For older kids, Istanbul – vibrant home to more than 10 million people, built on the site of Greek Constantinople and now Turkey's biggest city (though not its capital) – is fascinating, with its exotic skyline of mosques and minarets from which emanate the atmospheric calls-to-prayer that may well act as a surprise alarm in the morning. Straddling the Golden Horn – the waterway that separates the continent of Europe from that of Asia – it’s a compelling and fast-changing blend of east and west.
Istanbul is not the best city with small children, although there are a few attractions worth singling out. Be especially careful of the traffic when walking with little kids in the heart of the city.
Things to do with kids in Istanbul
Cruise the Bosphorus. Istanbul is, first and foremost, a city of water: much of it is spread along the seashore, and many residents use local ferries to commute and travel around the city. An array of local boat-trips is available for just a few pence: Turkish Maritime Lines offers a twice-daily round trip – the perfect way to see the palaces and riverside houses that lie along its shores, and to admire the succession of fortresses (Byzantine, Genoese, Ottoman) that guard these strategic waters, the gateway to the Black Sea.
Head for Miniaturk for an overview of more than 100 of Turkey’s landmarks, including the overwhelming array of sights in Istanbul itself, from the mosques to the airport. A mini-train does the rounds for those whose little legs tire easily. The venue also has a crystals museum, with further models created by lasers, plus go-karting, a maze, giant chess, an animated ‘storyteller tree’ and trampolines.
Marvel at Hagia Sophia, a vast and imposing Byzantine church, dating from the 5th century, that has become a mosque, and – facing it across leafy Sultanahmet Square – the magnificent Blue Mosque, from the 17th century. Between them lies the underground Basilica cistern, an outstanding example of Byzantine engineering familiar from the 1963 James Bond movie From Russia With Love. The cistern roof is held up by 336 columns, and you can walk along pathways raised above the water-level.
Explore the Topkapi Palace, the official residence of the Ottoman sultans, dating from the 15th century. Its stately succession of courtyards, pavilions, mosques and treasures may be a daunting prospect with young kids, but older children love the tales of its blood-thirsty past – they’re especially intrigued by the harem quarters, the circumcision pavilion, the executioner’s fountain, where the executioner washed his hands and sword after public beheadings… Oh, and John the Baptist’s hand!
If this all feels too educational, take the plunge into the bazaar quarter – a vast, rambling labyrinth of stalls and shops selling everything from hand-knotted rugs to kitchen equipment. When this Aladdin’s Cave becomes too exhausting, take refuge in one of the many little tea- or coffee-houses for a refreshing drink and enjoy the intriguing sight of the locals smoking hookahs. Kids love exploring the spice market, a network of narrow streets packed with spice-stalls: the spices are arranged in tall, multi-coloured pyramids and offer an intoxicating scent of the Orient.
Stroll along famous Istiklal (‘Independence’) Avenue, which over its pedestrianised 3km contains art galleries, bookshops, boutiques, music shops, cinemas, and restaurants, cafés, patisseries and chocolatiers galore. It’s a good place to stop for an ice-cream.
Climb up the hill to Rumelihisari, a 15th-century Ottoman fort with a spectacular position overlooking the narrowest part of the Bosphorus; in summer you can catch open-air concerts here.
Check out the Istanbul Toy Museum, opened by a local poet and author in 2005. It’s lovingly created, if not particularly hands-on, with more than 4000 toys from around the world displayed over four floors of a delightful wooden house, plus a reconstruction of Istanbul’s famous Eyüp Toy Store, which closed in the 1950s. At weekends there are magic shows and puppetry.
Burn off energy at the Feshane World Children Entertainment Park, part of a conference centre that also includes a food market, set in an old fez factory. Or head for the award-winning Galleria Ataköy mall, which as well as upmarket shops has an ice-rink, bowling rink, cinemas and restaurants. It’s the antithesis of the bazaars yet a good insight into modern-day Turkish life in all its contradictions.
Although MacDonalds, Pizza Hut and their ilk have made in-roads here, Istanbul remains a fabulous – and inexpensive – place to eat, with some particularly good fish restaurants and plenty of places to eat good cheap staples that kids love, such as pide (a sort of pizza made with Turkish bread with various choices of topping, from cheese to spicy lamb), kebabs, mezze and dolma (vegetables stuffed with meat or rice).
When to go to Istanbul
Istanbul is a popular year-round city-break destination, though with kids you might want to avoid visiting in the height of summer, when it gets extremely hot.
Street art in Istanbul.
Turkey is one of the best-value destinations in Europe for family holidays. Istanbul's accommodation ranges from super-luxurious to very affordable.
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Flying time3.75hrs All flight times are based on flights from UK London airports, to the capital or nearest destination airport.
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Miniaturk (Mount Nemrut replica).
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Eyüp Sultan Mosque.
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