or on the Asian side.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.