Martin Selsoe Sorensen is a Danish journalist who has been based in Istanbul for the past seven years. His daughter Liva, 10, is a regular and enthusiastic visitor to the city (despite the incessant Turkish cheek pinching).
What do you enjoy most about Istanbul as a place to spend time with children?
No matter where one is from, Istanbul is bound to have an exotic flavour that children will appreciate. As a Westerner it’s the many people, the scents and colours of the bazaar, the ferry cruise from Asia to Europe and the availability on every corner of fresh fruit in sizes and colours much different from home. It’s definitely overwhelming and most likely rewarding.
Where are your favourite spots to take your daughter?
The tales of life in the sultan’s palace will intrigue anyone of any age. Be it the dramas of the Harem with wives of the sultan fighting to have their son claim the throne after the death of his father or the conspiracies of ministers or even the kitchen in what used to be the centre of the world for 500 years. A visit to the opulent Topkapı complex usually requires at least three hours, but if your kids have a little less stamina make sure to take them straight to the Harem, the Treasury and the rooms around the İftariye Baldachin. Children under 12 are free and the palace is closed on Tuesdays.
Emperor Justinian’s sixth-century masterpiece – a church-turned-mosque-turned museum – is now Istanbul’s most famous monument. Inside you’ll find an incredible tale of the rise and fall of the Christian Byzantine Empire with lots of story telling done through tiny, sparkling mosaics on the walls. The upstairs galleries, reached by a ramp at the northern end of the inner narthex, house the most impressive of Aya Sofya’s mosaics and shouldn’t be missed. Looking for and finding the Viking graffiti on its railings adds a whole new layer to the monument.
3. The Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar
These two amazing sites are wonderful for explorations into lavish costumes, elegant hats, funny t-shirts, amazing rugs, glitter and gold as well strange spices as, roasted nuts and dried fruits (tastings often available). Even if nothing seems worth buying, it’s well worth browsing through at a steady pace.
4. Tarlabasi Sunday Market
The Tarlabasi neighborhood (close to Taksim) is a bit rough, but particularly welcoming and pleasant on Sundays when one of the main streets (Ömer Hayyam Caddesi through to Dolapdere) fills up with busy stalls selling everything from pomegranates and bloody lamb shanks, to shoes and live ducklings. The most atmospheric time to visit is between 12 and 4pm.
5. Prince’s Islands
These forested islands, about an hour and a half by ferry from Istanbul, are the perfect getaway for a day trip or overnight adventure. No cars are allowed (except a police car, which are always allowed in Turkey), so transportation is by foot, rented bikes (tandems available) or horse and cart. Aside from touring one or more of the islands where there are plenty of lovely walks and picnic spots, swimming is as good as it gets in Istanbul and the quiet the same.
Sundays in particular are very crowded on the ferries and on the main island of Büyükada, so avoid weekends. You might want to check out the charming island of Heybeliada instead, which has a great little restaurant called Heyamola Ada Lokantası opposite the ferry quay and is perfect for a long lunch.
6. Whirling Dervishes
Whirling dervishes are a unique Turkish spectacle with men in white gowns entering into a trance while whirling around on the floor, their garments forming big circles around them. Even for children too young to appreciate the mysticism and faith that’s an important part of the performance, it’s a fascinating experience.
There are a number of places in Istanbul where you can witness the Mevlevi sema ceremony, including the Hodjapasha Dance Theatre in the Sirkeci area, which has an authentic, one hour performance, three to five nights a week. While children under seven are generally not permitted, staff will allow ‘quiet children’ to sit near the door. Best to book tickets in advance.
This museum is actually the headquarters of the Borusan Holding Company. On weekends it opens as a museum with some of the art-collecting-CEO’s video, light, sculpture and photography. It’s an iconic red building on the Bosphorus and not of all of what is on display is likely to suit children’s taste (it won’t scare them either), but there’s an excellent playground to look forward to in nearby Bebek after the museum. The museum also organises regular children’s workshops for little art lovers.
Where do you recommend visiting friends and their children stay in Istanbul?
For the historic attractions I would reluctantly stay in Sultanahmet, but not for anything else as it’s crowded with tourists and has next to nothing to offer in terms of good restaurants and genuine Turkish life.
For a more lively, dare I say local, experience I’d stay in Beyoğlu near Taksim where Turks and foreigners come for restaurants, night life and shopping. It has little in terms of attractions, but lots of transportation to the city’s sites. The historic peninsula can easily be reached by foot or tram.
For the calmer and most child friendly experience I’d stay on one of the Prince’s Islands in the Marmara Sea (see above). There are quite a few attractions, albeit none of which made the city famous.
What are your favourite places to eat with little ones in Istanbul?
Lots of restaurants offer ready made food on display which allows children (and adults alike) to pick and choose exactly what they think they might like. It prevents unpleasant surprises when the meal arrives and doesn’t look like what it was supposed to. These restaurants cater to busy Turks and food is mostly freshly made with changing specials every day. At the cosy, little Cukurcuma Koftecisi (Hacıoğlu Sokak 1/A, Çukurcuma, Beyoğlu) you can get stuck into delicious kofte (minced lamb meatballs), rice pilavs and various vegetable dishes. On Friday and Saturdays, there’s a big fry up with the stand out being the zucchini fritters.
Kebab is a really good children’s food. Dinner doesn’t get more simple than grilled meat and most of the choices in kebab restaurants are not spicy at all, as most of the Turkish kitchen. Our favourite place for kebabs is Akdeniz Hatay Sofrasi (Ahmediye Caddesi 44/A, Fatih) a restaurant serving up specialities from Hatay, Turkey’s southernmost province next to Syria. If you still have room after all the salads, dips and various kebabs try their excellent künefe, a traditional Middle Eastern sweet made out of a mozzarella-like cheese sandwiched between layers of crispy shredded wheat and doused with a sugary syrup.
Turks like their healthy (and unhealthy!) snacks, so in both large and smaller cities there’s an abundance of food carts with grilled or boiled corn, chestnuts, bread rolls, fresh fruit or sandwiches that make a quick and cheap snack.
What Turkish foods and drinks are your daughter’s favourites?
When she was three I encouraged Liva to drink ayran, the salty yoghurt drink that goes well with both hot summer days and grilled meat. I didn’t like it at the time, but as she clearly enjoyed it, I started drinking it too and have to admit it has its advantages. She has it with tavuk sis – chunks of grilled chicken.
What would you recommend travellers to Istanbul to bring – and leave behind at home – when travelling there with children?
Leave the stroller at home. The city’s pavements are either non existent, infrequent or at best with many holes and bumps. I’ve never seen a restaurant with a baby chair, so you may want to bring a portable version.
What’s the best way to get around the city with children?
By foot and tram. Taxis often don’t have seat belts, so if you’re not in a hurry, exploring by foot is preferable.
What would you suggest families are wary of when travelling in Istanbul?
The perception of danger in Turkey is a bit different than in the West, meaning cars have safety equipment removed, electric sockets are sometimes left exposed, pavements are uneven, holes and gaps are not covered and cars drive fast down narrow streets rarely looking out for pedestrians.
Be they family or stranger, Turks really like to pinch childrens’ cheeks, and they often really like to pinch till they get a reaction. We’re not amused.
And finally, you have a lovely babysitter for the evening. What does your perfect date-night consist of in Istanbul?
The run down worker’s district of Karaköy is becoming one of the city’s most exciting neighbourhoods. It’s perfect for an evening stroll before dinner at Lokanta Maya, an exception to the many overpriced and not very innovative top end restaurants in Istanbul. One of the most interesting and well served dinner tables in Istanbul, the brief menu features contemporary Turkish cooking and seasonal specials. If footwear permits have an after dinner wander up to Leb-i Derya for cocktails on the terrace, otherwise take a taxi.