Visiting Istanbul surpassed my expectations with flying colors. I had never before thought of traveling to Turkey, mostly due to the fact that I knew nothing about the country. However, like always, my family and I are up for adventure, so Istanbul it was. I could go on and on about how much we absolutely loved this country, its people and its history, but I’ll just give you a glimpse of 13 things to do in Istanbul,our favorites, and let you discover the rest for yourself.
1. Stay in the heart of Sultanahmet. The purpose of travel, for most people, is to experience the neighborhoods, culture and people of any given destination. Even if you only give it one night before checking into a hotel for the rest of the trip, try staying somewhere local like this local apartment we found on airbnb. The owner of the building rents out all of the units, and is there for whatever you need, whenever you need it. He’ll book tours and transportation, and give you ideas of what to do. Best yet, there’s free Wi-Fi. A tip if you stay here: turn right out of the building, walk up to Dim’s market on the corner, turn right and walk one block and find yourself at Erciyes Kebap restaurant. It’s a tiny place with fantastic and cheap food. Try the Pide…it’s like a Turkish pizza.
2. View the original walls of Constantinople. Depending on how you arrive into old Istanbul, but might be lucky enough to pass the old walls of Constantinople while driving along the corniche. Something about seeing them makes the whole splendor of the city become even more real.
3. Enjoy an ice cream show! My kids begged us for another one for the rest of the trip. I highly recommend strolling along on an evening walk and allowing your children to ooh and ahh at the street side ice cream show. Pretty soon, you’ll notice a crowd around you, all enjoying the same show.
4. Eat Turkish Delights on a moonlit night. Almost everywhere you go, you’ll find shops filled with amazing sweets, nuts, dried fruits and teas. Its obligatory to stop and buy some Turkish delights while in Istanbul. Make sure you grab some for your trip home as well, because you’ll miss them.
5. Try the Sultanahmet meatballs and an Iskender. Now, the meatballs weren’t my favorite food offered in Turkey by any means, however, when you’re walking around Sultanahmet, everyone will tell you to try the meatballs. You kinda have to do it. As for the Iskender, again, its the most popular must try dish (my husband ate it twice). Its thinly cut grilled lamb basted with hot tomato sauce over pieces of pita bread and generously slathered with melted sheep butter and yogurt.
6. Use the “Ask Me” students walking around Sultanahmet. Found all over old Istanbul are high school and college students dressed in blue shirts just waiting to help you. This service is free of charge and is provided by the municipality as a summer program.
7. Hagia Sofia (Ayasofya). While you might not think young children would have a sustained interest in visiting the Hagia Sofia, mine proved otherwise. They were fascinated by the blend of Islamic and Christian religions found throughout. From a Greek Orthodox Cathedral to a Roman Catholic Cathedral to a mosque, this Byzantine structure is truly unique, inside and out. For the kids, take the trek up to the second level through the brick “stairwell”. Its amazing.
8. The Blue Mosque and the Hippodrome. First of all, you need to cover. You will be provided appropriate covering materials at the entrance, so if you didn’t dress the part, don’t fret. Also, please be mindful as many people travel near and far to pray at the Blue Mosque. Observe the proper areas for you to stand and please allow peace and quiet for others to pray. The Blue Mosque was by no means our Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, but sitting inside, you can see just how grand it is. Its the last grand mosque of the classical period. My children, perhaps used to the call to prayer and the ambiance found within the Islamic religion, found themselves very comfortable observing the mosque and everyone inside. Next to the Blue Mosque, you’ll find the Hippodrome, once the social center of the Byzantine Empire. Today, it houses many amazing monuments, like an obelisk from Egypt, and allows people to gather for entertainment and festivals, such as the food and art festival we stumbled upon.
9. Grand Bazaar. One of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world, the Grand Bazaar houses over 3,000 shops. We had a fantastic time getting lost within the rows upon rows of shops. We spoke with some shop owners, gaining history and insight into Istanbul and the markets. While it’s OK to haggle on your prices here, be mindful, rent isn’t cheap to have a shop within the Grand Bazaar. One of our favorites was shop number 29 on Kapaliçarşi where Ozy helped us out. He was super kind and really enjoyed helping us get souvenirs for the kids. Stop and say hi to him if you find yourself in the Grand Bazaar. For our ceramic store, we chose Hayri, found in shop 17/20 on Kapaliçarşi (see main photo above).
10. Basilica Cistern. Located next to Hagia Sofia, the underground cistern is the largest of hundreds of cisterns under Istanbul. The enlarged cistern provided a water filtration system for the Great Palace of Constantinople and other buildings on the First Hill, and continued to provide water to the Topkapi Palace after the Ottoman conquest in 1453 and into modern times. Watch out for Medusa’s heads, two to be exact.
11. Visit Orkatöy and eat a Kumpir and waffle. On Sundays, this adorable old fishing town is bustling with an outdoor craft fair. Meander up and down the narrow cobblestone roads and delight in all the handicrafts. Head to stall number 7 for a traditional Kumpir, where Orkatöy is the proud home of this loaded baked potato. Choose chili, corn, couscous, tapenade, mayonnaise, sausage, butter, sour cream and more. Surprisingly good with all those flavors coming together. After you’ve finished your Kumpir, grab a loaded waffle at stall number 14, where the service and fun of ordering make the gluttony all worth while. Take your food and sit anywhere along the walkways or waterfront and just enjoy the view.
12. Take a cruise along the Bosphorus, better yet, a private cruise. You’ll find lots of boats all over the coast offering trips down the Bosphorus or Golden Horn. I recommend the Bosphorus, however, I also recommend the private tour. You can take the tourist double decker boat, where you hope to get a seat up top so you are not sitting in the stuffy enclosed under area, or you can take a private cruise in a beautiful yacht with up to 12 of your closest friends and family. Better yet, its one flat price for the group, so split the cost! It really was worthwhile, and I’d do it again in a heartbeat. The people at Zoe Yacht Bosphorus Cruises were excellent to work with and provided a lovely 2-hour excursion where we could relax and go at our own pace. They even picked us up at our hotel, since our hotel had a private pier, but hotel transfers are part of the cost. Just sit back and relax and be amazed at the architecture, million dollar homes and the Asian coast.
13. Simit. Simply said, if you eat it right, you’ll be hooked. Simit, meaning crisp, is what I called a cross between a pretzel and a bagel. It is round and covered in sesame seeds. You’ll find many eating a Simit while drinking Turkish tea. Many will eat them for breakfast, tearing them apart and topping them with honey comb and double cream cheese. This was my first time eating the actual honeycomb, and I’m now addicted.
14. VIALAND. Meet Turkey’s version of Disneyland. While still a work in progress (only having opened two months ago), VIALAND hopes to be a major tourist stop as well as a getaway for locals alike. The vegetation is still very new, the staff is still getting their feet wet in customer service and knowledge of the park (as well as understanding and using English), but overall, the concept is there. When we went, many of the rides were sadly closed, such as King Kong, Rafting Ride, Driving School, Fatih Dark Ride and the Motion Simulator, so I can’t comment on those, although they looked and sounded like great fun. One yet to open is the LSM roller coaster, set to open in October. Now THAT looked like one for the brave! We really enjoyed the Small World ride, shorter yet identical to Disney‘s It’s a Small World ride, the Family Coaster and the 5D cinema, offering two different movies. A couple words of caution for you families with little ones. The height requirements are much higher than those we are used to in the we had United States, so if your little one is used to riding Splash Mountain or Space Mountain at Disneyland, don’t expect to ride much of anything here. Also, the Horror Dark Ride (yes, they told us it would be OK), scared my children to tears. Adjacent to the theme park is a shopping center, so feel free to come and go as much as you’d like, just make sure to get a bracelet and your hand stamped. The shopping center is expansive, housing almost every store you can think of, major eating areas from fast food to high end, and quite possibly the biggest toy store I’ve ever seen. All in all, I’d wait until October or even December to visit VIALAND. It will give them a chance to get a little more established and comfortable with being the one and only major theme park in Turkey.
There are so many more places to see and things to do, but with only three full days, we were limited on time. We hope to go back and enjoy so much more.