Of all the things we did with the kids this summer, taking them to Istanbul is the thing that has raised the most eyebrows for some reason. “You took your kids to Istanbul?” is the usual question that people ask. I guess that for many people, the name “Istanbul” brings to mind a place that is exotic and maybe even slightly dangerous, just on the edge of the “civilized” world. The seedy, drug smuggling underworld portrayed in the movie “Midnight Express” in the 70’s probably doesn’t help, either. But after visiting Istanbul with two small kids I can tell you that we not only survived intact, but had a wonderful time. Istanbul is quite simply a wonderful family destination!
Now it probably helped that I’d been to Istanbul before and knew what to expect. I had been a little bit worried about visiting a Muslim country that was right on the bridge between Europe and Asia, but my fears were allayed as soon as I arrived and found it to be modern, clean and friendly with beautiful sights and just enough of an exotic edge to make exploring the city exciting. I left Istanbul knowing that I wanted to come back for more someday.
Our trip this summer had actually started solely as a trip to Italy, but when I saw that MSC cruises offered a one week cruise out of Venice with two stops in Turkey, including Istanbul, I immediately knew I had to find some way to work it into our itinerary. We had exactly nine hours docked in Istanbul itself, which of course wasn’t nearly enough to see the whole city, but I was determined to get in as much as I could. I knew that this was possible because the cruise ship dock is very close to downtown, and although the city itself is huge, the main sights are concentrated in a very small area.
On the morning of our arrival in Istanbul, we were able to sit on our balcony and see the Blue Mosque, the Aya Sophia and the Topkapi Palace as we glided past in the morning light. It was a great introduction to the city. As soon as we docked at 9 am we were off the boat and headed into town. Our first stop was the modern bank across the street to withdraw some Turkish Lira, then on to the clean, modern tram line that connected the terminal area directly to the old town, or Sultanahmet District, in about 10 minutes.
Once we hopped off the tram, we were right in the middle of the action. Now, the one downside to the compact size of the main tourist area is that on a busy summer day, it’s packed with travelers of all types. I allowed myself to silently mock the groups with their round blue MSC stickers being herded around the main square, conveniently ignoring the fact that I had been in one of those groups in Ephesus only the day before. The line for tourists to enter the Blue Mosque was already around the corner, so we decided to head to the slightly shorter line at the Aya Sophia first. This is the structure that was built as a church by the Emperor Justinian in 532, then converted into a mosque by the Ottoman Empire, then into a museum in modern times. We had to wait about 30 minutes to buy tickets, but it was well worth it, especially with the excellent commentary on the Rick Steves book I had on my Kindle.
After the museum, we decided to visit the one sight in the area that I had missed on my last trip, the underground cisterns. This is an area under the old city, as big as two football fields, with a forest of ancient columns holding up the roof. It was built in Byzantine times and had been fed by aqueducts to supply the city in times of seige, but had fallen into disuse after the aqueduct supply was interrupted by earthquakes. The place had been restored modern times and now it is like a damp, underground cathedral with wooden walkways amongst the columns and fish darting in the shallow water underneath. It was a fascinating place to visit and a nice cool change from the streets above.
By the time we exited the cistern, it was getting seriously hot, so we decided to take a break. We went to the And Hotel, where I had stayed back in 2004, and went up to the rooftop cafe for coffee and baklava. The place had been seriously upgraded since my visit and the prices reflected it, but the view was every bit as good and it was worth every lira to re-live my solo traveler days with my wonderful family in tow.
Refreshed and very well caffeinated, we decided to tackle the crowds at the Blue Mosque again. By this time it was almost noon and we were really feeling the heat; about 35 degrees with extremely high humidity. There was still a pretty good line, but it was moving more quickly than before, so I joined the line while my husband waited in the shade with the kids. Fortunately, there were other families with kids doing this and everyone seemed fairly good about letting the kids “cut the line” to avoid having to stand out in the sun when we got to the entrance. The interior of the mosque was enormous and decorated with beautiful blue and gold painted tiles. Unfortunately, there was no getting around the fact that when a bunch of people have to take their shoes off to enter on a 35 degree day, the place is going to reek of feet. Sorry, Blue Mosque, you’re beautiful, but I may have to go back in cooler weather to really appreciate you. That and the unaccustomed feeling of a scarf around my head and shoulders made me feel a bit claustrophobic, despite the expansive interior, and I wasn’t totally sorry when our visit was cut short after about 15 minutes when the started ushering people outside for the noon prayers.
From the Blue Mosque, we headed inland to visit the Grand Bazaar. This is the place that gives you a feel of the real exotic side of Istanbul. We were a little worried about the crowds here and we made sure to give the kids a quick reminder lecture about holding hands and staying together inside. I was actually pleasantly surprised at how approachable it was; there was no one hassling tourists, no one following you saying, “my friend, my friend, where you from, what would you like to buy?” and the whole complex felt brighter and less intimidating than I remember it. We didn’t do much shopping, but my daughter bought a bracelet, and even bargained for it, and I picked up a few trinkets to bring home. We mainly strolled around, in awe of the sheer volume and variety of goods on display.
From the Grand Bazaar we plunged into the little back streets between the bazaar and the Galata bridge. This was more of a real shopping district and although there were plenty of tourists, it still felt like a place where the people of Istanbul came to work and shop. We passed by entire streets of shops selling children’s clothes, wedding dresses, household goods and small appliances. We would have loved to take our time and explore a bit more, but after being real troopers for the day, the kids were starting to show the effects of a day out in the heat and the crowds. We decided to make our last stop at the nearby Spice Market before heading back to the boat.
The Spice Market was a bit more crowded and more chaotic than the more tourist friendly Grand Bazaar, but it still felt safe and fun. The kids were plied with samples from all the sweet vendors we passed and we eventually settled on a large box of Turkish delight from one of the stalls. The piles of spices and displays of dried fruits looked exactly how I envisioned a Middle Eastern Bazaar to look and it was a treat to just wander through and take it all in.
After the Spice Market it was a quick jump across the street and back into the modern world as we hopped onto another sleek, silent tram that delivered us to the entrance of the cruise terminal in no time flat. I don’t think I’ve ever been as happy to enter an air conditioned space as I was when I walked up the gangplank that afternoon. We all went back to our cabin to collapse on the beds and eat our Turkish delight as we sailed away just as the evening call to prayer started echoing across the city. It’s a moment in time that will be permanently etched on my memory and one that will surely draw me back again someday.