Is it better to take a traditional tour to see the famous landmarks or is it better to do that on your own. Also would your suggest using an individual tour guide to see places off the beaten path. We are going in July and are worried if we wait to book a 1/2 day Bosphorus Cruise when we get there it will be sold out. Is it necessary to book in advance? Concerned about weather, but wouldn't want to get shut out.
It's very easy to see the most famous highlights of Istanbul on your own. So, if you prefer a tour for any reason, you can take one, but there's no "need" to take one. As for the Bosphorus Cruise, I don't even know if you can book one ahead. But if you can't get one, just take the boat to Kadiköy from either Karaköy or Eminönü. This is a commuter boat, and the fares are the same as the tram. You get nice views, and Kadiköy is fun to see as well. Much more information is available on Turkey Travel Planner. Here's his page on Bosphorus Cruises: http://www.turkeytravelplanner.com/go/Istanbul/Sights/Bosphorus/bosphorus_cruise_boats.html
I've done both and enjoyed both methods - if you do it alone though, just read up ahead of time on everything you'll be seeing. You don't need to worry about the cruise - there are several Bosphorus cruise types (the super touristy to the local commuter) and you can pick once you get there - they run every day and at least once hourly (if not half hourly). By the way, the little secret is that you can take a non-touristy, non-narrated tour on a local boat and pay much less and enjoy it all the same. The locals use ferries as a means of transport so you can join them. I took a Bosphorus Cruise as well as a ferry to Kadikoy and to Uskudar (Asia side neighborhood, as well as along the Golden Horn to Eyup (amazing mosque there). The cost was minimal and the boat used was a regular commuter ferry. Also took a ferry to Princes Islands (highly recommended!).
If you're up for a little bit of advanced reading, I suggest that you tour on your own. Most guidebooks will give you a good basic foundation of information and there is plenty of additional written material available on the top tourist sites. Even reading the Wikipedia pages for things you want to see will probably work for some of the sites. Touring on your own will let you move at your own pace and focus on the things you want to see and do. To find things off the beaten path I've used a combination of three approaches in past visits to Turkey. 1). Pick up the Lonely Planet guidebook. It can be thin on lots of details, but has just about every possible site or point of interest listed. One bonus, if you go to small sites you're apt to have a caretaker lead you around and give you a personal tour. 2). Talk to shop keepers, hotel staff and other people you meet and ask them where they suggest you go. They will frequently have ideas for their favorite sites, food, shopping, etc. and will be excited to share them. 3). Pick an area and just walk around to explore. It's been a while since I've taken one, but you probably don't need to book the Bosphorus cruise in advance. Perhaps a recent visitor can provide more current informaiton. I do know that when I've been in Istanbul there have been plenty of private boats offering tours down at the water. You can probably also ask your hotel to make a call to a tour company once you arrive and have a better idea of the weather forecast. I've also used the ferry boat. It takes a bit longer - about 6 hours round trip if you eat lunch and walk up to the castle at the last stop near the Black Sea - but is always available. Have fun!
Thank you for your informative responses. If anyone has information on a personal tour guide with whom they had a good experience, we'd love to hear about it.
Barbara, I'd suggest contacting www.srmtravel.com/ as they'll be able to help work out the perfect tour for you, including the Bosphorus cruise. Their Guides are outstanding, and they also guide for RS tours. Happy travels!
Ditto on SRM travel - their guides are fantastic (we had Yaren and Lale)
We did all the old town stuff DIY. It's easy enough to navigate and there's plenty of good written information and audio tours to follow. For the Bosphorous cruise, you just show up and buy your ticket. We did one of the 90 minute ones, and I felt it was sufficient. It's the off-the-beaten-path stuff that works well with a guide IME. We did a Chora Church/Old City Walls/ Pierre Lotte hill one with Efendi travel that was ok. Nothing spectacular, and unless you have a real interest in one of those places, I wouldn't recommend it. We also did an "Istanbul on Two Continents" tour with www.MyLocalGuideIstanbulcom that I would highly recommend. Great food tour of a part of Istanbul we wouldn't have wandered to on our own. But at a fraction of the price of "Istanbul Eats." Back when we went, the tours weren't as high on TripAdvisor, and we had non problem reserving at a sort of last-minute timing. I wonder if things have change with the high ranking these days.
Chora Church....not spectacular???
The best thing we did was to book an Istanbul Eats tour of the Old Town. We met near the Spice Mkt and proceeded to go through the backstreets to eat and shop where the locals eat and shop. It was enlightening to say the least. We found that the Turks were the most hospitable people we've ever met and they were so helpful in so many respects. Once we went on the tour, we had our confidence up so we prowled the backstreets for the next 4 days and made wonderful purchases and ate at fabulous mom and pop cafes. It is a little pricey but you will find, like we did, that lamb pancreas on a sandwich is quite tasty. And the pizza guy with the home-made lamb delicacies is worth the trip alone. There is a candy store that has recipes from 1944 and their candies is 75% cheaper than the stuff on the main streets. We bought a ton of it and we still have some left for this summer BBQ's. Send me a PM and I can direct you to the areas we went and they are easy to find from the Galata Bridge.
I "third" SRM Travel who, I believe co-authored RS Istanbul Guide Book which I hope you have by now. SRM provided a tour guide (Mina?) for our entire RS tour. Great guide.