I have to confess to a weakness for amazing winter breaks and to planning my weeks accordingly – ‘Football club Thursday evening, dry-cleaning Friday morning, flight to Majorca Friday evening!’ Of course, I never actually do it – never, that is, until this year, when the cold and rain finally got to me and I booked five days in Istanbul. The deal seemed great – five days for the price of three at a four-star hotel in the heart of the old town. If you stood on tiptoe and could see round corners, you would actually be able to see the Blue Mosque!
It was Turkey, which meant it must be warm, surely… In fact, it was chillier than London, and the rain lashed down with as much vigour. But we had fun. Linking Europe and Asia, Istanbul is an exciting, atmospheric place, full of tales and history. If my son is good at anything, it’s ignoring a downpour, so we sloshed about from astonishing monument to astonishing church, trying to tag onto the back of tour groups and to avoid carpet touts.
Istanbul’s old town, Sultanahmet, is a very good place to stay if you have children. Most of the hotels in this area (and there are a lot) are good-value, safe and comfortable, and – importantly in Istanbul – within walking distance of most of the places you want to visit. The area is touristy, but only in a superficial sense: there are no blocks of high-rise hotels, just lots of tacky souvenir shops. In the height of summer, it may well be packed with tour groups, but one of the advantages of winter holidays is that you have the place to yourselves. Every evening, between showers, we sat on wooden benches between the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque and enjoyed our own beautiful light-show as the sun went down and the floodlights caught the under-wings of the wheeling seagulls while the imams called the faithful to prayer.
We spent several days admiring the treasures of the old city. In the Topkapi Palace, the sultans spent their days pleasure-seeking amidst their harems of women, their peacocks and deer in their beautiful gardens, and their treasure houses of bejewelled daggers and golden thrones. Every building in the complex has a story, all seemingly straight from the pages of Aladdin. I set my son loose with my camera and – after chasing kittens for a while – he developed a fascination with tiles and came back to me with a camera full of close-ups.
We also explored the Archaeological Museums, full of Early Greek and Roman marvels, with a mock-up of a Trojan horse for the children to plan their own city sieges in, plus a courtyard full of carved marble in which to chase around.
For my son though, nothing equalled the Basilica Cistern, a surprising treat. Here, under an unprepossessing little arch, steps led down to a wondrous subterranean water-world probably built by the Emperor Constantine in the 4th century. Extraordinary and atmospheric, it was created to hold water for the city and was supplied by a network of aqueducts bringing water from the Belgrade Forest. An example of miraculous Roman engineering, it has 336 columns supporting the brick domed roof, many of them carved with enigmatic symbols. There’s the column of peacock eyes or ‘slave tears’, and a number of Medusa heads placed upside-down or sideways, the snakes spilling out from under. You wander through them, the water dripping from the roof, the shadows of giant carp slipping through the underwater spotlights, weird piped music adding to the ambiance – which, again, was probably much better out of season.
After two days of serious monument-visiting, even the promise of yet more Turkish Delight couldn’t persuade my son to do any more historical sights, so we took a Bosphorus Cruise. It started off very well, with the delighted crew whisking my son to the cabin to help with the steering, but before long the tour guide’s monologue was interrupted by the reedy voice of my six-year-old singing his favourite Britney Spears songs over the loudspeaker, as the tour group members started in alarm. The scenes up the Bosphorus are very interesting, though – on one side Asia, on the other side Europe. Russian super-tankers passing by our little boat reminded us of the giant at the top of this waterway. Then the rain broke, the boat started tossing about and Arthur was sick.
We spent our last day in the Grand Bazaar, a covered market where people have traded for more than 1,000 years. The smell of spices and the sound of people shouting their wares is very evocative. Though I was worried about being hassled, people ignored me entirely, while always finding a moment for Arthur, who came back to the hotel with a collection of large, brightly coloured lollipops and a big grin.
Our last evening was spent in a hammam or Turkish bath, chosen for its big picture of the South African rugby team enjoying their treatment on the wall outside. It was a delight, the building serene and beautiful, the sense of ritual very appealing, and the bath itself… well, intense. Arthur scampered around dousing himself and me with buckets of cool water, while I sat and sweated on the hot stone. The sweet woman who gave me my vigorous rub-bath also gave Arthur one, and on the way back to the hotel my son went to sleep in my arms, exhausted by the sounds and smells of the city and the heat of the bath.
Istanbul isn’t to be recommended to those with very small children – pushing a buggy over cobblestones and touring historical sites are hard work. Little entertainment is laid on for children, and once you leave the old city, the crowds and traffic are overwhelming. For older children, however, it’s an exciting place with plenty to absorb them, from backgammon shops full of be-scarfed ladies smoking water-pipes to Turkish Delight stores and wonderful monuments giving a glimpse into the city’s rich and romantic history.
Find out more about Istanbul with kids, including our recommendations for family-friendly places to stay.