At the crossroads of Europe and Asia, Turkey is a fascinating destination for family holidays, with something for everyone, whether you’re tempted by the mosques, bazaars and monuments of Istanbul, the extraordinary rock formations of the interior, or the azure waters and classical ruins of the Mediterranean coast. Best of all, its people are warm, friendly and family-orientated, with a Middle Eastern reverence for hospitality. Don’t be surprised if strangers give your kids sweets or even try to hug them.
Turkey is the most westernised of the Islamic countries (though it’s a secular country, most people are Muslim), with a relaxed attitude to alcohol, dress and behaviour. Though it abounds with evidence of an eventful history, from its wealth of classical Greek remains to its Byzantine Christian churches and the mosques and palaces built by successive Ottoman sultans, it’s an energetic modern economy that has embraced tourism and development. Its landscape is breathtakingly varied, embracing the Mediterranean coast, the humid shores of the Black Sea, the empty steppes of the interior, and the mountains and vast lakes of the eastern borders. As such, it offers an almost limitless range of child-friendly holiday opportunities, from sybaritic packages to archaeological tours and rugged explorations of the remote interior. Turkey also offers better value for family holidays than much of Europe because it’s outside the Eurozone.
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Dive into the cosmopolitan, crowded and manically busy city of Istanbul, the country’s biggest.
Venture to the Sea of Marmara, a short ferry-ride (and easy day-trip) from Istanbul. The pretty, pine-coated Princes’ Islands, a summertime retreat for the Ottoman sultans, are now car-free: transport around them is by horse and carriage. A trip along the northern shore of the Sea of Marmara takes you to Thrace, and Turkey’s westernmost border. An area of pine forests and long sandy beaches, it has a tourist trade that is intertwined with its wartime history – the region is redolent with memories of World War I and the campaigns fought to control the narrow strategic straits of the Dardanelles. At Gallipoli with its huge expanses of beautifully manicured war-graves you can visit evocative reconstructions of wartime trenches.
Take a ferry to the southern shores of the Sea of Marmara, which brings you within easy reach of Bursa, a picturesque Ottoman city on the slopes of Uludag. The city is famous for its green tiled mosques, its bazaar and its hans (a type of Ottoman warehouse). It also boasts therapeutic hot springs: there are more than 3,000 spas in the city, some dating from the 16th century. Children love exploring the nearby Uludag National Park, accessible via cable-cars and ski-lifts from the city. In spring the slopes of the mountain are carpeted with wild hyacinths and crocuses; in winter, when it is snow-covered, it is a major ski resort with a wide choice of hotels.
Head (along with most visitors to the country) for Turkey’s Aegean and Mediterranean coasts, which offer hundreds of kilometres of clear blue water, beaches of every kind, tourist resorts, secluded villages and a vast range of classical ruins. The climate is benign, and the arid landscape is typically Mediterranean – strewn with olives, cypresses and tamarisk.
Tour the shores of the Black Sea, a region comparatively unknown to foreign tourists. The climate is warm and moist, and the foothills of the Pontic Mountains, which lie immediately to the south, are cloaked with tea and hazelnut plantations. Amasra and Sarfranbolu in the west are picturesque Ottoman towns. Trabzon in the east, once the capital of a Byzantine state, has many Christian and Ottoman remains, and the nearby 4th-century monastery of Sumela with its dramatic clifftop location is well worth a visit. And if you’re fed up with sightseeing, you can relax by the waterside and enjoy the superb local fish.
Get away from it all in eastern Turkey. Though much of the extensive interior is high steppeland – empty quarters, with few roads or settlements – Ankara, the country’s administrative capital, is an efficient modern city with an excellent archaeological museum and an international airport.
The most extraordinary destination in the interior is Cappadocia (the ‘land of beautiful horses’), a surreal landscape of conical rock outcrops (sometimes called ‘fairy chimneys’) created by the erosion of hot volcanic ash thrown out by the eruption of Mount Erciyes some 30 million years ago. From the 4th century AD this hauntingly beautiful region was occupied by early Christians, who carved troglodytic cities and churches out of the soft rock and decorated them with exquisite frescoes. The Göreme Valley, a UNESCO World Heritage site, has the greatest concentration of rock-cut chapels and monasteries in Cappadocia.
Swim in Lake Van further east – several times bigger than Lake Geneva and up to 400m deep, it has startlingly blue waters that reflect the surrounding mountain peaks. Kids adore the local breed of cat, which have one blue and one amber eye and love swimming in the lake! On a small island in the south-east corner of the lake, the beautiful Armenian church of the Holy Cross (Akdamar w Kilise) dates from the 10th century.
Ski! Turkey is not the first place that comes to mind when you’re planning a skiing holiday, but Palandöken on the outskirts of Erzurum in eastern Anatolia is the country’s coldest and highest (3150m), with good hotels and facilities and superb powdery snow.
Turkish food is delicious, healthy on the whole, and very child friendly. Indeed, one of the great pleasures of family holidays in Turkey is discovering the local dishes, from the spicy minced meat kebabs of Adana to eksili, a sour vegetable and fish stew from the shores of the Black Sea.
Local restaurants (lokanta) are everywhere, offering a range of meat and fish dishes, fresh vegetables and regional specialities. There are kebab houses on every street corner, often serving until late at night. Everywhere, street vendors sell simit (sesame-coated bread-rings), roast chestnuts and sweetcorn. Turkish mezes (mixed starters) are world-famous – you’ll be presented with a dazzling array of cold vegetables and salads, hot savoury pastries, fried mussels and squid, mini-kebabs and so on.
Mums and dads might like to wash it all down with a shot of Turkey’s fiery anise-flavoured liquor, raki. Refreshing Efes Pilsen, the local lager, is served in most tourist centres. Tea (çay) houses are ubiquitous, varying from local gardens with rickety chairs and gossiping old men to more stylish metropolitan venues, though the black, sweet tea – served in tulip-shaped glasses – is universal. If you stop to browse in a shop or at bazaar stall, you will not wait long before a tea-boy is magically summoned, swinging hot, fresh cups on a metal tray.
From mid-June to mid-September, and especially in August, Turkey sizzles, so unless your chief desire is to fry on a beach, try to schedule family holidays for late spring or early summer (May–mid-June), when the heat is bearable and the crowds have yet to arrive, or from mid-September to October, when it becomes milder again. The Black Sea coast can be rainy throughout the year.
The Mediterranean coast can still be a good beach bet for the May and October half-terms, with the benefit that there are fewer visitors and hence lower prices.
As with all city-break destinations, Istanbul can be fun all-year-round.
International airlines serve the cities of Ankara (the capital), Istanbul, Dalaman, Izmir, Antalya, Adana and Trabzon. From London to Istanbul there’s a flight time of around 3hrs 45mins. There are also no-frills/charter flights from the UK to Istanbul and Dalaman and coastal cities.
Once you’re in Turkey, distances are great, and transport can be patchy. You could take the romantic option, and travel by train from Istanbul’s imposing Haydarpasa railway station – the journey to Ankara is comparatively fast, but trains to points further east are slow-moving, and you’ll need to allow plenty of time. A much more popular, and efficient, form of transport – and one you might like to consider with older, adventurous kids – is the extensive network of long-distance buses that ply their way between major towns and cities. Journeys may last many hours but are broken by frequent rest-stops, and refreshing citrus cologne is liberally dispensed to weary travellers by the conductors.
Otherwise, it may not be the most environmentally friendly option, but many Turkish cities have small airports, offering frequent flights to Istanbul. These internal flights may be a wise choice if you are planning to take in the more remote areas on the eastern borders.
Everywhere in Turkey, local transport is supplied by dolmuses: mini-vans that operate as communal taxis. They operate designated routes and stop to pick up passengers on demand. Prices are fixed and very reasonable.
The fact that Turkey has remained outside the expensive Eurozone has helped cement its reputation as a destination for great-value family holidays over the last few years.
In the resorts of the Aegean and the Mediterranean coasts, you’ll find everything from plush hotels with childcare to self-catering apartments and villas that allow greater flexibility. Istanbul has some very luxurious family-friendly hotels but various cheaper options too, or source a self-catering apartment if you plan to stay for more than a couple of days.
In Cappadoccia, kids love the novelty of staying in a ‘fairy chimney’ and going camel- and horse-trekking – see our feature Unusual Places to Stay with Kids.
The Black Sea can be hit-and-miss due to its relatively undeveloped nature; the Dedeman Rize lacks atmosphere but does have both an indoor pool and a private beach, and there’s good canoeing and white-water rafting in this area full of forests and rivers. Alternatively, this is a good area to explore if you have a motorhome.
In Palandöken ski resort, the Dedeman Palandöken has a children’s club and indoor pool.
Organised family adventure holidays are a great way of getting your teeth into Turkey with kids, especially if this is your first visit.
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