Istanbul is a city of pure wonder. It’s a city of historical significance that’s almost impossible to perceive fully, dating back countless centuries to the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman empires. It is also a city of vibrant neighborhoods, welcoming locals and a dizzying number of tourist and historical sights. Families will be treated to Turkish hospitality that makes honored guests of babies and children, while older kids and teens will be awed by the history on display at every turn. Even the transport in Istanbul is an adventure — whether a historic tram or a ferry ride along the Bosphorus at the nexus of Asia and Europe.
Our favorite home base for families is Sultanahmet, which is centrally located and ideal for a weekend of exploration. The key to a smooth visit is seeing the big-ticket sites early each day to avoid crowds and keep your crew cool and relaxed. Here is our guide for making the most of 72 hours in the “cradle of civilization” with kids.
Steep yourself in history by starting with a visit to Hagia Sophia, perhaps the most famous landmark in Istanbul. This immense and architecturally stunning building served as a church for about 1,000 years before it was repurposed and updated as a mosque. Elements of its design were then used as a model for many modern mosques around the world.
From there, visit the nearby Blue Mosque. This spectacular site was built more than 1,000 years after Hagia Sophia in the early 1600s during the reign of Sultan Ahmed I. It is still a functioning mosque, so there will be people coming and going throughout the day for prayer, and it closes for roughly an hour and a half at 11:30, 2:30 and 4:30. Note, scarves will come in handy as women are required to cover their heads, and everyone should dress modestly.
Next up is the Grand Bazaar. The prototype for markets around the world, the Grand Bazaar is a labyrinth of thousands of stalls. It is a great place to wander and immerse yourselves in the sights and sounds of Istanbul, plus the ideal venue for souvenir shopping. Just make sure to stay together! Kids will also enjoy keeping an eye out for the many cats that roam the city.
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Today starts with a visit to Topkapi Palace, built by Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II in 1459. Construction began six years after the fall of Constantinople (now it’s Istanbul, not Constantinople – if you know, you know!), when the Ottomans overthrew the Byzantines; it was the home of sultans until the 17th century. The complex is extensive and was once home to thousands of residents. Don’t miss the tiled opulence of the Sultan’s Harem (the light is great and the scenery is excellent for pictures!). Fans of ancient history and Troy in particular should make time to visit the Istanbul Archeology Museum, which is also located here.
In the afternoon, set your sights on the iconic Galata bridge, which spans the Golden Horn and connects the neighborhood of Beyoglu in the north to Old Istanbul and Sultanahmet in the south. There has been a bridge over this span for centuries, but the current version was built in 1992. On the upper levels are cars and scads of fishermen, and the lower level houses seafood and street food establishments. Stroll the span of the bridge and enjoy some local treats (fancy a fish sandwich?) along the way.
Once in Beyoglu, you can walk uphill or take the Tünel funicular, a historic underground cable railway, to Galata Tower for fantastic views over the Istanbul skyline. Or explore Istanbul from a different vantage point with a cruise along the Bosphorus from the Sea of Marmara to the Black Sea. It’s a great way to appreciate the context of two continents: Europe on one side and Asia on the other.
Cap off your day with a visit to the vibrant Taksim Square and pedestrian-friendly Istiklal street for more local culture as well as abundant shopping and restaurants. The retro Taksim-Tünel Tramway will also be a hit with the kids.
A Note About Snacks
Istanbul is just as much about tastes as it is about sights. Many popular treats are procured in little vignettes that are ripe for memory-making in and of themselves.
Stretchy ice cream or dondurma is on offer from carts and shops around the city. The ice cream has a unique consistency thanks to gum resin or mastic. Local vendors are worthy comedians in their own right, with lots of physical comedy (think kids reaching for ice cream to have it whirled away and then deposited back in their eager hands).
Turkish candies, specifically Turkish delight, are another local goodie. Hafiz Mustafa is a specialist and has been churning out these sweets since 1965. Cranberry and pistachio are particular favorites, and the staff will even let you taste.
Kids will be wide-eyed at the street vendors selling macun, an Ottoman-era treat of boiled sweet pastes twirled into custom-made lollipops from vividly hued circular metal trays. Simit are also ubiquitous around Istanbul — these sesame-encrusted bread rings can be found in shops, on carts or even on vendors’ heads as they carry their trays of wares around town.
Start today underground at the Basilica Cistern. This sunken structure beneath the streets of Istanbul was built in 532 (!) and has more than 330 ancient columns, many of which were repurposed from defunct temples. The complex was created to provide water to the Great Palace, but fell out of use for centuries and was only renovated and made open to the public in the late 1980s. This “secret” spot has an otherworldly feel and is a required stop. Kids will enjoy seeing the carp that swim in the shallow waters and searching for the Medusa columns.
In the afternoon, tailor your itinerary around your family’s interests. For foodies, consider a local food tour or cooking class to get up close with different neighborhoods, perhaps the spice market and the bounty of breads, grilled fish and meats for which Istanbul is known. Even the youngest kids can get in on the action by baking fresh bread at a stone hearth.
If your young crew is more interested in Istanbul history, consider a visit to Miniaturk, the Istanbul miniature park that allows you to literally walk through Turkish history and more than 130 buildings at 1:25 scale. An English audioguide makes the experience more impactful. For fans of all things transport, industry and communication, the Rahmi M. Koc museum is a winner. This extensive private collection of a Turkish billionaire is chock-full of planes, cars, carriages, boats and even a submarine.
A long weekend in Istanbul is just enough time to appreciate the uniqueness of this magical city. Your family will come away with lingering memories of the call to prayer that is its heartbeat and the many ways that the ancient and modern peacefully co-exist and draw visitors from around the globe.
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