By Jennifer Fontaine
Known for its rich history, centuries-old architecture and robust cultural heritage, Turkey may not be the first place that comes to mind when planning a family vacation. But this ancient land is bursting with family-friendly activities and a chance for kids and grandparents alike to capture a glimpse of old world customs while creating new family traditions all their own.
With an almost 2,000-year old history, Istanbul is Turkey’s crown jewel, and the only city in the world that spans two continents. In this, the world’s fifth largest city, you’ll find the Bosphorus, a dazzling strait 19 miles (31 km) long, dividing the city and forming its famous boundary between Europe and Asia. The Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism reports that Turkey has become the sixth most visited country in the world after Italy, with a total of 31.5 million international visitors in 2011. With so many hidden treasures, from Roman ruins of Ephesus to Cappadocia’s underground cities dating back as far as 8th – 7th centuries B.C., our family agrees that exploring Turkey’s highways and byways gives us a lot to be thankful for this holiday season.
Offering a wide array of luxury metropolitan comforts as well as breathtaking vistas and even hardcore outdoor adventure, planning a trip to visit any one region of Turkey can seem daunting. Here are just a few of our family’s most beloved places to visit in Istanbul and some of our favorite kid-friendly activities to enjoy in one of the most exciting and inviting countries in the world.
The Grand Bazaar
Navigating Istanbul’s Kapali Carsi (Grand Bazaar) is an adventure itself as you wind through more than 60 narrow, cobblestone streets housing at least 3,000 shop owners who sell everything from precious stones and hand-crafted jewelry to furniture, ceramics, and leather goods. One of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world, the Grand Bazaar, attracts between 250,000 to 450,000 visitors daily and in 2014 was listed as the number one most-visited tourist attraction in the world.
Although this famous market is best known for its retail therapy, make a point to rest your weary shopping feet at any one of the bazaar’s numerous cafes, bars or restaurants. Better yet, venture out of the hustle and bustle of the tourist areas and into the Cebeci Han courtyard where you’ll find calmer atmospheres and relaxed locals eating melt-in-your-mouth adana kebab at Kara Mehmet.
Considered the heart of modern Istanbul, Taksim offers a wide variety of family friendly sightseeing and culinary opportunities. Even with a flood of tourists visiting this area daily, it still remains one of the city’s most popular local gathering places hosting festivals, parades, and national holiday celebrations throughout the year.
Starting at the beginning of istiklal Caddesi, the elegant pedestrian-only street connecting Taksim Square to the historic Beyoglu district and points beyond, you can meander its newly restored cobblestone streets popping in and out of local music stores, art galleries, libraries, museums, intimate restaurants, and friendly Turkish coffee houses. Another fun way for the whole family to breathe in the smells and sounds of Taksim and its rich scenery is to hop on the recently-restored historic tram to visit Galata Tower, one of the city’s most striking landmarks built by the Genoese in 1348.
The cultural center of the Asian side of Istanbul, Kadikoy offers visitors a much slower pace, more green space, incredible views of the Marmara Sea, and the ancient cityscape of its European counterpart’s shores. Kadikoy offers a smorgasbord of culinary contentment, including Haci Bekir, established in 1777 and known as the oldest candy, chocolate, and Turkish delight craftsmen in Istanbul. And our family’s favorite, the vibrant Kadikoy Carsisi where you can enjoy fresh steamed mussels by the bucket in a lively outdoor fish market setting.
In the neighboring Moda district, breathe in the salt air and let the kids get their wiggles out with a walk along the Park Ici Yolu trail, where you’ll find frolicking space next to the Marmara Sea and upon massive breakwater boulders. For dinner, partake in an authentic Turkish culinary experience at the beloved raki sofrasi (Raki table) dining seaside at Koco where your cup runneth over with colorful, traditional meze (small dishes), fresh fish, and the lion’s blood of Turkey, Raki, an anise-flavored Turkish alcoholic drink that is guaranteed to put a pep in your step and some hair on your chest.
There are many ways to enjoy Istanbul, but none are quite like seeing its breathtaking bridges and sprawling beauty from a boat gliding across the Bosphorus. Ushering through its corridor close to 50,000 vessels yearly, the world’s narrowest strait is also considered one of the busiest “streets” in Istanbul.
In a city with over 14 million residents, effective public transportation is a necessity, and with only two bridges connecting the European side to the Asian side, the vapur (ferry) is a critical piece of the transportation puzzle for most locals’ daily commute. They are also an affordable and nostalgic way for visitors to experience Istanbul from the water. You can purchase your jeton (token) when you arrive at the ferry dock or at Jetonmatik token machines located at major bus stops, Metro and tram stations.
Honorable mentions for family friendly travel in Turkey outside of Istanbul
As you enter Goreme National Park and the Rock Sites of Cappadocia, Turkey you may have the feeling you’ve been catapulted straight to another planet with extraordinary natural wonders such as the whimsical fairy chimneys, and other surrealistic geological formations. Highlights include great hiking, underground cities (primarily Derinkuyu and Kaymakli), stunning hot air ballooning, and a unique cultural heritage dating back to the sixth century B.C.
Getting to Cappadocia from Istanbul is approximately a one hour and 25 minute flight from Istanbul Ataturk Airport to Kayseri Airport (about one hour’s drive from Cappadocia) or Nevsehir Kapadokya Airport (approximately 45 minutes from the city center). Many Cappadocia hotels offer free shuttles from these airports, so make sure to reserve ahead of time.
The long and narrow Datca peninsula, located on southern Turkey’s emerald Mediterranean Sea, is dotted with hidden coves, crystal-clear waters, and sparsely-populated villages perfect for getting off-the-beaten-path and enjoying the sun and sea.
Take a stroll through the bougainvillea-draped buildings of Eski Datca (Old Datca), lounge seaside while servers from the Merhaba Restaurant serve you crisp Turkish beer and fresh octopus, or drive down to the tip of the peninsula to dine surrounded by the ruins of Knidos a 4th century B.C. harbor.
Getting to Datca from Istanbul is easiest by taking a one hour and 20 minute flight from Istanbul Ataturk Airport to Milas-Bodrum Airport, then hop on the ferry and in under two hours, you will be deposited in the middle of the sparkling blue Datca peninsula.
Built in the 10th century B.C. on the site of the former Arzawan capital by Attic and Ionian Greek colonists, Ephesus is a must-see for history buffs. With only an estimated 15% of the site having been excavated thus far, important revelations of the Roman Imperial period were unearthed including Library of Celsus and the Great Theatre. Highlights include great hiking, shopping, architecture, and rich history.
Getting to Ephesus from Istanbul is easiest by taking a one hour flight from Istanbul Ataturk Airport to Izmir Adnan Menderes Airport. From Izmir airport you can hop on the airline’s free shuttle to the city of Selcuk and grab a taxi or walk 30 minutes to the site. Entrance fee is 9 EUR (9.65 USD)
Turkey: Just the facts
Straddling Asia and Europe, Turkey covers an area 780,580 square kilometers (301,382 square miles) with a total coastline of 8,430 kilometers (5,238 miles). Turkey is a democratic, secular, unitary, constitutional republic with a diverse cultural heritage.
The country’s official language is Turkish and the vast majority of its population is Sunni Muslim, with Alevis making up the largest religious minority and another 0.2% of the population representing the Christian and Jewish faiths.
There is no nationwide advisory issued to travelers visiting Turkey, however tourists should exercise the same amount of caution when visiting any large metropolitan city from New York to London, Buenos Aires to Istanbul.
How to get there
Istanbul is an extremely easy metropolis to access by any mode of transportation, air, sea or land, but a good old fashioned airplane is generally quickest. Given the 2015 Skytrax World Airline “Best Airline in Europe” award, Turkish Airlines offers direct flights to Istanbul in almost every major city across the globe, including Los Angeles, Moscow, New York, Milan and Paris. Flight fares range from $600 – $1600 depending on the time of year.
What to know before you go
Many EU member nations including Austria, Belgium, Ireland, Netherlands, Spain and the United Kingdom as well as Norway and the United States require a visa to enter the country. Learn more about Turkey’s visa requirements here. Approximately 44 countries’ citizens can apply online in as little as three minutes via their Electronic Visa (e-Visa) Application System which was launched on 17 April 2013 by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Turkey. You may also purchase a visa on arrival at a Turkish airport.
Ranked by TomTom’s as the #1 most (traffic) congested city in the world, Istanbul has its challenges to navigate when getting from point A to point B. Plan ahead and save time by taking advantage of its public ferries, subways, and buses. If you plan on using public transportation frequently while in Istanbul, purchase the Istanbulkart, found at ticket booths newspaper stands and kiosks near major transportation hubs like Eminonii, Taksim, and Besiktas. Good for use on the city’s metro lines, city buses, ferries and more, the Istanbulkart offers significant discounts on fares leaving you with more money to sip Turkish coffee.
Bring comfortable shoes. Walking is the number one mode of transportation, streets are ancient and hills are abundant. A kid carrier or a lightweight stroller is essential for getting around town.
Many buildings do not offer accommodations for individuals with disabilities. If you or someone you’re traveling with requires this kind of assistance it may be challenging.
It is customary to tip 10% in restaurants and hotels. Other service providers such as taxi drivers appreciate if you “round up” the fare.
Turkish people are extremely hospitable and incredibly respecting of their elders. Simply learning how to say “Lutfen” (please – prounounced “lewt-fehn”) and “Tesekkurler” (thank you – pronounced “te-shek-kewr-lehr”) along with the use of other common courtesies may get your whole family invited home for dinner.
Children, and family in general, are revered in the Turkish culture, making it one of the most family friendly places we have ever had the pleasure of traveling and for that, we are forever thankful.
Jennifer Fontaine is the founder of Outdoor Families Magazine, publisher of MommyHiker.com, a blog to encourage outdoor activities with children, and an activist filmmaker inspiring dynamic change in the world. She lives in Southern California with her family.