ISTANBUL – the breathtakingly beautiful Turkish city that straddles across Europe and Asia. A city with a balanced mix of ancient and modern culture. With people as beautiful as the city, this is a must do destination (yes! even if it is with a kid).
This is was our first vacation with our then 10 month old minion. I assure you it was no easy task but at the end of it all it was worth it. Those of you who have attempted to travel with kids before or like me had no choice, I’m sure you know what a herculean task it is. Such little nightmares begin with packing for the little minion – baby bottles (check), sterilizer (check), baby food (check), clothes + tons of warm clothes (check), bibs + napkins (check), almost a carton of pampers (check)……the list goes on. Once this was done and we had not entirely packed for ourselves, we were ready to go.
This was an eight day trip. Read on to know how we survived and enjoyed this unforgettable vacation.
Istanbul has recently grown into a very popular tourist destination and you find out why the moment you get there. The historical and modern surroundings lay in such harmony with each other that it is simply beautiful to witness the ticking of hours in this city.
Traveling to this city is modest on your pocket and the food is to die for. You can very easily take the tram and the train to where ever you want to go and being with a hyper little minion like mine is actually no problem at all. The people are very friendly and are always ready to lend a hand. Whether it is helping you with the stroller or even carrying the baby for you during those long sightseeing walks, they don’t mind at all.
When you arrive at the city be sure to buy the travel card (Istanbul Kart). This travel card will let you travel on the tramways, trains, buses and even the ferries. The best part about it is – it’s a prepaid, rechargeable card; it gives you discounted rates for multiple travels and one Istanbul Kart can be used for up to five passengers.
Weather: You would definitely not want to visit Istanbul during the winter months – end of November through end of March. These months are not advisable with a kid. The weather starts to get warmer by the end of March and winter is at its peak in January and February. If you are traveling without kids and want to make use of this season because of its cheaper fares, shopping discounts and fewer crowds; be prepared for an extremely cold and harsh winter. Temperatures can drop to as low as 3 degrees Celsius. The best time to travel would be April through mid October, where you’d experience comfortable temperatures of about 15 degrees Celsius.
We checked weather forecasts for our travel dates and traveled during the end of March. The night we arrived the temperature was about 7 degrees Celsius and it was raining. It drizzled for two days after we arrived but thankfully the weather improved and you could walk out with a just a sweater during the day, but keep in mind the nights are cold.
Where to stay: The best area to be in with a kid is Sirkeci. Sirkeci is part of the Eminonu neighborhood in Istanbul and is close to Sultanahmet, where all the major sightseeing locations are. Keep in mind that you will not find any major five star hotels here since Sirkeci is part of a small district and in the Old City. The Old City has narrow streets and smaller accommodations but you’ll definitely find a more than decent hotel to spend your vacation. The small town feeling adds to the experience.
But, if you’re looking for a lavish five star hotel and don’t mind traveling a bit every time you go sightseeing, then Taksim is the place to be. You will have to take the train to Sultanahmet and then the tram to do the sightseeing.
We were at the Erboy Hotel which is part of the Sirkeci Group of Hotels. This is a comfortable, unfussy hotel located in the downtown surroundings of Sirkeci. Their rates are inclusive of a decent breakfast and they do provide good service. They were mindful of our needs and did provide a crib for the little minion. The hotel even offered us a complementary dinner at their in-house restaurant ‘Pasazade’.
Erboy Hotel is very close to the famous Gulhane Park and about 10 – 11 mins away from the Basilica Cistern and Hagia Sophia. You could easily walk or the take the tram to almost all the sightseeing spots.
Places to Visit
- Topkapi Palace – this beautiful palace, now a museum was just a 10 mins walk from our hotel. It opens at 9 am, so we just walked it out after breakfast. You could take the tram too. This was the first museum of Turkey and will cost you the entire day. It served as the residence and administrative headquarters of the Ottoman Sultans back in the 15th century. It is huge and features massively beautiful architecture and culture. We had our walking shoes on, had eaten a heavy breakfast, packed up enough diapers and baby food; and successfully went through the day. It was a blessing to have our hotel nearby to nap after we were done.
- Aya Sofia / Hagia Sophia – You know by now that all these locations were very close to our hotel so we had no problem getting to them. We mostly just had to plan and pack well. Hagia Sophia was once a cathedral, which was turned into a mosque and is now a museum. You’d have to see it for yourself to fill your soul with its beauty. Its splendid architecture and history will leave you mesmerized. You’ll probably spend about 3 hours here. The downside was we couldn’t take the stroller to the upper level so we had to visit it in turns. So you’ll probably have to plan to keep the kid entertained while you do the turns.
- The Blue Mosque – This is one of the most widely advised tourist attractions of Istanbul. We moved to this after relishing the lip smacking Turkish kebabs for lunch once we were done with Hagia Sophia. Called the Sultanahmet Camii in Turkish, this mosque functions as a mosque even today. Muslims still pray on its vibrant lush carpets. An important point to remember is to follow the dress code. Normal pants and t-shirt will do for both men and women but women will have to cover their head and shoulders while at the mosque. Since it still functions as a mosque, it closes for 90 mins, five times a day for the Muslim prayers. Best to check the prayer timings before you go. You are also not allowed to do flash photography. One of the best ways to witness its amazing architecture is to use the west side entrance from the Hippodrome. This will also be the entrance you use if you are a non-Muslim.
- Sultanahmet Square / Hippodrome – The Hippodrome of Constantinople was the sporting and social center of Constantinople, which was the capital of the Byzantine Empire. Today it is called the Sultanahmet Sqaure or the Sultanahmet Meydani in Turkish. This location is open for 24 hrs but its best to see it during the day. You’d probably spend just a couple of minutes here and then move on to your other locations. You could do this before or after the Blue Mosque since they’re close by.
- Galata Tower – This is a medieval stone tower located in the Galata quarter of Istanbul that dominates the city’s skyline. If you are at Sirkeci, do not walk it out. This is the mistake we did and then ended up not climbing the tower as we were too tired. The walk will take you about half an hour but with a kid it took us longer. Taking a taxi will be the quickest and best way to get there. A taxi will probably get you there in half the time and save up a lot of energy. Having a light travel stroller will help since you’ll have to carry it all the way up the tower. Once you get to the top it’ll definitely be worth it. The tower gives you a wonderful panoramic view of the city.
- The Basilica Cistern – This is the largest ancient cistern that lies beneath the city of Istanbul and is one of the most awesome things I’ve ever seen. The ceiling of this cistern is supported by 336 marble columns. We were told that a majority of the columns were recycled from the ruins of old buildings. Most of the columns have beautiful engravings on them and a one with Medusa’s head, that I’ll never forget. So don’t miss this one!
- Gulhane Park – One of the oldest and largest parks in Istanbul, Gulhane Park lies adjacent to the Topkapi Palace. So you could do this after finishing your tour of the Topkapi Palace. It’s a beautiful place to unwind and relax after the tiresome tour of Topkapi. It’s also a picturesque place to let the minion lose and play around. The park has been through many changes and renovations and houses trees that date back to the 1800s.
- The Bosphorus Cruise to the hill on the Asia side – As if the European side of Istanbul wasn’t enough to mesmerize you, the Asia side has a charm of its own. You’ll have to get to Eminonu by tram to take this cruise. There are plenty of options and beware of hustlers who try to sell you an overpriced cruise. Depending on the time you have at hand there are tons of options available. You could do the Bosphorus with the Dolmabache Palace. We missed this palace since we were short of time but I’ve been told it’s a must see. So choose according to your liking. I believe what we did was the Full Bosphorus Cruise by Sehir Hatlari. We boarded at Eminonu and it took us all the way to the Black Sea and back. It took us about 90 minutes one way and we had to get down at ‘Anadolu Kavagi’ (the Asia side) before boarding again for our way back. As far as I can remember, they give you about an hour and a half here. One of the best things to do is to climb the hill and go all the way up to take a marvelous look at the two sides of Istanbul (Asia and Europe) standing opposite each other. It took us a while as it was steep and pushing the stroller up was tough, but remember coming down is just as easy. We grabbed a late lunch soon after at one of the town’s on shore fish restaurants and enjoyed every bit at this serene location.
- The Museum of Archaeology – This too is located in the Eminonu district very close to Gulhane Park and the Topkapi Palace. It consists of three museums -the Archeological Museum, the Museum of Ancient Orient and the Museum of Islamic Art. Do this if such things interest you as I ended up boring The Man and the lil minion. Little ones will not have the patience to go through all of this, specially if you are a person like me who looks into every detail and reads up all the history. This wasn’t such a good time for us as the little minion got cranky and we had to just rush through it all.
- Taksim Square / Istiklal Road / Saint Antoine Church – If you’re staying at Taksim then this will probably be one of the first locations you go to. If you decide to be in Sirkeci then probably do this on a day that you just want to relax a bit after all the hard core sightseeing and walking. We did this during the mid of our eight day trip. From Sirkeci it’ll take you about 15- 20mins by taxi or 20 – 30 mins by train. Trains leave every 15 mins from Gulhane.
You will not miss the Republic Monument at this square. You can take a vintage tram ride through Istiklal Cadessi (road) or take your time and walk through looking at the tons of antique shops, cafes, international shopping chains etc. There a lot of rooftop joints that’ll give you a tremendous view of the Bosphorus.
Among this dense web is a concealed little church called ‘Sant’antonio Kilisesi (Sant Antoine Church)’. It appealed to me because it looked like such a peaceful abode in the middle of all the hustle bustle.
- Cruise to Princes’ Islands – We took the cruise again from Eminonu with Sehir Hatlari. We got down at Buyukada Iskelesi, which is the largest of the nine islands that make up the Princes’ Islands in the Sea of Marmara. It is a neighborhood in the Adalar district of Istanbul and is beyond beautiful. There are carriage rides that you can take through the island but we preferred to walk. Walking through this island was like being part of a novel or movie. With trees that look like the ‘whomping willow’ in Harry Potter and boat restaurants offering seafood that’s sure to tangle your taste buds, this should be on your itinerary.
- Istanbul Akvaryum (Aquarium) – This one we did solely for the little minion. We wanted him to get his first look at sea life and we were glad he enjoyed it. It is an official member of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums and is definitely worth it but if you have seen similar aquariums in other countries, you can skip this. From Sirkeci you could take a taxi directly to the aquarium or take a bus. If you take the bus from Sirkeci you’ll have to get down at the stop nearest to the aquarium and walk to it.
- Grand Bazaar and Spice Bazaar – Lots of shopping to do here. Obviously a good place to buy gifts for yourself and your loved ones. The Grand Bazaar is just about 10 – 15 mins by walk from Sirkeci and the Spice Bazaar is the covered shopping complex after the Grand Bazaar. The Grand Bazaar is one of the largest and oldest markets in the world with over 4,000 shops.
Food to Eat
To end my guide to Istanbul I would like to add a few of the foods we ate which I thought were worth mentioning.
- The famous Turkish meat and cheese pied is abundantly available and a must have.
- While you walk the streets you’ll find a lot of street vendors selling dumplings dipped in honey. Try them, they are delicious.
- The grilled fish at Anadolu Kavagi was lip smacking.
- Turkish kebabs dipped in yogurt at Kasab Osmani.
- Try the kebabs and koftas at Tarihi Sultanahmet Koftecisi, Selim Usta.
- Rice pudding at Tarihi Sadabad in Sirkeci.
- Dinner at Pasazade Ottoman Cuisine Restaurant at the Erboy Hotel.
Hope you enjoyed this extensive guide to travel in Istanbul as much as I enjoyed writing it. If you did enjoy reading this and it helped you plan your itinerary, hit the thumbs up, share, leave a comment and follow me for other updates on my Travel Logs and Books.
The pics of this trip will be up soon on my Instagram, so follow me at ‘humathewriter’.