Turkey’s capital city of Istanbul is not only full of family attractions, this classic stopover of world travelers has become one of Europe’s hottest destinations.
Istanbul was founded in antiquity for the same reason it prospers today: its location on the banks of the broad Bosphorous River made it a strategic port linking the continents of Europe and Asia. A sophisticated (if unpolished) gem, with a dazzling skyline framed by seven hills, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the world’s most intriguing destinations.
Getting Oriented in Istanbul
European Istanbul encompasses the contemporary heart of the city, the Beyoglu peninsula, and the historic district of Eminonu on the Golden Horn. This glittering bay fed by the Sea of Marmara surrounds the point housing the historic treasures most admired by visitors. Visitors can choose to sleep in Beyoglu’s 20th century neighborhoods or within the ancient city walls in the small hostels and inns of Eminonu.
Families with more than three or four days should sample the delights of modern Istanbul, which has evolved from the dark days of “Midnight Express” and James Bond thrillers to become a very hip arts center served by Europe’s top low fare carriers. In the quarter called Beyoglu, the Tunel funicular train has given its name to a hilltop cluster of narrow lanes made fashionable by galleries and boutiques.
The Pera District surrounds the classic Orient Express Railway hotel, The Pera Palace, and Taksim is the pre-millennium business hub. The city continues to expand with newly developed neighborhoods, trendy and pricey restaurants, discos, and malls farther north on the European bank of the Bosphorus in the communities of Kabatas, Besiktas, and Ortikoy. As in antiquity, Istanbul’s lower priced real estate (and up and coming arts districts) are on the eastern side of the Bosphorous River in Asia, where authentic Turkish culture is more readily apparent.
The Sights of Sultanahmet Square
Sultanahmet Square is the center of the Eminonu historic district in tourist terms: the masterworks of the prolific builder Sultan Ahmed I, plus many other famous ancient monuments dominate the coast and maze of cobblestone streets. In AD305, when the Greek port of Byzantium caught the eye of the growing Roman Empire, its emperor Constantine seized control and renamed the city Constantinople.
For more than a millennium, his glorious capital (later to be called Istanbul) controlled the known world’s east-west trade routes by land, and others by sea. Among tended gardens and small parks are the legacies of this former wealth, including the Topkapi Palace, Sultan Ahmed’s famed Blue Mosque, and the Museum of Hagia Sophia, all within a few minutes’ walk of each other.
Touring Haghia Sophia Mosque
Starting chronologically, visit the Museum of the Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya Mosque), or Church of the Holy Wisdom. This 4th century wooden church was commissioned by the Emperor Constantine after he took power in Constantinople and converted, on his mother’s wishes, to Christianity. After several fires, it was rebuilt in stone in AD532 by the ruling Emperor Justinian, with a domed basilica that became a hallmark of Islamic architecture and can still be seen today.
After a millennium of decline and the fall of Istanbul to the Ottomans, the new Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror chose to worship in what was already a historic religious structure, and converted the Greek Hagia Sophia into Ayasofya, a mosque. By simply covering the ornate frescoes and vivid mosaics depicting Christ and his followers with a thin layer of plaster, and adding 7½-meter-wide painted camelskin calligraphies depicting the Prophet Mohammed’s children, church became mosque. Over the centuries, various sultans added minarets, tombs and medresse (schools) to the holy complex while respecting its basilica plan.
We were very lucky to be assigned a wonderful young guide by the Ayasofya ticket office. Medet Yilmaz (contact him at [email protected], 90 536/253 88 25), in his jeans and Oakley sunglasses, was the perfect accompaniment to our family’s visit. And as only a great guide can, Medet was able to bring the era of the sultans to life, using anecdotes about the ruling family, the architects who modified the altar into a mihrab (niche of the mosque) by just shifting it off center until it faced Mecca, and the building’s importance in the city’s history.
The Rise of Islam and its Arts
Next we visited Sultanahmet Mosque, known also as the Blue Mosque because of the 20,000 blue tiles that decorate its exterior. As is customary at Muslim shrines, visitors remove shoes at the door, cover shoulders revealed by sleeveless tops and, optionally for women, cover heads with a scarf. The stunning dome of the Blue Mosque, more than 43-meters (135 feet) high and over 34-meters (110 feet) in diameter, instantly conveys the enormous power of Sultan Ahmed I and his commitment to his religion.
Invisible from the street, the Yerebatan Sarnici (90/212/522 12 59) is a 6th-century cistern built under Emperor Justinian. Serving the bustling capital Constantinople, this underground reservoir was constructed of marble blocks upheld by 336 used Greek temple columns – some Doric and some Ionic — an arrangement that even the youngest imagination will marvel at. Don’t miss the two Medusa head capitals that prop up columns today. With a capacity of 9,800-square-meters, it stored water brought from the Belgrade Woods north of the city by aqueduct. After repairs done in the 80s and the addition of a stone walkway and soft lighting, the Yerbatan Cistern was opened to public view; in summer especially, visitors enjoy a stroll though its cool and quiet interior.
Marvels of Underground Sultanahmet
If you want to see more engineering marvels, the nearby Binbirdirek Sarnici (Cistern of the 1001 Columns), one of the more than 20 cisterns said to be under the streets of Old Town, with admission fees ranging from 25-50 Euros which includes a beverage. Not nearly as impressive in scope, it is nonetheless a very pleasant place to have a cup of Turkish tea. Children 6 and under are free.
Since the historic sights are close by, you’ll want to make lunch an integral part of sightseeing in the old town. Divanoglu, the main street, is lined with clean and comfortable places. You can find doner kebab (grilled lamb with pita) for about YTL2.5 (US$1.50) per person, but if you can spare more, take the family to the classic Sultanahmet Koftecisi for kofte, savory lamb meatballs. Which Sultanahmet Koftecisi?
Just like the permutations on New York’s celebrated “Ray’s Pizza,” there’s a Famous Sultanahmet Koftecisi and an Original Sultanahmet Koftecisi and the Real Sultanahmet Koftecisi, but it is the house of Selim Usta (this means Selim is our Chef) that has stood its ground against all competitors since the 1920s.
At Sultanahmet Koftecisi Selim Usta, set the family down at a table, study the menu or just look around. From the four items they’ve been serving for 80 years, you can try a kofte with pita; a kebab (grilled lamb chunks on skewers with pita); a farmer’s salad of rich tomatoes, lettuce and olive oil; and a white bean salad with shredded lettuce. Wash it down with a soda or ayran, the Turkish yogurt drink, and allow some room for Selim’s honey-soaked desserts.
Ottoman Istanbul from the Sea to the Hills
We spent another day with our guide Medet Yilmaz, who chauffeured us in his car to the city’s major Byzantine, Christian and Islamic sites, both historic and modern. We saw remnants of the ancient aqueduct near the stunning Kariye Camii, a Byzantine church built by Emperor Justinian. Despite its centuries as a mosque and later a museum, within its walls survive some of the world’s most remarkable mosaics depicting stories from the New Testament, done by Theodoros Metochites. (Closed Tuesday.)
At the Suleyman Mosque, which many consider the masterwork of the sultans’ architect Sinan, Medet explained that dried ostrich eggs were hung from the chandeliers to ward off spiders that disturbed the faithful at prayer. We strolled around the former Jewish ghetto, saw costumed children prepare for a circumcision ritual, and toured the city’s Asian shore. Having the company of such a knowledgeable local (one who had the skills to decipher the city’s traffic and parking regulations) was a highlight of our stay. Families who don’t have the Turkish lira (US$150/day including vehicle) for a private guide can do a tremendous amount of sightseeing on their own using public transportation.
Visiting Uskudar on the Asia Side
Istanbul’s public ferry system provides both a cheap way to appreciate the undulating skyline and a fascinating introduction to life along the river. From the port at Eminonu, hop on any of the eastbound ferries that cross the Bosphorous to the Asian side at Uskudar. It’s just 15 minutes to the shore where you can disembark and dine at Kanaat, a classic restaurant with the best hot and cold plate dishes of Turkish cuisine. Other ferries run north toward the source of the Bosphorous, the Black Sea.
The small ferry going up toward Besiktas or Bebek on the European shore of the city offers a rich taste of waterfront mansions, open-air discos and cafes, foreign embassies, and classic palaces. Take note of the presidential Dolmabahce Palace, last occupied by Ataturk, the founding father of Turkey; it’s open daily except Monday and Thursday for viewings. The vast Ciragan Palace nearby has been recently converted into a Kempinski Hotel.
Magnificent Topkapi Palace
The city’s grandest palace is an absolute treasure that is partially open to the public. After the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453, Mehmed II built the first palace on Seraglio Point overlooking the Sea. The royal compound evolved as the Ottoman Empire expanded, and when a waterfront palace next to the Topkapi (Cannon) Gate burned down, other sultans’ residences were enlarged and the complex took its name. The home of four centuries of sultans until Abdulmecid I took the throne in 1839, Topkapi Sarayi was restored in 1923 after Turkey became a republic. Today, this complex of kiosks, buildings, gardens and fountains is most famous for its Harem.
Try to visit Topkapi first thing in the morning before all the tour buses and cruise ship shore excursions arrive, and plan to spend three to four hours there. After you’ve entered the main gates and strolled the shady gardens, veer left and towards the Harem, where you’ll have to buy a separate admission ticket ($10) and await a guided tour. By noon the wait can be over an hour, and if you are assigned the same young guide we had (she delivered the harems’ history in a dull monotone that was unintelligible in English), you may end up regretting not spending €100 (US$130) on a private two-hour tour with a licensed city guide.
Regardless, the Harem’s display of tile work, wood carving and marble construction — coupled with the knowledge that 1,300 women, the sultan’s mother, and the eunuchs who cared for them called it home — make the visit fascinating. What went on in the sultan’s ornate bedroom and library is discreetly glossed over, but there are a few tales of the royal brothers, who were “imprisoned” there to squelch any efforts to take over the throne. When our son saw the dining area and learned that royal servants left trays of food on a marble slab, then exited before they could view the women eating, he pronounced this “The world’s first buffet!” (The Turkish word for fast food is bufe.)
Break up the tour with a rest stop at Konyali, the attractive restaurant and snack bar on the palace’s roof terrace. Younger children will enjoy the dining alcove stuffed with silk cushions and the bejeweled waterpipes favored by sultans. Among the many other fascinating buildings on Topkapi grounds (all signposted with English notes) are the sultan’s library, meeting and reception areas, a throne room and our favorite, the Chamber of Sacred Relics.
The Sacred Relics collection is one of the most interesting exhibits because an Islamic cantor in a glass booth chants passages from the Q’uran while visitors pass by such items as a hand-written letter from Mohammad, items from his life such as a sword, bow and wooden case, and a mantle inside a gold case. Other priceless votive objects such as a tooth and some hair of the prophet Mohammed were, of course, only worthy of the sultan. In comparison with the justly celebrated Treasury that houses famous diamonds and imperial rubies, this is truly a remarkable, unique collection. The apparent devotion of Muslim visitors in this room was so intense that even visiting children from around the world stayed silent, keeping their place in the queue that snaked very slowly past all the exhibits.
The other Treasury, however, is a must-see for its collection of gems and riches bestowed upon the sultans, and their exquisite workmanship. If you don’t believe me, rent a copy of the 1964 Jules Dassin film “Topkapi” from Netflix and see why Peter Ustinov and Melina Mercouri, two utterly charming thieves, settled down in Istanbul. Those interested in ceramics must tour the Treasury’s Porcelain collection, where masterpieces from every corner of the Ottoman Empire, and from the coffers of all its enemies, are proudly displayed. The Topkapi Saray is open daily except Tuesday; opening hours vary by season.
2 Fun Museums for Kids
The fine Istanbul Arkeoloji Muzesi (Archeological Museum) behind the Topkapi surprised us with its collection of sculpture from the civilizations of Assyria and Babylon. Also on the ground floor is the fun Childrens Museum, where glass cases are filled with miniature tableaux of life among the Sumerians, Assyrians, Hittites and other peoples of ancient Anatolia. Putting clay pots and other excavated finds in the context of tiny figures and animals makes a wonderful story to share with kids.
Our son was taken by the museum’s 20-foot-tall wooden Trojan Horse, and tried to scale its ladder to enter the horse’s belly fortress while other children played or worked on art projects nearby. Don’t miss the freestanding Tile Pavilion across from the entrance; it’s the only non-religious example of Iznik tile-making from Bursa to survive in Istanbul. Open daily except Monday.
In a city of 13 million, said to have 11 million cars (and we believe this), there is much much more to see, including new attractions such as Istanbul Modern, a stylish waterfront warehouse across the Galata Bridge that was displaying a huge Rodin Retrospective at our visit. Shoppers will, of course, not stop until they have devoured the Grand Bazaar, namesake of the famous fashion magazine, and lifeblood of a city built on millennia of commerce.
Grand Bazaar: Mother of All Malls
The Kapilicarsi or Covered Bazaar as the Turks call it, is a huge indoor mall with booths, cramped stalls, spacious air-conditioned shops, elegant patisseries, mosques, water fountains and more tucked into brightly lit and sign-posted lanes. Each lane or sokak features one or two products, perhaps leatherwork, tanners and shoemakers in one; tile vendors and pottery shops in another; or chic Euro fashions and cheap polyester underwear in another.
Turks throng the Bazaar too, but what visiting shoppers love are those Turkish products that are the most valuable abroad and the best value here: rugs and copper work.
Allow plenty of time at the Grand Bazaar to meet its salesmen and hear the history and tradition behind everything they sell. You will quickly learn that the seller of loucum (known as Turkish Delight, this is a soft gummy-bear like candy) or the pistachio vendor has as much of a story to share with you – over a cup of tea of course — as the man with heirloom silver. Here is a bazaar (souk in Arabic) where you don’t have to be tormented by touts trying to lure you into their shops. They do exist, but their enthusiasm for their merchandise is good-natured and infectious, and you will need a glass of the strong, sweet tea they offer to fortify yourself for the requisite bargaining.
Bargaining tip: As a rough rule of thumb, where prices are not noted, begin your negotiations at half the requested amount, then work your way up to meet somewhere at the 75% point. If you’re in a shop where prices are posted, don’t anticipate more than a 10% dip.
Shopping with Old Friends
For us, returning to Istanbul after 18 years and writing four guidebooks about this amazing city for the “Frommer” series, the pleasure came in revisiting the vendors that we had recommended to readers back in 1987. Not only were they still in business, still delightfully knowledgeable and articulate about their wares, they had prospered and expanded their shops and their international clientele. Both Adnan and Hasan, our favorite rug dealers, and Murat Bilir, our esteemed vendor of copper and metalwork, even have their own websites.
To make the most of your Grand Bazaar visit, enter through the portal nearest Kolancilar Sokagi and look for signs to Bedestan, the original part of the market. Murat Bilir’s shop, L’Orient (90/212/520 70 46), is here at Serif Aga Sokak 22-23, but you can’t get lost because everyone knows him by name. The Bazaar’s blacksmith quarter features small shops crammed with towers of copper and tin plates, cups, gleaming Samovars to serve Turkish tea, ornate bronze and tin door knockers, cooking pots, urns and casseroles, fine candlesticks and lanterns, intricately incised serving dishes and more. Light and unbreakable, these items make wonderful gifts, and just a few minutes getting to know Murat will add to their value as a unique memento.
When you feel overcome by the glittering treasures in this section, walk a minute to Halicilar Caddesi, one of the New Bazaar’s larger pedestrian streets, and at no. 89-90-92 among the carpet dealers you will find the shops of Adnan and Hasan (90/212/527 98 87) . Adnan has retired since we first met, but Hasan, like Murat, has a son in his greatly expanded business and still deals in the finest quality merchandise. Any rug ranging from antiques and heirlooms weavings, to flat weave kilim spun by the country’s many tribal peoples, to silk Persian carpets and even newly made broadlooms for American living rooms, can be a good value, often up to 50% less than what you would pay in the United States.
New to us and the Bazaar is Deli Kizin Yeri Junior at 82, Halicilar Carsisi, the children’s wing of a shop run by an American expat who designs gift items and sells children’s clothes, toys and fun handcrafts with Turkish motifs.
Hamam Style: Bathing As Culture
The hammam is a personal experience that is as much about Turkish culture as harem tours or the tea drinking bouts with carpet dealers. One goes to the hammam, or Turkish public bath, regularly for deep cleansing. Alternatively, you can pay a few lira less and just spend the time inside one of the beautiful domed marble bathhouses, ladling water from wall-mounted spigots over yourself while soaping up. Back in the day these were the only bathing facilities available and Cemberlitas (pronounced CHEM-bear-litash; 90/212/522 79 74), founded in 1584, is still one of the best.
We recommend choosing the massage option: having a strong, semi-nude woman or man (she wears underwear, clients do not) scrub you clean. Lay out on the round, heated marble slab at the middle of the bathhouse and wait your turn, a masseuse/masseur will scrub you with a coarse cloth, roll you over, scrub some more, then triumphantly display the soiled scrubbing cloth before unceremoniously dumping a bucket of fresh water over your head. This process, done to men a bit more brusquely and with more of a recognizable massage, is delightful. Trust me. Children are more than welcome but you’ll have to judge their modestly quotient; young teens should be comfortable with it.
We were told that few locals went to the hammam any more because they all have indoor plumbing, but in fact, at our visit, the women’s side of the haamam was filled with mothers and daughters, and clusters of girlfriends, giggling and washing each other’s hair as they waited their turn for a soap-down and massage. If their use has diminished in Turkey, it’s certainly increased in Europe, where almost every city from London to Seville boasts of its spas with “authentic hammams.”
Trip Planning Details for an Istanbul Family Adventure
Istanbul has developed terrible traffic problems in the past few years and attempts to provide public transport to its historic core have been stalled whenever excavations reveal the centuries of history underfoot. There is a small subway system, an extensive ferry network, cheap and plentiful taxis, crowded and rowdy public buses, a funicular and a new tram to choose from.
From Istanbul’s newer deluxe hotels, visitors will most likely approach the pedestrian-only Sultanahmet area on a fast, comfortably air-conditioned, glass and steel tram that would seem equally at home in Disney World. It glides along a traffic island through Beyoglu from the port at Kabatas, crosses the Galata Bridge to the port at Eminonu, then runs between the lanes of busy Divonglu, the main artery of the old city to the Grand Bazaar. Families staying in Sultanahmet will use this system a lot to reach the district’s boundaries, where they can hail a cab for other areas.
Many visitors today prefer hotels outside the historic district, primarily in popular Taksim Square, which has the classic Tunel – an antique Swiss-like funicular that feeds pedestrians downhill into the Old Town, where they can connect to the tram or walk. Another Tunel takes sightseers to the waterfront where they can connect with a Bosphorus ferry. Families with active children and a larger budget may prefer the contemporary towers with swimming pools and fitness rooms that have sprung up north of this original city center, around the waterfront Besiktas district, which is served by cheap Bosphorous ferries from the main harbor at Eminonu, site of the Egyptian Spice Market and another tram stop.
Family Hotels & Dining Options
For a thorough listing, please see our guide to the top family hotels in Istanbul.
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