Over the summer, my family and I headed out on the trip of a lifetime — to Turkey. The country had long been atop our travel wish list for its distinctive history and rich culture. Turkey is one of a handful of countries occupying two continents, bridging the traditions of East and West.
Throughout our visit, we fell in love with the rituals of everyday life in the country. The ubiquitous calls for prayer, numerous teas with shopkeepers, three kisses on the cheeks instead of two. We answered questions about where we were from and why we had decided to go on vacation in Turkey, and got the distinct impression that our answers were of interest. The country wowed us at every turn and quickly rose to the top of our favorite vacations list. Yet, our trip almost didn’t happen.
The intense political climate is no secret and the State Department lists the travel advisory for Turkey as Level 3: Reconsider Travel. Just a couple years earlier a close friend had visited Turkey and we had questioned her decision, crying “But it’s dangerous!” Certainly, as parents, we couldn’t possibly venture into such a politically charged country. But then, a year later on Halloween, a jihadist militant in New York plowed into pedestrians along the West Side Highway. If we thought long and hard, which we did, we had no assurance that our children were any safer at home than in Turkey. This single act of close-to-home terrorism wasn’t the deciding factor, but it reinforced our convictions to explore our globe without letting fear get in the way.
We took the plunge and booked our flights to Istanbul, and with our eight- and 12-year-old children in tow, we left our anxieties behind and chased our dreams.
Our first stop was Istanbul, a vibrant city along the ancient Silk Road that bridges commerce, culture, and ideas between East and West. It is the only city in the world that straddles both Asia and Europe. Deciphering must-see Istanbul is not difficult. Beginning in the Old City, the Byzantine-era Hagia Sophia is an architectural icon. Gazing up at Hagia Sophia’s 500-year-old dome, 102 feet in diameter and flooded by sunbeams, left the entire family awestruck. Across the square is the equally spectacular Sultanahmet Mosque—known to most as the Blue Mosque. Exploring Turkey’s ancient past is fascinating to history buffs, but also easily accessible to the intrepid tourist, and much of it can be found in the Old Town (also called Sultanahmet). In the weeks leading up to our departure, we poured over photos of these iconic buildings as a family and familiarized ourselves with a handful of must-see points of interest. Boning up on some the history and culture with the kids before we landed made the time in Istanbul so much more meaningful for all of us.
The list of top historical sights is vast, but easily customized to fit your family’s interests and length of trip. From the luxurious Topkapi Palace and the Basilica Cistern to museums, mosques and tombs, the options are seemingly endless. Much of the charm of Istanbul is in the nuanced sights and experiences. Two off-the-beaten-path treasures we especially loved were the Museum of Innocence and Pera Museum.
Equally unforgettable were the dining and shopping experiences. From our very first meal we knew we were in for a treat. We headed to the hilly Kuloğlu neighborhood to No. 19 Dining where we were welcomed with a gorgeous table brimming with fresh, family-style Turkish fare where vegetables and spices are the stars of most dishes. Our kiddos were especially fond of gözleme (flatbread) and mercimek köftesi (red lentil patties).
Courtesy of Kalamar Restaurant
Another family favorite was the Kalamar Restaurant. Located along a narrow cobblestone street adjacent to Istiklal Caddesi, musicians played traditional instruments and sang while we ate local cuisine al fresco amid the bustle. We were doted on for hours, offered impossible amounts of scrumptious small-plated dishes.
Shopping in the city is perhaps best bookended by visits to the Grand Bazaar and Istiklal Caddesi, Istanbul’s famed commercial strip. Both of these destinations are overwhelming and often packed, but essential stops. You don’t need to have a purchase in mind to experience the best of the Grand Bazaar. We wandered around the endless aisles perusing rugs, lamps, Turkish toy tops, gold jewelry, paintings, and leather jackets, and had a little fun negotiating the purchase of two ceramic trivets. A local would have spent half, but we were paying as much for the experience as for the gifts.
We quickly found that the Turkish way of life is to welcome, accommodate, and make personal connections. We made it a practice to embrace this and said yes to everything from us adults indulging in hammans (Turkish baths) to the children practicing simple Turkish phrases with locals.
As an added bonus, public transportation is intuitive and connects visitors to every corner of the city. We challenged ourselves to get from point A to point B on the metro without our noses buried in maps and travel guides, and eventually succeeded.
Our next stop was Cappadocia, a geological wonder and an opportunity to look into the past and experience early Byzantine life. Wind and water have eroded a blanket of ancient volcanic ash, leaving behind an otherworldly landscape of tall “fairy chimneys.” In the fourth century, Christians fleeing persecution from the Romans started carving intricate hidden dwellings into the soft rock, as far down as eight stories.
Several hundred years later, monks dug out chapels and monasteries—featuring surprisingly intact frescos—which now comprise the Göreme Open Air Museum. The surrounding Göreme National Park features expansive hills and valleys, as well as hidden settlements. The best way to explore the vast area is on foot, as long as your kids are old enough to go for a long walk without little legs growing too tired.
Knowing that our kids might be fatigued by too many history lessons, we opted to join a small group tour. We made arrangements ahead of time for what was called the Green Tour because we read that the guides spoke excellent English, were engaging and brought the history of these ancient underground tunnels to life. They were right. Exploring the unimaginably complex Derinkuyu Underground City was a huge hit, although the small and deep spaces were challenging for certain adults.
By far the most exciting and spectacular way to appreciate the grandeur of the unique topography is from above via a hot air balloon. Though expensive, take it from this acrophobic, claustrophobic: the experience is well worth the money. The children were in sheer awe watching the sunrise from the basket during our surprisingly smooth ride. After a positively thrilling day, we enjoyed a delicious meal at Inci Cave Restaurant. To cement the experience, we stayed at the Eren Bey Cave Hotel—a perfect blend of exotic cave-like rooms and affordability.
We only had two full days in this glorious region, but if we were to do it again we would plan twice that.
After nearly 10 days in Turkey, it was time to slow down, which meant heading to the magnificent Mediterranean coast for four nights. Selecting a seaside town was challenging due to the sheer number of wonderful options. Antalya seemed too populous and Bodrum too far a drive from a nearby airport. Friends had recently spent a wonderful week in Kaş and their photos were compelling enough to solidify our plans. We rented an Airbnb up on the hill and were not disappointed by the views of the village and turquoise waters below us.
An absolute must is devoting at least half a day to being on the sea. The beaches in Kaş are rocky and pretty enough, but it isn’t about how fine the sand is; it’s about being on the water, not just beside it. We picked a smaller boat tour, Larsoy Travel & Tourism, that capped at 20 people and included a lunch made in the galley (larger than my own kitchen in Brooklyn). Everyone on the staff multitasked. The captain served the tea, the chef steered the boat, the English translator and guide, Efe, pitched in on helping ready the rafts.
Courtesy of Larsoy Travel & Tourism
We cruised the sunken city of Kekova, ruins of an ancient civilization now under picture-perfect blue waters. While swimming wasn’t permitted near the ruins, our captain made several stops along the coast to allow us to jump off the back of the boat, which was outfitted with rafts and foam noodles. Our son loved finding out where the other passengers were from, and was amazed by how well everyone spoke English (raising our awareness of our own lacking foreign language skills). We saw scuba divers and snorkelers, as well as kayakers, and again wished we had more time.
The rest of our time in Kas were spent slowing down. Over the next three days we prioritized lounging and explored various beaches. Our favorite quickly became Big Pebble Beach. Slightly off the beaten path, it offers umbrellas, lounge chairs, food service and idyllic views of the Mediterranean Sea.
Our final stop before completing the loop back to Istanbul was Ephesus, the crown jewel of historic attractions. Walking around ancient Ephesus in near-triple-digit heat, trying to make sense of the architecture from a guidebook, felt untenable. We opted for a private, reasonably priced, three-hour guide with No Frills Ephesus Tours and had an exceptional experience. Through Yesra, our tour guide and multilingual facilitator of history, we learned that Ephesus has a long and storied past beginning with a tribe of women warriors descended from the Amazons, and including the Greeks, Romans and British.
Though less than 20% of the site has been excavated, there’s plenty to explore. We strolled along marbled walkways and around the Agora, sat in the largely intact Great Theater, gazed up at what remains of the grand Library of Celsus and felt the love of discourse and opulence that has left a clear impact. One of our favorite facts of the day was learning that prior to it becoming a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Sting, Pavarotti and Elton John performed concerts at the Great Theater.
Left: Mariko Zapf; Right: Getty Images
Yesra was also adept at keeping the kids’ interests peeked. She told them that the Theatre was where gladiators once fought and pointed out the latrines, explaining how the rich had servants to warm the cold marble “facilities,” anecdotes that ignited their imaginations. Something all visitors to Ephesus should keep in mind is that there is little shade. Summer, in particular, is brutally hot and an umbrella is essential.
We stayed in the nearby town of Selcuk at Hotel Nazar. The property has an outdoor pool in a pretty garden, which was particularly welcome after a long day of sightseeing.
Courtesy of the Nazar Hotel
We eventually made our way back to Istanbul before returning to the States. We had enough time left to enjoy a beautiful cruise along the Bosphorus, taking in from afar a city we had grown to love, and circled back to No. 19 Dining for our final dinner, feeling right at home in the familiar space.
At every turn, Turkey welcomed us. The children were adored. Turkish pride and generosity often seemed limitless. People thanked us for coming, and expressed that they were grateful we had picked Turkey for our family vacation. We surrendered ourselves to the proud, warm and generous Turkish people. In return, the country stole our hearts. We left with a sense of duty to tell others about the beauty and importance of this beloved country. So we implore anyone who will listen: get thee to Turkey.
By Mariko Zapf