Sunday, October 29, 2017

Stock Musings

Two stocks catch my eye as of October 27, 2017: Freds, Inc. (FRED) and General Electric (GE).

I've never set foot in a Fred's. The stock closed at a meager $4.77/sh on Friday, breaking the psychologically important $5/sh mark. Its inventory numbers seem high, and it's not doing a good job calling in receivables as quickly as possible. While Dollar General (DG) and similar stores have prospered, especially in America's Midwest, Fred's never seemed to capture the magic formula. Nevertheless, at below $5/sh, Fred's seems like a value play. Alden Global Capital has made a substantial investment and appears to be holding major losses, but its presence could spur activism and perhaps break Fred's out of its complacency.

General Electric stock closed at $20.79/sh on Friday. The last time GE's stock saw such levels was in 2012. With a new CEO determined to turn the company around and already in cost-cutting mode, GE seems like a potential buy on weakness. 

Disclosure: I own GE and FRED stock. My positions may change at any time. Nothing herein constitutes investment advice or a recommendation to buy or sell any security. You are responsible for your own due diligence. 

Update on November 30, 2017: after a month, GE has declined 11.1%; FRED has increased 8.4%. The S&P 500 increased around 2% during the same time period. I am curious to see the comparative performance in 3 and 5 years.

Update on December 6, 2017: FRED released earnings before the market open, and the stock declined over 20% to 4.02/share. When I started buying the stock, I felt as if two options existed: 1) bankruptcy; or 2) a buyout. Seeing Alden Global Capital continue its involvement concerned me because of Alden's history with companies post-bankruptcy re-organization. In this case, despite its declining revenues and stock price, FRED has openly and consistently stated its desire to increase its footprint. Given recent developments, I speculate a buyout seems more likely now than bankruptcy. 

More specifically, the writedown for inventory is significant and addresses my primary concern of financial misstatements due to overinflated inventory. The dividend cancellation is harsh but also indicates neither the company nor Alden is steering Fred's into bankruptcy in order to cash in on its bonds (whether by going short and/or by buying secured or first-in-line bonds at a steep discount). As such, I have bought more FRED shares today. As always, my positions may change at any time. Nothing herein constitutes investment advice or a recommendation to buy or sell any security. You are responsible for your own due diligence. 

Update on February 8, 2018: I have been averaging down on both FRED and GE in liquid and retirement accounts. FRED closed at 3.02/sh. GE closed at 14.45/sh. My positions may change at any time. Nothing herein constitutes investment advice or a recommendation to buy or sell any security. You are responsible for your own due diligence. 

Update on May 4, 2018: FRED has declined to about 1.60/sh. It's my worst investing mistake so far. Once a company cuts its dividend completely, it's usually time to jump ship. My mistake post-Trump was sincerely believing the country would direct investment into smaller regions where much of Trump's base resides. In reality, we are seeing tax reforms that handicap smaller enterprises and M&A that prioritizes existing market leaders. 

Update on October 11, 2018: GE is 13.62/share as of today's mid-day trading. 
Update on November 1, 2018: JP Morgan's Stephen Tusa appears to be correct in his prediction of GE stock to 10/share. GE stock looks poised to close around 10.12/share. I continue to hold. 

Monday, October 23, 2017

Izmir and Kusadasi, Turkey (& Ephesus, Too)

I have nothing against Izmir, Turkey. I really don't. 
View of Izmir from the top of the Asansor

No one robbed me. No one accosted me. I didn't see any homeless people, a remarkable feat for a city of its size. Almost everyone was helpful. I found many excellent small restaurants and diners (interestingly, the best ones had chefs from Konya and Syria, not Izmir). 

But Izmir, formerly called Smyrna, is just another city. It lacks the magnificent mosques of Istanbul or Iran. It doesn't have Delhi's palpable energy. Unlike nearby Malatya, it's so used to tourists, it doesn't feel the need to impress them. 

In case you want to visit, you only need one day. Almost all the popular tourist sites are within walking distance around the Konak Square metro stop. If you want a budget hotel, you can stay in Antikhan Otel, located near a small ruins area. 
Agora Park area
A typical tourist will visit Konak Meydani (aka Konak Square); Saat Kulesi (Clock Tower); Kemeralti Bazaar/Market; Kestanepazari Camii/Mosque; and Hisar Camii/Mosque. Farther from these sites and accessible by taxi or metro are the Asansor, an elevator with a nice view of the city, and the Izmir Museum of History and Art (not to be confused with the inferior, forgettable Izmir Museum of Art and Sculpture near Konak Square). 
Entrance to Asansor

Some tourist websites mention Kadifekale as a nice spot, but I didn't go there. Also, if you go to Asansor, you can see the Bet Israel Synagogue next to it (it was closed when I tried to go inside). 
Bet Israel Synagogue

For me, Izmir really only had two interesting attractions: the Museum of History and Art (mentioned above) and Kulturpark. 
Conveniently, the Museum is inside Kulturpark, a large, relaxing outdoor park that also hosts a convention center. Entrance to the three separate museum "houses" is only 5 Turkish lira, easily the best deal in town. 

After you spend a day and night in Izmir, take the train at Basmane Otopark (aka Basmane Gar Otobus Duragi) to the small town of Selcuk (about 10.50 TL), then walk to a the local bus station and catch a small shuttle bus to Kusadasi (about 6 TL), which is near Ephesus.

Kusadasi is unlike any other city in Turkey, a combo of Newport Beach and Santa Cruz, California. It had perfect sunny weather in late October. There's not much to do except walk along the beachfront, but part of the charm of visiting a small beach/hippie town is precisely that there's not much to do. 
View from my hotel balcony

To be fair, several tours exist, and the primary attractions are in or near the Biblical town of Ephesus, where several archaeological ruins and the House of the Virgin Mary (aka Meryemana) are located. 
Not the House of Virgin Mary.
This is Ephesus Archaeological Site aka Efes Orenyeri.

An Ephesus (aka Efes) tour, including roundtrip transportation, will cost you 40 euros in the low tourist season or 50 euros in the high season. Combining the Ephesus tour with other attractions, such as the Virgin Mary's house, will cost you extra (maybe another 10 or 20 euros). Definitely see Ephesus if you visit Kusadasi--it's only 20 minutes away by car, and it'll take you an hour or hour and half to walk the entire area. (The exit is located near the church ruins of the Virgin Mary, not to be confused with the house of Virgin Mary, which is in a totally different location.) 
Altogether, you only need one day for Izmir and two or three nights total for Kusadasi/Ephesus. I stayed at the Doubletree (by Hilton Hotel Kusadasi), about one mile from the main strip, where you can visit Mado Cafe for your sweet tooth, Mezgit Restaurant for seafood, and Erzincan Restaurant for Turkish food (get the beef/chicken claypot dish). For your SIM card or cellphone provider, Turkcell worked much better than Vodafone in Kusadasi but performance was even in Izmir. 

I'm not a beach or golf guy, but i
f you want to golf, try the Ramada Resort Kusdasi & Golf hotel. Kusadasi also has four beaches: Pamucak beach; Kustur beach, a narrow strip of beach with a beautiful view of the ocean; Ladies Beach, accommodating to both men and women, despite its name (25 years ago, it was only for women); and Long beach, which is probably exactly what it sounds like. I didn't visit any of them, but I passed Kustur beach, and it looked nice, almost like a private beach. 
Your eyes do not deceive you.
This is Kusadasi, Turkey, the bar district.
I'm sitting in Mado cafe now, enjoying yet another rice pudding and sunset. For some, Kusadasi is the place to get wild in Turkey, but me, I prefer pudding and sunsets.

Bonus: I just visited Sirince, a small village about 20 minutes from Kusadasi known for its wine and olive oil. I paid my driver 40 euros, and he dropped me off and waited while I walked around. The drive to Sirince was beautiful--lots of greenery and mountains--but the village itself was too small for me. Then again, I'm a coffee drinker, not a wine person, and lots of older ladies seemed to be enjoying themselves. I'll include some pictures below in case you want to visit. 

Lots of small European-style pensions here.
This one looked nice from the outside. Gate was locked.
Personally, if you desire a small town atmosphere, I'd try Selcuk, though it lacks the full nature scenery of Sirince. 
Temple of Artemis in Selcuk

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Chile's San Pedro de Atacama

Chile's San Pedro de Atacama is one of my favorite places on Earth. It has sand, ice, canyons, and flamingos. I've never seen anything like it anywhere else. Travel photos below.

Bonus, from National Geographic (2019): 

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Malatya, Turkey: Well-Designed City Centre with UNESCO Site 2 Hours Away

If I were Turkish, I'd live in Malatya. It's clean; the perfect size, geographically and  population-wise; and enough to do but not so much you feel pressured to jump out of bed at 7:00AM each morning. 

Best of all, just 2 hours and 15 minutes away is a 2000+ years-old UNESCO site, Mount Nemrut (aka Nemrut Dağ), containing beautiful views reminiscent of one of my favorite places in the world, Chile's San Pedro de Atacama. 
On the way to Mt. Nemrut.
The city of Malatya itself also has a beautiful vibe, like a teenage girl prettier than everyone else at a party but not obviously so because she doesn't use make-up. When I took the bus, I didn't have the local bus card and didn't realize I couldn't pay cash. Someone, a young person, scanned his card twice, once for me, and once for him. When I tried to pay him, he refused to accept my money. Being Iranian and thinking I had to be persistent until my act of courtesy was accepted, I actually tried forcing the money into his hand, only to have him forcefully push my hand away. (Note to self: although the Turkish drink, ayran, is similar to doogh, Turks ain't Persian and don't know taarof/تعارف‎‎.) 

This situation repeated itself a few days later--I underestimated walking distance to a location and spontaneously hopped on a bus. After I literally waved a 10 TL bill around, a young woman ignored my money and scanned her card for me.

My tour guide for Mount Nemrut? He met me at my hotel the day before our trip so we could see each other in person and agree on the basics. 
My tour guide's info. I paid 250 TL.
Worth it.

Lest you think I'm discussing a farming village the modern city hasn't corrupted, here's a photo of Malatya's city center at night.  
All the roads are perfectly paved. All of them.

Interestingly, Malatya's economy does rely heavily on agriculture, more specifically apricots. The best are the black ones, and dried apricots are everywhere.
12 TL.

There's even a small shrine to the apricot in the middle of the city. (Tip: when choosing hotels, try to stay near the apricot statue, located near the Sire Bazaar and other convenient locations. Best hotel in town is the Doubletree Hilton. If you want non-corporate, try the Kircuval Hotel.) 
All hail the Great Apricot.

In addition to the apricot, Turkey's national food, doner/shawarma, is also popular. I didn't find the local speciality, kagit kebabi, though. Maybe you'll have better luck. 

Let's do a quick rundown of sites to see in Malatya:

1.  Nemrut Mountain and Sire Bazaar were mentioned above. 
Sire Bazaar
2.  Waterfall Park aka Şelale Parkı and Kernek Meydani aka Kernek Square are next to each other. (Most people outside of upscale hotels do not speak English, so always have the Turkish name available). There's a restaurant with bland food at the top of the man-made waterfall's stairs, but it has beautiful views, especially at sunset. 
The bottom of Waterfall Park aka Selale Parki

Kernek Meydani aka Kernek Square.
No one I met knew the origin of the word, "kernek."
(By the way, there's a beautiful-looking natural waterfall about one and a half hours away from Malatya called Gunpinar Selalesi.) 

3.  Hurriyet Parki, a small but pleasant park. Ataturk Museum aka Ataturk House, a tiny museum, is nearby. 

4.  The best mosques to see are Ulu Camii aka Battalgazi Grand Mosque, Yeni Camii (New Mosque), and Aysehan Cami. You can skip all the other mosques. 
Aysehan Camii/Mosque
 Arslantepe Ruins aka Arsaltepe Mound aka Aslantepe. I haven't been there yet, but you can look up pictures online. See here, for example. 
From the Provincial Culture & Tourism Directorate

(Update: I visited Aslantepe. You can skip it--it's small, not well organized and nowhere near ready for primetime unless you are really, really into archaeology. Directly below is a photo of the only interesting part, which was covered until a worker interested in a tip showed it to me.) 

6.  The Provincial Culture & Tourism Directorate in Malatya publishes a very useful tour guide. You can see the guide at the local tourism office, but I'll publish a page of additional sites I didn't include here. 
From Malatya's Provincial Culture & Tourism Directorate

7. If you are into interesting architecture, there's a building next to Malatya Park Mall called Malatya Büyükşehir Belediyesi. 
Local government office. Spiffy.

 4 days is more than enough to see Malatya, but I'm staying for 7 nights, and I'm more relaxed than I've been in months. If want a simple travel experience with all the amenities of a modern city, try Malatya--a city-village that hasn't outgrown its country manners and, like Cinderella, in need of exposure and luck to show the world her charms. 
Bonus: a few suggestions for Malatya's tourism department: 

1) Hire more people who speak English and Farsi. Most of your tourists are from Iran, Russia, and Germany, but almost no one speaks any of their languages fluently in Malatya. Why not hire college students abroad during the summer or do a student exchange with an Iranian, German/Austrian, or Russian university? 

2) Why is Wikipedia blocked in Turkey? I can use a VPN on my phone to get around restrictions, but my connection slows down a lot. Strangely, my VyperVPN does not work at all when attempting to connect to any U.S. server. 

3) I still don't know where to buy a bus card. Hold on, I just asked one of the few fluent English speakers at the Doubletree Hilton hotel. Apparently, I can buy a local bus card at a shop near a specific bus stop. Why not make it easy for tourists and sell local bus cards inside hotels?

Double Bonus: a taxi from the airport to the city centre should cost about 80 TL, but you can take the Havasbus for 10 TL. Uber and Careem do not operate in Malatya as of October 2017.  

On a separate note, the hotel recommended seeing the city of Sanliurfa, located several hours away. 

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Travel Posts

Interested in travel posts? See below.
Abu Dhabi (UAE) is HERE.

Budapest, Hungary: at the Crossroads: HERE

Brunei is HERE

Calgary, Canada is HERE. I attended the Canada Cup (2019). 

Casablanca, Morocco, the NYC of Northern Africa, is HERE. (Rabat is included.) 

Cebu, Philippines is HERE. Bonus: Margarito B. Teves and Manila (2018). My favorite cities in the Philippines are Palawan, Dumaguete, and Cebu. (Bonus: interview with a Cebuana HERE, and Manila's Chinatown is HERE.) 

Doha, Qatar is HERE.

Edinburgh, Scotland is HERE. (2019)

Havana, Cuba (Part 1) is HERE

India, the "Golden Triangle" of Jaipur, New Delhi, and Agra, has a multi-part series. Part 1 starts HERE. Post-trip summary is HERE

Istanbul, Turkey is HERE.

Izmir/Ephesus/Kusadasi/Sirince, Turkey is HERE.

Jakarta, Indonesia is HERE (Asian Games of 2018). 

Kazakhstan is HERE (2019). 

Konya, Turkey, where Rumi and Shams are buried, is HERE.

Lisbon, Portugal is HERE.

London, England and Heathrow are HERE (Cambridge & Oxford also included).

Malatya, Turkey is HERE

Medan, Indonesia (North Sumatra) is HERE. (Bonus: Jepara, Indonesia is HERE and Madakaripura waterfall is HERE.) 

Mexico is referred to generally HERE and HERE. (Bonus: HERE) Queretaro and Morelia are HERE

Muscat, Oman is HERE

Padang, Indonesia: City of Waterfalls and Dragonflies is HERE

Palembang, Indonesia: interview with an Indonesian backpacker and archaeology/history buff is HERE

Prague, Czech Republic: Original Hipster Nation is HERE

Quebec, Canada: Avoid at all Costs is HERE. Quebec City's Winter Carnaval is HERE. (2019) 

San Pedro de Atacama, Chile is HERE. (Photos only.) 

Saigon, Vietnam is HERE. (Bonus: Hanoi is HERE and Hue, Vietnam is HERE.) 

Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic is HERE (2018). A great city, but one that is sure to become increasingly "touristy" with time. 

Sharjah (UAE) is HERE.

Sverige aka Sweden is HERE (2021). 

Tbilisi, Georgia is HERE

Tirana, Albania: interview with Auron Tare is HERE

Tunis, Tunisia (and Sidi Bou Said) is HERE

Toronto, Canada is HERE. (Bonus: Toronto Museum, second-best Islamic Art museum I've seen after Doha's.) 

UNWTO's 2017 Conference is HERE.

USA: Iowa ("Once Fertile, Now Barren") is HERE (2018). Orlando, Florida (DisneyWorld) is HERE (2019). Seattle, Washington is HERE (2008). 

Vienna, Austria is HERE. I did not like the city. 

Yogyakarta, Indonesia and Prambanan are HERE. Are you interested in Buddhism? You've got to visit. 

My lengthy post about visiting 18 countries in 5 months is HERE. A shorter one is HERE ("Adventures in Travel"). 

You may also follow me on IG under matthewrafat or Twitter @matthewrafat to see more photos.

Bonus: What have I learned in my travels? More HERE (2018). 

Bonus: What to pack when traveling? More HERE (2018). What to do when returning? More HERE, at end of post (2019). 

Bonus: after seeing 50 countries I think I finally understand Western history. To that end, I've created two posts that presume to explain events from 1919 to 2019 in context. You can start HERE, then go HERE

Bonus: as a non-Muslim, will you be safe in Muslim countries? More HERE (2020). 

Bonus: a short article on mass tourism and the Flying Pigeon is HERE (2020). 

© Matthew Mehdi Rafat

Tuesday, October 10, 2017


“The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” ― Winston S. Churchill 

Does peak stupidity exist, or will people find ways to accelerate idiocracy to ever-increasing heights? 

It is impossible to write about politics today in a semi-normal way. It's true epithets and crassness have always existed in politics. Margaret Thatcher had to contend with chants of "Margaret Thatcher, milk snatcher" when she cut welfare spending. Reagan was derided as nothing more than an actor. Yet, one still had to admit some level of intelligence behind the criticism. It takes wit to rhyme Thatcher with anything mellifluous, and it managed to impart essential information as well: this particular party was cutting welfare to prioritize other spending. 
Such criticism starts the hidden clock behind all political calculations. If Thatcher cut welfare but failed to lower unemployment, at some point, she would appear incompetent. Cutting or reforming welfare benefits without a net positive result in the overall economy is monstrous for obvious reasons. Liberals understood this and planned their attacks accordingly. Conservatives knew they had to produce results because they lacked the touchy-feely platform of the liberals, and stepped up or lost power. The accusatory dance never seemed to end, but it was an unappreciated form of checks and balances: sometimes sentiment is favorable, sometimes an economy needs a firm hand, and democracy assumes voters can be trusted to know which style should lead and when. 

Speaking of conservatives and results, Barry Goldwater--a sincere, intelligent politician--was seen as so radical, he repelled American voters, losing in a landslide.  Yet, he was savvy enough to attract none other than Hillary Clinton: "I was also an active Young Republican and, later, a Goldwater girl, right down to my cowgirl outfit and straw cowboy hat... I liked Senator Goldwater because he was a rugged individualist who swam against the political tide." 

Irony of all ironies, Hillary lost the presidential election to a rugged individualist who not only swam against the political mainstream, but bazookaed it on the way to the White House. 

Meanwhile, voters slowly began to realize--or should have realized--central banks, bondholders, and the military create more policy behind the scenes than anything they would ever see on a ballot. If a firm hand was needed on the dance card to create a soft landing from 2002 to 2008, voters had no options--they could do nothing to influence Alan Greenspan or the independent Federal Reserve. Ron Paul's arguments to abolish the Fed make more sense in this democratic context, but once any entity holds trillions of dollars in debt, everyone realizes the debt will never be paid off completely, and the entire game changes.  

So yes, something feels different today in politics, but every single commentator and philosopher predicts the end of civilization every twenty or so years, and the wheels keep churning, so writers find it imprudent to sound the alarms. 

And yet, something does feel different this time. Since the dawn of television, optics over substance has been with us. JFK was derided as a pretty face but beat Nixon in part because female voters found him handsome. Had he run for office when only the radio existed, his higher-pitched voice may not have bested the deeper, more measured Nixonian sound. (Canada's Justin Trudeau certainly continues the JFK dynamic.) 

When Hillary supporters argue misogyny caused her loss, they fail to account for their nominee's anti-JFK momentum: no charisma, no youth, no idealism, and--dare I say it--no sexuality. (Had Hillary's campaign "leaked" a few photos of her frolicking on the beach with a 30 year-old Cuban male model, she may have won. Think about it--which of her existing supporters would have switched their votes or stayed home post-disclosure?) 

If politics mirrors society, thereby shining a light into voters' minds, does the pessimist have evidence today's politics--and people--are more corrosive than ever before? When I watched the debates, I heard not one inspiring sentence from Hillary--or Trump. Even now, after Trump's many opportunities to speak, not a single memorable sentence comes to mind. I know Hillary would have been no different. (By the way, much of the gender pay gap can be attributed to the unequal pay and gender composition of CEOs and other high-ranking executives. Most CEOs are male and the gap between their compensation and average employees' pay has grown dramatically over time. The key to solving the gender pay gap is to pay CEOs less or figure out how to get more women promoted into the highest paying management jobs. You won't hear this common sense approach from any politician in office because it won't get as many votes as a more divisive policy. Besides, how could your supporters sell t-shirts with faddish slogans if politicians used common sense?) 

Americans don't tolerate idiots in office just because they're entertaining. It's because once in a while, they inspire us, and we suspect the chaos they deal with is a crucible that produces something other than sheer crass. Thus far, aside from Justin Trudeau's media ops with Syrian refugees, 2017's politics have produced no semblance of Vaclav Havel's wisdom or inspirational moments. Peace in the Middle East isn't nearer on the horizon. Space travel is being handled mainly by billionaires while NASA is reduced to begging for more government funding (its GPS-based maps are quite useful, though). Water management worldwide seems to lack any cohesive plan, and we are told every year that American aquifers continue to be in dismal shapeAnti-poverty efforts have benefited more from developed nations outsourcing manufacturing than anything government has done. 

In short, the number of wins assigned to the government's side of ledger over the past 5 to 15 years is nil. K-12 education is in worse shape, unless you live in a district with very expensive homes or win a charter school lottery. University tuition continues to increase much higher than the overall inflation rate, and parents are told to budget for 5 to 6 years because students may not get the classes they need in 4 years. Police brutality has always been with us, but the lack of accountability when unnecessary and excessive violence is captured on film, especially against teenagers and unarmed minorities, has shocked many Americans. Meanwhile my local "bullet" train was built in the 1980s and is slower than a car unless taken at a specific time. 

Even on smaller issues, the American government has proven untrustworthy with taxpayer funds: there are fewer blue P.O. boxes available, reducing convenience as well as required personnel time, but the USPS deficit continues unabated. Many liberals will argue the solution is to reward incompetence with more taxpayer funds, without realizing most voters' taxes have already increased year over year, and accountability and responsiveness haven't improved. To sum up, former politicians have made so many promises to existing interest groups, higher taxes simply sustain the status quo rather than assist new ideas or the general public. 

A government that fails to make education useful and affordable; fails to institute accountability in police departments; and fails to improve infrastructure while increasing taxes and reducing services is bound to be viewed with contempt. Welcome to America in 2017. 

Friday, October 6, 2017

Istanbul: Best in Class Tourism

I'm in Istanbul, Turkey, one of the most visited cities in the world. It's easy to see why tourists love Istanbul. It has an inexpensive subway and fast-moving bus system; wonderful cafes; incredible pastries and food; let's repeat this again--wonderful food, especially puddings and sweets; and a blend of religious sites not available elsewhere because few other cities have experienced so many conflicts while also having rulers who chose to preserve rather than destroy. 
Lots of different bread options. I call the one in the background "puffy naan." 

Have your pastries with a drink called "sahlep"
or some tea/çay, pronounced "chai."
Great-tasting chocolate, 
esp the bittersweet or pistachio-infused pieces. 
Sweet shoppes are everywhere. 
I can see why C.S. Lewis's nephews & nieces loved Turkish Delight so much. 
Istanbul is the kind of city where you'll see a nondescript, empty restaurant, walk in, eat something you've never had before, love it, and order three more. 
Was it carrot pie covered in syrup? No idea. It was awesome.
(Update: I think it was pumpkin.) 

Don't know what was in this spread, but I ordered three.  
It had a pleasing pepper kick. Only 3 TL each. 

Here's a basic rundown of how to approach Istanbul. Think of it as divided in two sides by a body of water called the Golden Horn, with one side called Europe and the other side called Asia. (Although I didn't hear anyone actually use those specific terms, apparently the European side is more developed than the Asian side.) 

Starting on the upper left of your visual map and working your way down, you'll see Chora Church, Suleiman Mosque, Grand Bazaar, Turkish & Islamic Arts Museum, and the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. On the right side, you'll start at the top again with Taksim Square, Galata Tower, Dolmabahce Palace, and Topkapi Palace (Topkapi Palace Museum is a must-see). You can see these sites in three to five days. 

Some tourist books include the Basilica Cistern and Maiden Tower (at the Bosphorus Strait) as major attractions, but I didn't like the Basilica Cistern--it's just a small underground cave with a few pillars where water used to be stored--and I didn't bother visiting the Maiden or Maiden's Tower. Some tourists may enjoy the Istanbul Archeological Museum, but I skipped that one, too. (Another site list is linked here, from Lonely Planet.) 
The quickly-expiring museum pass is in vogue. I hate it.
Why pressure guests by allowing only a few days to see your best sites rather than a more reasonable two weeks?
Also, stop charging for "special exhibitions." If I buy a ticket, I should be able to see your entire museum. Ok, rant over.
Let's straighten out some names first. Many sites use English and Turkish names that aren't intuitive, and like "Firenze Santa Maria," it's not always easy to realize you're looking at Florence.

Within the Sultanahmet area, which includes a Sultanahmet tram stop, is the Hagia Sophia, a former church, also known as 
Ayasofya Müzesi. 

Right across from the Hagia Sophia (not Haga Sophia, as it's often misspelled) is the Blue Mosque aka Sultan Ahmed Mosque, built by Muslim Ottomans after conquering Constantinople and re-naming it Istanbul. The reason it's called the Blue Mosque is because of its blue tiles, but don't look around for a brightly-colored blue dome, because you won't see it (though I thought I saw a subtle blue light around the mosque at night). 

Depending on whom you ask, the Blue Mosque is the largest mosque in Istanbul, but others say the Süleymaniye Mosque aka the Suleiman Mosque (named after Suleiman the Magnificent) deserves the honor. 
Suleiman Mosque

Around the Suleymaniye Mosque are also two tombs with beautiful wall tiles. Personally, I thought the Suleymaniye Mosque was the most interesting mosque. I was able to see all three Abrahamic religions represented within it, though I still have unanswered questions about the specific items in the dome itself, which appear to be amber, flowers, and a plump version of the fleur-de-lis, which may be Turkey's native tulip. (By the way, if you see an aerial photo of a mosque, cover the minarets with your hands. What do you see? I see a Byzantine church design, indicating the Ottomans preserved most existing religious sites.)

Other than the mosques (aka camii) mentioned above, I particularly enjoyed seeing Mihrimah Sultan Mosque; Kalenderhane Mosque; and especially the Emniyet Evler Mosque 1970 (Emniyetevleri Mahallesi, Akarsu Cd., 34413); Laleli Mosque (located at Kemal Pasa Mahallesi, Ordu Cd., 34134); and the Pertevniyal Valide Sultan Mosque. 
Pertevniyal Valide Sultan Mosque

Chora Church is also known as Kariye Muzesi. As of October 2017, it's under major reconstruction, so if you are a devout or Orthodox Christian (am I being redundant?), check its status before visiting Istanbul. For now, you'll be able to see only a few interesting and unique mosaics and frescoes. You'll notice several depictions of people holding three fingers, apparently to represent the Trinity; however, I saw some artistic renditions with just two fingers, not just in this church but other places, and no one could explain why only two fingers are being shown. One person suggested the two fingers represent Jesus's mother and father, but other Orthodox artwork highlights only Mary and John the Baptist, with "papa" Joseph nowhere to be found. 
Giving you the fingers?

Before you visit, download the app Trafi, which lists subway and other public transportation times and stops. Its GPS programming is a work in progress--a near but incorrect metro stop was chosen as closest to me--but it's still useful for orientating yourself with various metro names. I could not clearly understand the labyrinth ways to get around--there are trams, transfer tunnels, buses, and subways--but luckily, Istanbul is eminently walkable, taxis are everywhere, and Uber, BiTaksi (an app that calls a taxi to your location), and Careem are allowed. 
Definitely get a subway or Metro card, which can also be used on buses (but not the short ones, which look like shuttles and accept only cash). When first using the old and confusing metro card machines, choose the third/last option on the menu, which represents a new Istanbul card. When re-loading, you just have to hold up the card to the card scanner/slot, deposit money, and confirm your selection on the screen after the machine accepts your bills. I put in 20 TL (Turkish lira) to start, but I should have put 50 TL to ease my mind about catching a subway or bus over a five day period. 
Metro Pass
Where should you stay? I like the Taksim, Beyoğlu, Beşiktaş, and Karaköy areas. Karaköy is the most touristy of the four, but some people might appreciate its convenient location. If you want to be around lots of good cafes and restaurants, definitely stay in Beşiktaş near Türkali Mahallesi. I would stay in either Taksim (touristy, but well-done and enjoyable) or Beşiktaş near Türkali Mahallesi (I'm writing this post there now, in a cafe called Baracca Coffee). No matter where you are, you'll probably be around 20 to 30 minutes away from wherever you want to go, assuming you're near a metro stop and don't mind walking. 

What to do, besides see the beautiful mosques and other popular sites? A uniquely Turkish experience is a hammam, where you pay to enter a central room and wash yourself with a bucket of water and soap bar, or pay a little more to have someone of the same gender wash and scrub you as you lie down. The traditional hammam experience begins when you go to a nondescript room, strip down to your underwear, wrap yourself in a towel, exit the small room, lock the door, take the key with you, and find your way to a large room. Inside the room, several faucets dispense warm water. You'll lie face down on a centrally-located marble-like slab, your forehead resting on a rectangular piece of plastic wrapped around a small towel.

Your masseur will fill a bucket with water, soap you up, and intermittently splash warm and increasingly warmer water on you to wash away the soapy film and bubbles. Then he'll use a scrubbing pad to get you really clean. At some point, you'll turn over, and he'll prop your leg on his knee and massage your leg muscles. More soap and water will be used, and when you're done, you'll get your towel and go outside, where another towel will be wrapped around your head while you wait to dry before going inside a small sauna room or your locked room or locker. (Don't forget your key!) Some people swear they've found religion during this experience, but I had a thinly-built masseur and might not have gotten the soapy thrashing others received. (I continue to prefer Chinese-style reflexology.) 
On my way to the main bathhouse room.
The dome in this one was exquisite and allowed sunlight in.

Istanbul's other unique features are 1) its youthful population, which seems to be out en masse every night, cigarettes and beer in hand, at the lively restaurant and cafe districts in Beşiktaş or Taksim; and 2) its rug-making exhibits, which tell stories of a once-popular trade that flourished in many cities outside of Istanbul, especially Konya. Many of Turkey's best rugs are featured in the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts (Turkve Islam Eserleri Muzesi), a must-visit. 
I haven't seen all the popular sites. The Jewish museum near Galata Tower was closed when I showed up, and I didn't make it in time to go inside the baroquely-designed Dolmabahce Palace, but I'll end with this: Istanbul is a city for the young, but it manages to tolerate the old. If you ask me, 'tis a fitting description for a city incorporating each century's madness and creativity into one splendid domed, cobblestoned, and tiled package. The most beautiful mosaic isn't on the walls of the Chora Church, not really--it's everywhere you look in Istanbul.

Bonus: I'd avoid Blue Istanbul Hotel Taksim (in Beyoglu). Worst hotel experience I've had so far in Turkey. Please do not confuse this hotel with the similarly-named but totally different Blue Istanbul Hotel in Sultanahmet.

Bonus: Use a VPN connected to a European server for your best bet in accessing websites that may be blocked in Turkey. 

Bonus: I visited the Jewish museum on another day. It was very informative and definitely worth a visit.