Unlock your heart and fill your senses with the sights and sounds of Istanbul!
Istanbul is truly the gateway between East and West – cliché, but true. Not only does the city straddle two continents over the Bosphorus, its a cultural crossroad of food, architecture and ideology with layer upon layer of history.
Here we will cover specifically what families should expect planning their first visit to Istanbul:
Where should families stay in Istanbul?
Now to be clear – the city of Istanbul is huge (15 million residents at last count!!) Wherever you stay, you will need to travel around a bit to see the major sites.
To get a bit of a handle on your geography, the city of Istanbul is divided in two, in fact, split over two continents by the Bosphorus, a strait that runs from the Black Sea in the north to the Sea of Marmara in the south.
Most overseas visitors fly into Istanbul Airport (IST) on the European (Thracian) side (note until late 2018 Atatürk was the main airport- now called ISL).
There is a second main passenger airport Sabiha Gokcen International (SAW) located on the Asian (Anatolian) side. The main tourist attractions are around the old city of Constantinople and Karaköy (the modern name for Galata) in the Beyoglu district, making these the most popular neighbourhoods for family accommodation in Istanbul.
You can read more about Kadikoy and the Asian side of Istanbul here.
There are, of course, plenty of options across the city. Anywhere with a view of the Golden Horn (a natural harbour that separates old Constantinople from Beyoglu) or the Bosphorus is popular.
There are three bridges that cross from Europe to Asia, the most famous being the Bosphorus Bridge. There are also regular ferry services that connect the two continents. There is public transportation aplenty and taxis are easy to find so getting between the various sites and attractions is quite straightforward.
Apartment living for families
With a larger family to accommodate, we have a strong preference for staying in apartments over hotels on city breaks. Not just the additional space and bedrooms, but the extra facilities you can get like a kitchen and washing machine can be invaluable when travelling with kids for more than a few days.
For an authentic family experience living amongst the locals, we can recommend Istanbul Place. Owned by a British/Turkish couple, they have several stylish and contemporary 1, 2 and 3 bedroom apartments very conveniently located to the shops and restaurants around Galata Tower.
Not only beautiful apartments, but they can also help you with many aspects of your stay from getting some essential supplies ready for your visit to organising local walking tours. Make inquiries here (let them know you were sent there by us!)
Istanbul Hotels for Families
For those who still can’t resist the luxuries of a hotel, don’t worry we also have some favourites in great locations to recommend!
W Istanbul – a very modern twist hidden behind a classic facade in the very trendy suburb of Besiktas. Surrounded by great cafes and walking distance to many attractions along the Bosphorus including the ferry port and Dolmabaçhe Palace
The St. Regis Istanbul – located in the stylish Nişantaşı quarter, you can easily reach Benoglu via cable car over the valley (see below!). Many rooms command great views over the Bosphorus and access to several pools and a spa are likely to be winning factors with the kids!
Çırağan Place by Kempinski – on the banks of the Bosphorus, this renovated palace is steeped in history and sure to impress. The only palace hotel located directly on the Bosphorus it commands some spectacular views. Keep this as a treat yourself special!
Pera Palace Hotel by Jumeirah – Fairly recently renovated in 2010, it’s worth stopping in here simply to admire the building or take high tea (maybe not the best one with kids though!) even if you’re not staying, go have a look, it is simply beautiful! It’s history dates back to the days of the Orient Express and its original charm remains.
Boutique hotels around Sultanahmet District (the Old City)
White House Hotel – You can’t argue with number one ranking on Trip Advisor right? Readers rave about the amazing hospitality and service shown, its great location and great value for money.
Senatus Suites – Another that comes highly recommend to families because of its fabulous location, friendly staff and value for money near the top tourist attractions.
Tourist safety in Istanbul
It would be remiss not to make mention of safety concerns when visiting Istanbul. As recently as 2016 there was an attempted military coup and several terror-related incidents which have not helped Istanbul’s flagging tourism industry.
Whilst most of the civil unrest in Turkey is occurring near the south-eastern border areas near Syria, nonetheless, public areas in Istanbul have recently been targeted with casualties.
Understandably, these sort of risks completely put off some family visitors; others may just need to consider sensible precautions as issued by your home country Government advisory body. At the time of writing, this is the warning given by FCO and for the US Department of State.
Would I take my own children there? Yes. Unless safety warnings were to change, normal safety precautions that should be followed in any crowded city should be followed along with using your own common sense.
So bearing this in mind, let’s take a deeper look into this amazingly eclectic city absolutely steeped in history and charm.
Things to do with kids in Istanbul
For me, Istanbul for kids seems to be all about things that go! And with so much ground to cover, why not make the transportation all part of the adventure? Here are the attractions at the top of our family itinerary for Istanbul.
Things that Go!
Cruising the Bosphorus – there are many, many cruising options available with ports all over the city. You can take a simple trip from Europe to Asia on a regular ferry, or take an organised tour up to the Black Sea, or Princes’ Islands (see below).
- This is a popular option for families leaving from Eminou Ferry Station
- A slightly longer 2-hour option with live English commentary
A nostalgic tram ride – Complete with conductors dressed up in costume, the trams in Istanbul now only run for tourism. There is one track, T2, on the European side, and a slightly longer track T3 on the Asian side.
Istanbul Cable Car (Teleferick) – take a ride high across the city for some of the best panoramic views of Istanbul and avoid some of those steep hills for only a few Lira! Only a short trip but will no doubt save yourself a lot of moaning. It operates from Maçka / Tesvikiye districts across the valley to Taksim Square and Beyoglu.
A little note on Istanbul roads. Driving here can be a little argh, erratic! Do keep a very tight hold of hands near road crossings. Also note, a lot of roads and footpaths are cobbled streets. If you are still at stroller stage try and bring something sturdy with big wheels that can handle the bumps! It is very hilly too so you will get a fully-body workout.
Further afield – If your timing will allow, then a boat trip to Princes’ Islands should definitely be on your agenda. Made up of nine islands, four of which are inhabited most day trippers come into the largest island Büyükada.
The beauty of these islands, there are no motorised vehicles! Transportation is by bicycle, horse and cart or simply walking – no need to dodge the hectic Istanbul traffic! Accessible from Besiktas or Eminönü by sea bus (faster) or regular ferry, we found a helpful guide to visiting the Princes Islands on the Istanbul Insider.
Big sights of Sultanahmet (Old City)
A trip to Istanbul should also include some of the most beautiful and historic buildings – even if not of huge interest to the kids, these are sure to leave a lasting impression. Plan carefully and don’t try to squeeze too many into one day.
Hagia Sophia Museum – Once a church (for a mere 916 years), then a mosque for 482 years, this is one significantly historic structure and well worth a visit, even with little ones in tow.
Top Tips: Foreign children under 12 enter free. It was closed Mondays but now announced open 7 days a week. Buy tickets in advance especially on weekends and peak holiday times to avoid long queues (or see the Museum Pass)
Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmed Mosque) – One of the most magnificent and beautiful buildings to adorn the city skyline. Still an active house of worship so come dressed appropriately and note prayer times when doors are closed to guests.
Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarayı) – this one may be a little creepy for the youngsters, but the slightly older kids will no doubt get a thrill from visiting this underground water cistern! Literally exploring underneath the bowels of the city!
Topkapi Palace – a fabulous glimpse into life during the Ottoman Empire. A visit to the jewel-filled Treasury and Harem come highly recommended
- Skip the line tickets with 75 minute guided tour + free time
- 3 hour guided tour with skip the line and Harem entry
There are, of course, many, many more places to explore around the Old City! Check out some of the top recommendations given by Trip Advisor
Rahmi M Koç Museum – This is no boring old museum, this converted 19th-century factory is all about transport! A huge variety of hands-on activities from taking a steamboat on the Golden Horn to a train ride, sitting in a plane’s cockpit or ride in a submarine! Check their website for a schedule of events as some attractions are weekends only.
The Istanbul Modern Museum may not sound like kids heaven, but they do have interactive sessions for kids aged 6-12 years old that may hold their interest – Weekends Only.
Shopping & exploring by foot
Grand Bazaar – Everything from bric-a-brac to chocolates, sweets to soaps, ceramics and shisha. Expect to haggle for the best prices and beware the crowds (not ideal if you have little wanderers). What about booking an organised tour behind the scenes?
Spice Bazaar – Aptly named as you can guess! Here there are 85 shops selling Turkish delight and confectionary through to fruits, nuts and souvenirs, a great stop to keep hungry bellies at bay.
Wandering the streets of Beyoglu District – Make time in your agenda to simply soak up the atmosphere. A visit to Galata Tower will give you exceptional views over the city (not ideal for small legs but there is a lift), then explore the surrounding streets.
This area is well known for its artisan culture and terrific food. Take a stroll through historic Pera Street, Istiklal Caddesi or Istiklal Avenue is the main shopping street and home to many art galleries, theatres, libraries, patisseries, night clubs – you name it! You end at Taksim Square – the heart of Istanbul!
Time to Play!
Parks & kids activities – One thing I noticed with my ever keen mummy eye is the number of outdoor play parks – they were everywhere! Although there’s no one large central park in Istanbul, there are plenty of smaller ones with space to run around.
Be prepared to head out of the city for half a day if you want a good explore and play. Belgrad Forest, 15km to the northwest of the city near Sariyer District, is one of Istanbul’s hidden gems. 55,000 hectares of protected woodlands, you’ll find running trails, picnic areas and an arboretum.
I also love the looks of Miniatürk – the world’s largest open-air miniatures park on the banks of the Golden Horn. With over 100 scale models, playground, life-sized chessboard and a labyrinth, I bet this will come very top of the Globetrotters wishlist!
Facts and things to know before you go to Turkey
- The currency is Turkish Lira (TRY), at the time of writing exchange rates are about 5.8TRY to 1USD. ATM’s are plentiful.
- An arrival visa can be purchased online in advance to save lining up at the airport – and is cheaper. Visa requirements by country are detailed here.
- Turkish is the main language. Some will speak English in shops and restaurants, but not as many are fluent in English as you will find in other parts of Europe. It may pay to learn some basic words.
- Flying with Turkish Airlines? Check out this Turkish Airlines family review here.
- Although a predominantly Muslim country, ladies need not be fully covered. You can see our full guide on what to wear in Turkey as a tourist here.
- Read up before you go – for adults where would you be without a Lonely Planet guidebook right? And kids may enjoy some fun literature to get them in the spirit of exploring this amazing, culturally rich city.
Have you visited Istanbul with kids? Any other must-do activities we should add to our itinerary?
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