When planning a trip for the new year, I tend to book a trip for February as it’s something to look forward to after the Christmas/New Year festivities. However this year, was a special year for my hubby - his 40th birthday so I surprised him with a family birthday getaway in early January to Istanbul - a city that sits in between Europe and Asia across the Bosphorous strait. The flight is 3.5 hours so in terms of flight times, it’s a good city destination to head to with children. If you are anything like me (and I would imagine most families), travelling with young children, it’s always better to plan ahead or have some ideas of what to do, places to eat and travel checks beforehand. Here are some of my tips on what to do and how to handle a city break with 2 young boys in the beautiful Turkish city.
Getting there hassle free
We always seem to take early morning flights on our holidays and our boys seem to cope well with them. I think the tip here is to try to sleep as early as possible so that you can get maximum sleep as even if your kids manage to nap here and there during the day, it’s unlikely you will be able to close your eyes until your head falls on that pillow at the end of the day. Being sleep deprived for 4 years (that’s for another blog!), I usually have no problems falling asleep at any given chance.
Try to pack as much as possible a few days before you travel so that there's little or nothing to do the night before travel - giving you more chance to relax and get into holiday mode. Perhaps write a packing list ahead of your holiday of what needs packing, some things you can pack early and others, you may only be able to pack at the last minute so having this on a checklist is very handy.
We checked our luggage in and this time our buggy too. Little one (1.5years old) likes to walk and can walk independently for longer so we felt a bit more free not pushing a buggy around with us - I am sure you can understand how much quicker it is to walk up some stairs or going on escalators rather than diverting a mile to locate the lifts, only to wait until the 5th lift arrives, before you can go in. I kept the baby carrier on me so that if he did want to be carried or got a bit tired I could carry him and still keep my hands free.
I usually pack a spare set of clothes for the kids in case of accidents – luckily I did as the eldest one had a small accident when he couldn’t use the bathroom during take off.
There was a time when you could always rely on British Airways to serve a rather bland, overly mayo’d sandwich and yoghurt but even British Airways albeit short haul economy didn’t serve food or drinks onboard so we tend to buy our food and drink before boarding. Like anywhere you go, when travelling with kids and in particularly when being constrained to your seat, thousands of miles up in the sky, it’s very important to have snacks, snacks and more snacks. For our kids food always calms so we make sure we have plenty at all times!
Don't forget you need a Turkish visa to enter Turkey. They cost $20 and can be purchased online before you fly or at the airport when you arrive. It's both cheaper and quicker to do it before hand. Be warned that you cannot change any details on the visa once you submit it online so make sure you get it right. I made a mistake on mine and had to pay for it twice. It was painful.
Our first dinner in Istanbul was at a local family restaurant called Yakup 2. We would have passed it walking down the street had it not been recommended by our trusted host. It is a very traditional place serving delicious Turkish appetisers and the portions are good. Their seafood is really good. We ordered seconds of the anchovy and calamari. Service very quick and efficient, so order as you eat so you don’t over order. The waiters were polite and considerate. We even tried the local tipple. Yeni Raki as well as the turnip juice. Both an acquired taste.
Is it nutty?
What we didn’t realise is walnuts are popular in Turkish cuisine. Some of you may know (from reading my early weaning blogs) my eldest has a severe allergy to peanuts and walnuts. After his first mouthful he commented his tongue was itching. I carry his medicines – adrenaline pens and antihistamines everywhere so gave him some anti-histamine and luckily that stopped any reaction. So do check before ordering what ingredients are in the local dishes.
We had a lazy next morning and didn’t leave our apartment for breakfast until 11am. I blame the jet lag, despite only a 3 hour time difference. However it might have been more to do with the long day and that Yeni Raki we had the previous evening! Kids being kids, cannot wait until lunchtime for their breakfast so luckily I had packed some cereal which they had when they woke. This is something I tend to do on trips now as it gives you that extra bit of time in your room, rather than having to dash out early morning to feel the kids. We eventually ventured into town – don’t follow google maps. It doesn’t recognise many of the small roads and will send you on a tour of the town instead of a direct route. Best to ask for directions before you head off as well as using googlemaps
We slowly made our way to the quaint little gem of a restaurant called Privato Cafe. It’s hidden away in the Galata area, just around the corner from the Galata Tower which was our first ’tourist’ sightseeing spot. They were super friendly and very accommodating with our dietary requirements, although you will need to explain to them exactly what vegan is. They definitely tried but the vegan concept is still very new. My husbands’ twin is vegan and our host helped me source a vegan birthday cake. He and I must have contacted around 8-10 bakeries and cafes to make a nut free vegan cake. We had to specify exactly what we didn’t want in it. The result was a delicious fruity tart. You couldn't taste it didn't contain eggs or butter at all. Back to breakfast, the village breakfast was a delight, Homemade jams, local cheeses, hot and cold plates to try – this was a large breakfast so take your time. We also tried the mezze platter which was a hit. The vegetable soup was probably their weakest dish but still edible. By the time we finished eating, it was past midday so we felt it was justifiable to finish the meal with some local quince desserts. 2 portions to be exact. It was definitely very heavy (and sweet) but worth a try. Our stomachs were full and we were ready to hit the Galata Tower.
Istanbul is hilly. Very hilly. So expect to walk up and down hills – a lightweight buggy will help if you still have young ones who like to rest. Romanesque in style Galata Tower was the tallest building when it was built. For 25TL (£5) there is a restaurant and café on the upper floors as well as an observation tower that gives you a magnificent view of Istanbul and Bosphorus. There is a lift that takes you to the upper floors or the stairwell - do note, buggies have to be left as soon as you exit the lifts so remember that baby carrier although the observation tower is very tight and it was a squeeze with the baby on my back to get past people who stopped to take in the view.
Our favourite snack in Istanbul was a bagel/pretzel mix equivalent called Simit that is covered with sesame seeds. It was a bargain at 1.50TL equivalent to about 30p. They are sold all over the city in mobile carts. They were a hit with the boys and adults alike. Definitely saved us when we were hungry in between meals.
The only thing I knew I wanted to see whilst in Istanbul was the Blue Mosque. It lived up to my expectations. The handmade ceramic blue tiles and stained glass window emitting natural light was simply beautiful. The chanting in the background just set the atmosphere perfectly. The extended family stayed home to rest and both kids were napping by the time we visited the mosque so hubby didn’t get a chance to go in to enjoy the mosque because buggies aren’t allowed in. The great thing is that it’s free to visit with scarves and skirts to borrow if you are not dressed appropriately.
The Topkapi Palace was a lovely visit too. It is now a grand museum to carefully displayed items in spacious surroundings. The entrance fee was 40TL (£8) and if you expect to visit a few palaces and museums go for the museum pass 85TL which will also save you time queuing to buy tickets and entrance.
Unfortunately we ran out of time and didn’t get a chance to visit Hagia Sophia which is supposedly more beautiful than Topaki Palace. Oh well – we’ll just have to come back and visit again 😊
I’d heard of the grand bazaar. I’d heard that it’s the equivalent of Westfield for markets. But I didn’t realise how big it actually is. It’s one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world, with 61 covered streets and over 4,000 shops. We were there for over 5 hours and probably only visited about 10 shops. We loved chatting to the shop owners and being shown their goods and told how they’re made and how to use them. We were on the hunt for dried figs for my mum and spices for hubby. We left with over a kilo of spices, 5kg of figs and 10 boxes of Turkish delights as well as 2 copper coffee pans and coffee glasses.The faint hearted can find it overwhelming especially with the 250-400,000 daily visitors. Just go and expect to be offered everything you don’t need at a price you’re expected to haggle at. Have fun!
Taxis are very reasonable in Istanbul and very convenient but be careful when you’re travelling at peak hours as a 20 minute journey can easily be over an hour or even 2. The great thing is uber works here too! The metro and trams are also very handy and easy to use. We took the metro to our apartment and it only took us 50 minutes door to door (with 2 kids and a hobbling father in law in tow).
Sleep Sleep Sleep
We stayed in a beautifully restored apartment hosted by the ultra friendly, very helpful and kind Daoud. Literally a few minutes walk from the metro and situated in the cool part of town, a short walk to funky restaurants, shops and Galata Tower. The apartment was super clean and fully equipped with everything you might need. Small touches like fresh fruit and bread, milk and water was provided. The amenities that you’d expect in a 5 star hotel, such as luxurious towels, slippers, comfy beds and the view was stunning. If you have older children, I would recommend the duplex apartment - the terrace will give you amazing views of the Golden Horn and the fantastic barbeque was calling for us to be used.
For next time
We underestimated how little time we would get to do everything we wanted with such a large party so we didn't get a chance to visit a ham, which was definitely on my list to do. We were recommended this beautiful place called Kilic Ali Pasa Hamami. Definitely a treat but definitely worth the extra. There are many more local cheaper options but not as luxurious.
Over and out
I can't rate Istanbul enough. It was absolutely charming. Beautiful architecture, friendly people, weather was sunny and dry, all topped off with an amazing host. Thank you for an unforgettable trip.