Istanbul is arguably the most exciting city within four hours of the UK, here’s just a selection of the family-friendly sites on offer.
With its mix of minaret-capped Ottoman mosques, incense-shrouded bazaars and contemporary art galleries, and – where else is the world do you find this? – a city centre that straggles two continents. Istanbul is arguably the most exciting city within four hours of the UK. And though its cobbled, hilly streets can be challenging for prams, children are universally adored.
Where to stay
The great thing about booking with a Four Seasons hotel is that you know you’ll get a high standard of service – which can be reassuring when travelling with children. Book into the Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul at the Bosphorus and you’ll also be blessed with a fantastic setting: a converted 19th-century Ottoman palace overlooking the famous strait.
Childcare: Expect cots, rollaway beds, infant toiletries, pushchairs and high-chairs free of charge, plus qualified babysitters for an hourly fee, child-friendly menus and a multilingual concierge who really ‘gets’ children and can organise activities to suit.
Activities: The hotel has a large outdoor pool (open between May and October) and families with older children can use the hotel’s traditional hammam together.
Cost: Four-person family rooms from £541 per night.
Contact: +90 212 381 4000; fourseasons.com/bosphorus
If you’re looking for great value that’s a step up from the usual budget accommodation options, the friendly, well-run Hotel Empress Zoe inhabits a cluster of characterful Ottoman-style houses in the heart of the Old City and is within walking distance of the Hagia Sophia museum, the Blue Mosque, Grand Bazaar and other key sights.
Childcare: While it’s not a family hotel as such, children are very welcome and there are several ?rooms with enough space for a couple with one or two kids.
Food: There’s a lovely shady garden terrace for breakfast and evening drinks in the summer, and a cosy room with an open fire for the winter months.
Cost: Family suites from £129 per night.
Contact: +90 212 518 25 04; emzoe.com
Live like locals by staying at one of five stylish, self-contained, two- and three-bedroom apartments dotted around the bohemian market and restaurant-packed Galata neighbourhood. These give you more space and flexibility for your money than a hotel – which is good news for families. Each of the apartments has a fully-fitted kitchen, living room and dining table, and at least one twin or single room.
Childcare: Both cots and extra beds can be provided.
Top tip: Only one apartment has a bath as opposed to a shower, none have lifts and most are on the second and third floors, so they’re best for families with no bulky prams to carry, or those with teenagers or sure-footed children.
Cost: Apartments from £114 per night.
Contact: 01905 570877; istanbulplace.com
Activities: The Princes’ Island
Just a short vintage ferry hop from Kabata? docks in the city centre, the Princes’ Islands off the southern coast of Anatolian Istanbul are a must for families. The largest, car-free, bougainvillea-smothered island of Büyükada is a particular delight.
Activities: Start by buying delicious sugared lokma (doughnuts) from one of the stalls near the ferry before shopping for picnic supplies (if you’re feeling organised, picnic ingredients are cheaper on the mainland), then walk up the hill for amazing views of Istanbul. Alternatively, hire bikes and visit the forested parks.
1/ Yerebatan Sarnici, Sultanahmet
These eerie, underground cisterns built beneath the site of the Stoa Basilica and featured in the Bond film From Russia with Love are always very popular with young teenagers. Built just southwest of Hagia Sophia in the sixth century, they form the city’s largest underground reservoir. Also known as the Sunken Palace, they have domed ceilings that are held up by hundreds of Corinthian, Doric and Ionic-style marble and granite columns.
Activities: You can explore the cisterns via a series of walkways to a soundtrack of moody classical music, and there’s even a candlelit café to visit afterwards.
2/ Istanbul Toy Museum, Göztepe
This brilliant museum in the Göztepe neighbourhood of Kadiköy on the city’s Anatolian side was founded by Turkish poet Sunay Akin, and will appeal to children of all ages.
Activities: Housed in a historic mansion, the displays take you through the history of toys via its collection of over 4,000 playthings from around the world, spread over four floors. One whole floor is a reconstruction of the Eyüp Toy Shop, a famous local store that closed in the 1950s. There’s an on-site theatre, café and gift shop, and, on weekends, puppet and magic shows.
3/ Turkish flavours, Nisantasi
Indulge budding chefs in your household with a small group lesson in Anatolian-inspired Turkish cooking at the home of chef Selin Rozanes.
Activities: Suitable for all ages from six upwards, the lesson teaches children to make six or seven traditional homecooked dishes in Selin’s atmospheric 1930s home, and there’s plenty of time at the end to sit down to enjoy them. Dishes range from delicious crispy cheese- and herb-filled pastry rolls to spicy bulgur pilaf. Selin is an advocate of the Slow Food movement, so all ingredients are fresh, local, seasonal and sustainably sourced.
4/ Miniatürk, Beyo?lu
While classic sites such as the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace and Hagia Sophia will inevitably be at the top of your Istanbul hit list, the reality is your children may not have the patience to trawl round all of them. If this is the case, worry not – Miniatürk is an inspired plan B.
This unashamedly tourist-orientated park on the northeastern shore of the Golden Horn pays homage to some of Turkey’s greatest historic attractions with ?a permanent open-air exhibition of more than 100 building miniatures, from the Hagia Sophia and the Bosphorus Bridge to the stone houses of Mardin.
Activities: The park also has an open-air theatre, playground, giant chessboard and a maze.
Emirgan Park, Emirgan
The beautifully landscaped Emirgan Park sits beside the Bosphorus and is one of the city’s largest public green spaces. Dating back to the 16th century, it is a tranquil meeting place for locals and the ideal spot for a picnic.
Activities: You will find extensive lawns, an ornamental lake and three 19th-century Ottoman pavilions – now transformed into cafés and restaurants.
There are so many tulips in the beautifully manicured flowerbeds, there’s an annual international festival in April to celebrate them. The park also has walking and jogging routes, a basketball field and a children’s playground.
1/ Haci Bekir, Eminönü
Whether you like Turkish delight or not, you absolutely must visit the city’s original lokum shop, which has been trading since 1777 and is still owned by the fourth- and fifth-generation descendents of the founder, Haci Bekir.
Located near the Spice Bazaar in the neighbourhood of Eminönü (which is also worth checking out), the shop is like a step back in time, and a feast for eyes and tummies.
Food: Expect irresistible-looking piles of multi-coloured, sugar-dusted Turkish delight, jars of boiled sweets, candyfloss, baklava, sherberts and more – all beautifully packaged. Best of all, you can sample things for free.
Where to eat: Metropolis, Sultanahmet
For excellent traditional Turkish food, seafood dishes and child-friendly international options such as pizza and pasta, the welcoming Metropolis in the heart of Sultanahmet is a great choice. Popular with both locals and tourists, the restaurant, with English-speaking staff, is spread over two floors and there’s an atmospheric outdoor patio strung with traditional Turkish lanterns that’s open for dining on summer evenings. Ingredients are famously fresh and local.
Top tip: Highlights include the mezze platters, grilled sea bass, shrimp casserole and delicious baklava.
For quality comfort food delivered to your table at speed – think classics such as hamburgers and thin-crust pizzas with an Istanbul twist – Numnum attracts families and young professionals alike, and has a children’s menu. The brainchild of Istanbul’s celebrity chef Mehmet Gürs (of award-winning Mikla restaurant fame), this laid-back but efficient group has eight branches all over the city, including Bagdat Caddesi on the Asian – otherwise known as the Anatolian – side.
Top tip: Your children will love the reassuringly Western-style food if they tire of experimentation.
Unless you’re a vegetarian, you can’t leave Istanbul without sampling the local köfte (Turkish-style meatballs grilled on a stick) and everyone has their favourite local restaurant. Cooked to perfection and served simply with tomatoes, onions and parsley, the köfte at family-run restaurant Köfteci Ali Baba can’t be beaten. If you don’t eat meat, its other speciality is piyaz, a delicious fresh salad of white beans, hard-boiled eggs, diced tomatoes and onions – though, if you’re after absolute perfection, you should eat the two dishes together
Top tip: The restaurant isn’t very big and people queue out the door on weekends; so if you’re in Istanbul during the week, that’s the best time to guarantee a seat.
This quirky outdoor dining venue isbig hit with locals when the fine weather sets in, particularly families. Set in a beautiful garden within the Bosphorus-side neighbourhood of Yeniköy, it feels as if you’re in the countryside when you’re still in the heart of the city. Dining options include a popular organic breakfast buffet, and Mr Meat – a unique concept for delicious steaks and burgers, which are either cooked for you or are prepared so you can barbecue them in the shade of century-old pine trees.
Top tip: There’s a playground to keep children distracted.
Travel time: A flight from London to Istanbul takes 3 hours and 50 minutes.
Getting there: British Airways flies from London Heathrow to Istanbul Ataturk; from £155.