For a family adventure that you won’t soon forget, head to Istanbul, Turkey—the only city that straddles both Europe and Asia. Welcoming locals, mouth-watering meze and the soothing call to prayer heard throughout the day will give you and the kids a glimpse into a culture unlike any other. With a currency exchange in our favor and free hotel rooms when you take advantage of Turkish Airlines’ stopover service, you have the makings of your next epic family destination. Read on for all you can expect in Istanbul!
One of the best reasons to visit Istanbul is to expose your children to cultures outside of our own. As you walk through the streets of Istanbul, you will hear the call to prayer—the bellowing voices of the muezzin will be heard from speakers atop the minarets around the city five times a day. Plan a visit to the most famous mosque in Istanbul, the Sultanahmet Camii or “Blue Mosque.” This magnificent structure was built in the 1600s and is still used as a place of worship today.
Visitors are welcome to visit during non-prayer times and tour the structure. You can see the 21,043 blue tiles that line the walls for which the mosque got its common name. Women must cover their heads with a head scarf (available to borrow for free at the entrance) and all guests must wear appropriate clothing and remove their shoes upon entering.
photo: Xavier Serra via flickr
Another religious tradition unique to this area of the world is the Mevlevi Sema Ceremony, better known as the Whirling Dervishes. You can witness this dance and musical ceremony at Hodjapasha and other theaters throughout the city (note: children under six are not allowed due the solemness of the religious ceremony).
Visitors to the Hagia Sophia Museum in Istanbul will be surprised to see the juxtaposition of Christianity and Muslim history with Byzantine mosaics and Ottoman calligraphy on the walls. Built in the 6th century as the Hagia Sophia or Church of the Holy Spirit, it was converted to a mosque in the 15th century after the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul. It became a museum in 1935 and welcomes thousands of visitors each year.
Just a short walk from the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia is Topkapi Palace, a residence for the Ottoman sultans beginning in the 1400s. Kids will especially enjoy visiting the palace museum and touring the living quarters of the sultans’ families. Here you can view the arms and armor that was used during this time period and see how the palace kitchens functioned (think massive cauldrons to serve hundreds of people).
photo: xxoktayxx via pixabay
A visit to Istanbul is not complete without a Bosphorus tour. This body of water separates the Asian side of Istanbul from the European side and connects the Black Sea to the Mediterranean Sea. Opt for a night cruise to view the castles, bridges and mosques of the city all lit up.
Want a view of the city like no other? Bring the kids to Miniaturk, a museum with 1/25 replicas of many of the famous landmarks in Istanbul and other parts of Turkey. Kids will love feeling like giants and it will make for some great photo opps!
photo: emahmuzlu via pixabay
The Grand Bazaar is one of the largest covered bazaars in the world selling every sort of evil eye pendant and keychain you could imagine. Head to the leather section to purchase a jacket or leather belt and then admire the gorgeously-colored mosaic chandeliers and lamps. You can purchase Turkish tea supplies and pottery to bring home with you. Costumes and magic lamp trinkets are popular with the younger visitors.
The nearby Spice Market is a feast for the senses with bins of colorful spices, olives, cheese and sweets on every aisle. Purchase authentic Turkisk coffee and tea to bring a sip of Istanbul home with you.
Food in Istanbul
You will not go hungry on a trip to Istanbul, that’s for sure. Every corner seems to be dotted with a food cart selling grilled corn on the cob and roasted chestnuts. Find a stand that sells Turkish ice cream and you will be in for a sweet treat as well as a hilarious performance. A cup of fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice will be just the afternoon pick-me-up that you need to tackle another museum. Kids will enjoy the sesame-crusted simit, a bread similar to a crunchy bagel.
Restaurant meals typically start with a generous portion of meze—cold offerings including hummus, stuffed grape leaves, roasted eggplant and flat bread. Entrees are typically roasted meats with lamb and beef dominating the options.
Perhaps the most recognizable Turkish food that would appeal to kids is pide. This flatbread is filled with meat, cheese or vegetables and resembles an oval-shaped pizza. Another kid favorite is kofte—a flattened, grilled meatball that is perfect with rice.
If you find an establishment that offers manti, do not pass it up. Most closely related to a ravioli, this dumpling is typically topped with cold plain yogurt and a tomato sauce.
As spice level can often be an issue for visitors to Istanbul, request a glass of Ayran to go with your meal. This Turkish yogurt drink tastes like a slightly-salty plain yogurt and soothes the stomach after a big meal.
Desserts are serious business in Istanbul with baklava and Turkish delight being offered on every street corner. Hazer Baba is a well-known purveyor of Turkish delights at the Spice Market as their products are made with honey instead of sugar. Pistachio and pomegranate are popular flavors. You can get your Turkish delight coated in coconut, chocolate or dried rose flowers among many other options.
Turkish coffee and tea are an element of every meal. Tea is served from an ornate two-tiered kettle where the brewed tea is added to the glass first, followed by water to dilute the tea to your preferred strength. Turkish coffee most resembles espresso in its strength. It is tradition to read the coffee grounds from inside your cup after you finish to see your fortune!
photo: Turkish Airlines
Traveling to Istanbul
Turkish Airlines offers direct flights to Istanbul from nine U.S. gateways (SFO, LAX, JFK, Houston, Atlanta, Washington, Boston and Miami) making your trip there that much easier. Even the youngest flyers are given special treatment on Turkish Airlines from diaper kits for infants (contains wipes, changing mat, bibs, diaper cream and even breast pads for nursing mamas). Baby food can be requested when booking your flight. Infant seat belts and bassinets are also available.
Older kids will get a kick out of the wooden in-flight toys that are offered by Turkish Arilines. These eco-friendly playthings are made for children ages 3 through 12 and address environmental issues such as endangered species to teach kids about the world around them through play. There are also tons of kids’ movies and games available in the in-flight entertainment system (bonus: kids can request smaller-sized headphones if needed).
Everyone who flies Turkish Airlines will be impressed by the in-flight food service prepared by (literal) flying chefs! Taste the flavors of Turkey and enjoy a Turkish tea and baklava to end your meal.
Free Hotel Nights with Turkish Airlines’ Stopover Service
With Turkish Airlines servicing the most countries of any airline, it’s possible that you’ll have the opportunity to stopover in Istanbul on your way to another destination. Take advantage of the expanded Turkish Airlines’ stopover service and explore the city before you continue on with your journey.
The stopover service will provide one free night in a four-star hotel for economy passengers and two free nights in a five-star hotel for business class passengers when you stop in Istanbul on your way to Africa, Eastern Europe, Balkans, Southern Europe, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Russia, Iran or Kazakhstan. Use your time to see the cultural sites, cruise on the Bosphorus and shop in the Grand Bazaar. You can find the full details on this program here.
—story and photos by Kate Loweth
Note: This trip was paid for by Turkish Airlines but all opinions belong to the writer.