Istanbul with Kids
I had never been to Istanbul before – one of the major holes in my travel history. By any measure it’s one of the world’s great cities, but I didn’t get there during my earlier travels, and my wife was a little hesitant to take our kids. A rational fear? No. It was media-based, since anything negative that happens in that part of the world is reported a little too heavily. And there have been incidents in the past. But there are incidents in the US all the time. Heck, on the current list of the world’s most dangerous cities, four US cities are listed but zero Turkish cities. So we finally came to our senses and booked a trip – ten days in Turkey, starting with five days in Istanbul.
We felt safe everywhere we went. Very safe. If safety is holding you back from visiting, I’d encourage you to get beyond those fears and book a trip. We had a guide and driver everywhere we traveled, simply to allow us to maximize our time in the country, so that probably helped us feel even safer? But we also walked around by ourselves at night in several destinations and felt similarly confident that there was nothing to worry about.
We loved Istanbul. Over five days we checked out several areas of the city, we did a cooking class, we took a boat trip up the Bosphorus, we visited a lot of the major sites and markets, and we ate extraordinarily well. We hired Sea Song Tours to arrange everything, and they did an excellent job. We left wanting to see more, but knew we fit as much as possible into the time we had in the city. We’ll be back.
We flew non-stop from Los Angeles to Istanbul on Turkish Airlines – one of the first trips I can remember where we didn’t need to connect anywhere. We liked Turkish overall. The service was excellent and we all slept well. My only complaint: meal service took forever. Given that the flight left LA at 6:30pm, by 9:00 we were all tired and wanting to go to sleep, but they were still serving main courses. I think all of us opted to skip dessert to go to sleep. Would love to see Turkish speed that up, especially for families.
We flew into the new Istanbul Airport. The airport is extraordinarily large. Sea Song Tours arranged for a VIP buggy ride for us from the plane to passport control, which is expensive but is a great way to zip through a very large airport. Not only did it save us over half a kilometer of walking, it had the added benefit of getting us to the front of the immigration line. FYI, we had applied for e-visas in advance, and the passport person didn’t ask to see the hard copies we brought.
Things to Do in Istanbul with Kids
We liked virtually everything we did in Istanbul. Sea Song is used to creating trips for families. Although they designed this itinerary specifically for us, based on how we like to travel, I’m confident that this is a good starting list of things to do for any family visiting Istanbul for the first time.
There are a few amazing, iconic buildings in the city that you have to see. St. Sophia (Hagia Sophia) is one of them – one of the oldest churches in the world, then converted to a mosque, and now technically a museum. We loved getting the history of the amazing structure from Metin our guide. Plus the area around the building is charming, with cobblestones and parks.
A Turkish Cooking Class
We try to take cooking classes everywhere we go. Sea Song arranged one for us with Turkish Flavours and we were very happy with it – one of our favorite classes we’ve done anywhere. Selin and her assistant led us through the creation of six dishes: phyllo triangles with feta and herbs; green beans; split belly eggplant; roasted red pepper spread; tabbouleh; and, for dessert, shekerpare – small domed cookies. Then we ate everything (or as much as we could). Highly recommended.
A Painting Workshop
Our kids love crafts, so Sea Song arranged for a plate painting workshop for us at Caferaga Medresesi. Four of us chose to paint traditional Turkish motifs, and my son did his own design. The kids had fun, and they ranked this as one of their favorite activities in all of Turkey.
A Boat Ride On the Bosphorus
We boarded a private boat not far from Ciragan Palace for a trip up the Bosphorus to see more of the city (it goes forever!), cross over from Europe to Asia, and then disembark on the Asian side of the city. While this isn’t a must-do, we all liked the ride, complete with a hot tea service, and it was a good way to get to the Beylerbeyi area without driving.
The Şerefiye Cistern
Istanbul is full of cisterns – large underground facilities that used to store the city’s water supply. Dan Brown’s novel Inferno even finishes in one. We really enjoyed the Şerefiye Cistern, built by Roman Emperor Theodosius II between 428 and 443. My kids ranked it as their favorite thing in all of Istanbul. And we didn’t even spend a lot of time there, but it’s facinating, and nicely cool compared to the hot day above us. Plus we had it to ourselves thanks to good planning by our guide.
A Carpet Weaving Demonstration
Several years ago we visited Ephesus for a day off a Disney cruise ship – our only previous trip to Turkey. Our kids were small, it was a very hot day, and the ruins were far too crowded as there were multiple cruise ships in port. Not a great experience. But our guide saved the day with a visit to a carpet store, complete with a weaving demonstration, the unrolling of carpet after carpet (on which the kids played for half an hour), tea, and then an excellent lunch next door. And the air conditioning helped immensely in making our kids like life again. We even purchased several carpets.
We were happy to do it again in Istanbul. We went to Orient Handmade Carpets, which is five levels or so with thousands of carpets. Our weaving demonstration was even better than in Ephesus, and we loved the unrolling and descriptions. The kids didn’t play on the carpets this time, but we once again loved everything about the experience. And we didn’t even buy any carpets this time – although we wrote to the store and purchased a vase that my wife liked after we returned home.
The Suleymaniye Mosque
I’ve been to a lot of amazing mosques around the world, and last year my son got to visit the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi. For the girls, though, this was their first experience. The Suleymaniye Mosque is a gorgeous building, and a good chance for Metin to talk about Islam in Turkey. My wife and daughters covered their heads with borrowed scarves to be able to go inside.
The Spice Bazaar
We didn’t like the Grand Bazaar. It’s one of those places you’re supposed to go in Istanbul, but it was too large and all of the shops quickly blended together, selling the same things pretty much only to tourists. Far more our style was Istanbul’s Spice Bazaar. The size is more manageable, and being foodies, we purchased many, many spices and teas to take home. We particularly liked Hayat (market stall 8).
Exploring Istanbul’s Neighborhoods
We spent a lot of every day simply exploring – walking around different areas of the city, learning about their significance and history from Metin, trying street food and specialties, and doing a little shopping (especially for unique foods and groceries to take back to California). Our favorite areas were Beylerbeyi, with its tree-lined streets and charming cafes and stores, Moda with its markets, and Ortaköy, which had a great vibe in the evenings, with street food and music. We also liked the historic area around Hagia Sofia, and Istiklal Caddesi, where we saw the Tünel (the world’s first underground funicular and the second-oldest underground railway) and the hotel where all guests on the Orient Express historically overnighted. Oh, and our baklava tasting at Karakoy Gulluoglu Baklavain Karakoy was fun.
And finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Istanbul’s cats. My kids love cats. Every day in Istanbul they counted every cat we saw (generally 50-60 a day), they photographed the cats, they took selfies with the cats, and they fed the cats from our tables whenever possible. If your kids like cats too, Istanbul is the city for them.
Where To Stay in Istanbul
We stayed in two different hotels in Istanbul, partly because of occupancy and rates during the holiday week we visited, and partially because we wanted to see different areas of the city. We loved them both.
Ciragan Palace Kempinski
If you’ve read other posts of mine, you know that I love iconic places to stay – the classic hotels that have been around forever and have a lot of history. In Istanbul that’s the Ciragan Palace Kempinski, a literal Sultan’s palace on the banks of the Bosphorus. We had two rooms next to each other, both with balconies and stunning views over the property and river. Our first morning, awake early with jet lag, I walked around the property at sunrise with two of the kids – so fun having the hotel to ourselves, and sunrise was gorgeous.
The hotel’s history and architecture set it apart, but we also loved the location, only a 10-minute walk to the Ortaköy neighborhood.
Raffles Istanbul is more modern than the Kempinski – utterly luxurious, with an impossibly high service level (especially from our butler Kübra). If you’re a shopper, it’s perfect as it’s attached to the Zorlu Center. We loved having connecting rooms (1612 and 1613) – not common anywhere in Europe – and a larger balcony than we’ve had in any hotel before. And the pool was fun. We never had a chance to use the Kids Club, but activities included crafts, origami, face painting, mask making and puppet making.
Our final day the hotel arranged for a family hammam experience for us. It was interesting! The boys and girls first split up to experience the saunas, and then we all came together in the gorgeous hammam room. My wife and I got onto the marble tables first, while the kids relaxed and watched. The general elements were mass quantities of warm water poured over us, rough exfoliating rubs, massages, ice rubs, more warm water, and then hair washing. I loved it all. My wife didn’t love the exfoliation or ice, but liked everything else. After we finished, we went to a waiting room with a lot of food while the girls got their treatments – really just the water, massage and hair washing elements. After watching all of us, my son opted out. He’s never enjoyed massages in the past. So not sure if your 11-year-old boy will like the experience, but it was fun for the rest of us.
Where We Ate
Breakfast every morning was at our hotels. Both Ciragan Palace Kempinski and Raffles Istanbul have amazing breakfast buffets with everything under the sun. We opted primarily for local specialties. We especially liked the simit (sesame bread circles) and the honeycomb. The first two afternoons Metin arranged our lunches. We dined at Aslan Restaurant and Pandeli Restaurant. We liked Pandeli a little better. Then our third day we ate what we had just made at the Turkish Flavours cooking class.
Our first night we ate at the Ciragan Palace’s main restaurant. The next night we walked maybe a kilometer from the hotel to Ortaköy, tried the famous potatoes on the street, and ended up at The House Cafe. Highly recommended. Then we transferred to the Raffles and wandered around the connected mall, finally having dinner at Eataly – our only non-Turkish meal in Istanbul. Our last night was the end of Ramadan, so we joined the large celebration at the Raffles. We arrived when the restaurant opened, maybe half an hour before sunset, and spent an hour enjoying the scene as the restaurant filled with celebrating locals. There was music and traditional Turkish foods and drinks, and we got the feeling that most groups were going to be there well after we went to bed.
Ramadan in Istanbul
I mentioned Ramadan above. We scheduled our trip for the last three days of Ramadan, and then the annual post-Ramadan holiday. Honestly, I expected to get to Istanbul and feel awkward eating and drinking during the day while everyone else was fasting. It was nothing like that however. I heard various estimates, but somewhere between 40 and 60% of the Muslims in Istanbul were not fasting. Everywhere we went it was business as usual, and restaurants for lunch were filled with Muslims and non-Muslims alike. I know that’s not the case elsewhere in the Middle East, but in Istanbul there are absolutely no issues being a tourist during Ramadan. Other than the amazing feast/celebration at Raffles Istanbul, there was very little indication (for us, at least) that Ramadan was even taking place.
The VIP Arrival Service at Istanbul Airport is $130 per person. If you have the money go for it! Otherwise it’s totally a splurge. When we came back through Istanbul at the end of our trip, we wished we had it. We had less than an hour to connect from our Athens flight to our Los Angeles flight. I’m pretty sure both flights used the same plane, but we had to run 1.4km through the airport to go through security and then get back to the plane. We barely made it.
The boat ride on the Bosphorus was $450. Our cooking class with Turkish Flavours was $100 per person. Meals generally seemed to be between $50 and $60 for all of us.
Rooms at the Ciragan Palace Kempinski start at $450 or so for the non-Palace building where we stayed. Palace rooms are more expensive. Raffles Istanbul starts at $380.
Take your kids to Istanbul! I regret waiting so long to visit. We felt safe everywhere, and loved everything about the city. And take an extra duffel or two! We came back with a lot of purchases – primarily spices and other ingredients so that we could duplicate some of our favorite Turkish dishes at home.