This guide to visiting Istanbul with kids delves from real-world experience to help you navigate the ins and outs of the city for the best Istanbul family vacation.
Istanbul is one of the greatest capital cities in the world. The city’s position on both banks of the Bosphorus Strait means that Istanbul, quite literally, has one foot in Europe and one foot in Asia.
With one of the world’s greatest food cultures, fascinating history, a stunning skyline, and a laundry list of things to do that seems inexhaustible, visiting Istanbul with kids is on many family bucket lists. But with over 10 million people and a complicated image on the world stage, family travel to Istanbul can be intimidating.
If you’re looking for the basics on travel to Turkiye, start with our Turkiye family travel blog, which lays out all of the tips from currency and language to what electrical plug to use. If you’re looking to explore further afield in the country, our guide to the best places to visit in Turkiye is the perfect spot to get started.
But if you’re adventurous spirit has brought you to Istanbul, we have everything that you need to plan your visit.
Why Visit Istanbul with Kids?
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For centuries, Istanbul has been a thriving city, inviting countless travelers to its key position near the confluence of Asia, Europe, and Africa. The city’s unique position made it a vital stop on one of the world’s most important trade routes, the Silk Road. Traders working this route and the wide variety of products that arrived here made it one of the world’s best shopping cities.
The warm, welcoming atmosphere of the city is a big draw for families. And the vast list of things to do in Istanbul means that the city is an exciting destination for families who love to explore. A stop in Istanbul is, most definitely, one of the best things to do in Turkiye.
The city is absolutely packed with incredible attractions, from food experiences to river cruises to its historic center. In fact, for families in particular, the impressive list of things to do in Istanbul can almost seem overwhelming.
Istanbul is famously divided by the Bosphorus Strait. This narrow waterway connects the Black Sea to the Mediterranean Sea and, eventually, the Atlantic Ocean. This crucial waterway has led Turkiye to have an overwhelming influence on the world stage. Countries such as Russia, Bulgaria, Ukraine, and Georgia rely on this route to move goods worldwide. And Turkiye controls access to it completely.
What To Do In Istanbul For Families
For those visiting Istanbul with kids, the list of attractions is nearly endless. But here are a few things that my kids absolutely loved during our recent visit.
Cruise The Bosphorus Strait
Family travel to Istanbul is best started with an overview of the city that you’re visiting. Something that allows you to settle in, relax, and get your bearings. In a city the size of Istanbul, this is even more important. And there’s no better way to get settled into your family vacation in Istanbul than on a Bosphorus cruise.
Istanbul’s identity is linked to the Bosphorus. While the waterway divides the Asian and European sides of the city, it also helps connect the two continents in a very unique way. A cruise along the Bosphorus strait offers families a relaxing peek into this historic city. It also makes for a very unique angle to see the city from the same vantage point as many early explorers.
There are Bosphorus cruises in Istanbul to fit the style of every family visiting the city. The public ferry departs from various docks throughout the city and connects many of the most important regions of Istanbul. This is definitely the most budget-friendly way to cruise, but you won’t get any information about the city along the way.
A public Bosporus Cruise is one of the best ways to see Istanbul with kids. On these popular cruises, you’ll get all of the views while also having an onboard guide who points out all of the coolest parts of the town. We really enjoyed this Bosphorus Strait sunset cruise, which included a stop on the Asian side of the city.
Another option is to book a private charter. There are many of these in the city, and they usually include a guided tour of all of the stops at a much more relaxed pace than the public cruises. The prices are reasonable as well. This tour is particularly well-ranked.
Enjoy an Istanbul Food Tour
There is simply no better way to connect with a new city than through food. Food in Turkiye is particularly famous for its food, and I can vouch for just how scrumptious it is. Next to Morocco, Turkiye has some of the best food that we’ve ever enjoyed during our travels.
There are some absolutely amazing food tours in Istanbul. And for those visiting with kids, choosing the right one is even more important. The Taste of Two Continents food tour is incredible. It’s capped at just 8 participants, so it’s very intimate. You’ll get the chance to sample a wide range of dishes and even try Turkish coffee and breakfast.
This Istanbul food and culture tour is another popular one for families. It focuses on Istanbul’s “Seven Hills” and pays special attention to the important food culture in the city.
One of the most important attractions in Istanbul is another must-stop for families traveling to Istanbul. For those looking for a “step back in time,” Topkapi Palace highlights the life of the city’s Sultan during the mid-19th century. You’ll get an intimate glimpse into the life of the city’s most powerful resident and some features that might bring up some questions, like the Sultan’s private harem.
Among the amazing displays are a stunning collection of jewelry and a very cool private collection of weapons from the age. A bonus for families visiting Istanbul in summer is that Topkapi Palace offers some much-deserved respite from the heat.
Enjoy Some Turkish Ice Cream at a Dondurma
My kids vehemently exclaimed that Turkish ice cream was the best they’d ever had. After traveling to more than 30 countries, my boys have had a LOT of ice cream, and I wholeheartedly agree with them.
There is a distinct texture and consistency to Turkish ice cream (called dondurma, locally) that makes it completely unique. It’s a chewy, stretchy consistency similar to taffy that is thoroughly enjoyable.
To add to the draw of dondurma is the unique delivery system that many Turkish ice cream vendors in Istanbul have begun to adopt. The dondurma show involves clients (usually kids) ordering an ice cream while the vendor makes the process of taking the ice cream very difficult.
If you’ve got younger kids or sensitive children, it might be a good idea to warn them beforehand, as the Turkish ice cream show can sometimes be frustrating for little ones expecting an easy treat.
The Hagia Sophia, or Aya Sofya, is one of the most incredible attractions in Istanbul. At nearly 1,500 years old, this impressive structure stuns, not just with its age but its beauty as well. The Hagia Sophia isn’t just one of the best places to visit in Istanbul. It’s one of the most awe-inspiring structures in the world.
Originally a Christian church, the Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque after the Ottomans conquered Constantinople in 1453. The mosque was eventually closed in 1935 for renovations and converted into a museum, and it’s now the most visited attraction in Turkiye.
Depending on the age of your children, they may not be wowed by the significance of the Hagia Sophia, but they’ll definitely be impressed by its grandeur.
I recommend visiting the Hagia Sophia early in the day to avoid crowds. By the afternoon, a long line often snakes around to the Hippodrome. But even if you get there at a busy time, the line moves quite quickly. We went at peak time in peak season, and it only took us about 30 minutes to get in the door.
If you book a guided tour through here you can enjoy a richer experience and skip the long line.
Sitting directly across Sultanahmet Square from the Hagia Sophia lies the largest mosque in Istanbul, the Blue Mosque. This stunning structure was built between 1606 and 1616 to complement the aging Hagia Sophia and as a show of strength by Sultan Ahmed I.
Families can marvel at stunning domes and intricate tilework while immersing themselves in Turkey’s rich history and culture. My kids weren’t as impressed by the Blue Mosque as they were by the Hagia Sophia, but it’s definitely a less crowded experience than its older brother.
Keep in mind that the Blue Mosque is an active mosque, so tourists are not allowed to visit during prayer times. The local prayer times vary, but you can find them on the official page for religious affairs.
This highly-rated half-day Istanbul tour takes you to both the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, along with the Hippodrome and the Grand Bazaar.
Depending on your kids’ attention span, visiting all of the cultural and architectural marvels in Istanbul might be a bit overwhelming. A stop at Miniaturk Park might be a great way to introduce them to the city before bringing them to the actual sites.
Miniaturk Park offers families a fun and engaging glimpse into Turkiye and the history of the Ottoman Empire. It’s the world’s largest miniature park and includes more than 105 accurate models on a 1:25 scale.
The sprawling park sits on the edge of the Bosphorus on the European side of the city. There are English language audioguides available that help visitors understand what they see as they stroll the grounds.
Among the displays are some of the most important places to visit in Turkiye, including the Temple of Artemis (one of the original ancient wonders of the world found near Ephesus), the walls of Constantinople, the Hagia Sophia, and the Mostar Bridges.
While the park is quite large, there’s a convenient Miniaturk Express Train that can shuttle visitors from display to display.
When I first arrived in Istanbul, so many of my friends who were living in the city or had visited in the past told me that their favorite place to visit in Istanbul with kids was Princes’ Island. Princes’ Island is actually an archipelago of nine islands in the Sea of Marmara and is one of the best day trips in the city.
If the Nine islands, four of them are accessible to visitors: Buyukada, Kinaliada, Heybeliada, and Burgazada.
Most tours visit Buyukada and Hebeliada on day tours from Istanbul. While some are half-day tours, I recommend a full-day tour that includes lunch, as the ride out alone takes about one and a half hours. This is one of the highest-rated tours to the islands.
Buyukada is the largest of the islands and offers horse-drawn carriage rides to explore the island chain’s historic downtown. Don’t miss Agia Yorgi Kilese or the Church of Saint George. This is believed to be the largest wooden structure in Europe.
On the islands, you can rent bikes, explore the historic neighborhoods, and just enjoy a peaceful nature escape that is a far cry from the hustle and bustle of Istanbul.
If the dondurma was the favorite treat, Basilica Cistern was the favorite attraction for my kids. And to be honest, it blew me away as well.
Basilica Cistern, also known as “Yerebatan Sarnici” in Turkish, is an awe-inspiring underground wonder located within steps of Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. This stunning marvel dates back to the sixth century during the Byzantine era. According to ancient texts, the cavernous structure was a water storage and filtration system that contained gardens surrounded by a colonnade that faced the Hagia Sophia.
It was largely forgotten about until 1565 when French traveler Petru Gyllius left a record of being rowed between columns and seeing fish swimming in the waters.
Today, the Basilica Cistern is a testament to its architectural prowess. The towering columns and arched roof, which sit 150 feet beneath the surface of the city, offer an ethereal experience. The water-filled base is lined with art installations that complement the beautiful sculptures of the site’s intricate details.
This often-overlooked site is one of my top recommendations for those visiting Istanbul with kids. Not only does it make for a wonderful break from the summer heat, but it’s absolutely breathtaking.
Family-Friendly Hotels In Istanbul
If you’re visiting Istanbul with kids, finding the right place to stay is just as important as knowing where to go. We stayed at the Neorion Hotel, which is a great accommodation in Sultanahmet. The hotel has an indoor pool and a spa and sits within easy walking distance of both the waterfront and popular attractions such as the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque.
Other great family-friendly accommodations in Istanbul include:
Tucked away in the historic heart of Istanbul, just a short walk from Topkapi Palace and the Grand Bazaar, The Kaftan Hotel welcomes families looking to experience genuine Turkish hospitality. With a historic exterior paired with a modern interior, the city blends the best of Istanbul.
While the hotel doesn’t have a pool, it does have a terrace and a garden. You can find their rates and availability here.
Ulusoy Old Cıty
One of the most highly-rated, family-friendly hotels in Istanbul for kids is Ulusoy Old City. This hotel not only ranks very well but it’s rated among the most sustainable hotels in the city. Every unit has a private bathroom and walk-in shower, air conditioning, a flat-screen TV, and a fridge. Some units have a balcony and/or a patio with garden or city views.
How To Get Around Istanbul
Istanbul is a huge city, and both of its airports are quite a large distance away from the city center. Because of this, taxis and shuttles are an important part of getting around in Istanbul with kids.
The city also has an excellent bus and tram system that conveniently covers most of the popular things to do in Istanbul. However, if you plan on taking public transit in Istanbul, be aware that they don’t have any maps in the vehicles, and stops are not announced. You’ll need to rely heavily on Google Maps or another navigation app in order to know exactly where you are and when you need to get off.
The most common metro route in Istanbul is the M2 between Hacıosman and Yenikapı, which passes through the business and shopping districts around Levent, Taksim Square, and Şişhane in Beyoğlu and across the Golden Horn. Do yourself a favor and pick up the IstanbulKart. This makes paying for public transit much easier.
If you plan on driving in Istanbul, be aware. While traffic rules are well respected in the country, the sheer size and population of Istanbul mean driving in the city is a challenge. It’s an ancient city and many of the roads, especially in the old town, are very narrow with few places to park.
If you plan on exploring the old town, don’t be afraid of walking. Istanbul, especially the popular core, is a very walkable city.
Tips For Visiting Istanbul For Families
Travel in Istanbul can be wild, adventurous, and educational. But you want to make sure that you do it right so that everyone in your family comes back with happy memories. These tips for traveling to Istanbul with kids will get you started. Some other great resources include our guide to international family travel, our advice on why adventurous vacations are good for families, and our family travel gear guide.
- Pack for comfort, not style. Istanbul is a busy city that borders on chaos at times. No matter what your plans are, you’ll be doing a lot of walking. Make sure that you dress for the weather and wear comfortable shoes.
- Be flexible in your plans. The city is very busy, and the crowds can be overwhelming for young children. Be flexible in your schedule so that they enjoy the sites as much as you do.
- Istanbul MuseumKart. Plan your visits ahead of time to know whether the Turkiye Museumkart is worth buying. We ended up getting a three-day pass for our time in Istanbul, but because our four weeks in Turkiye were divided by a one-week Greece Cruise, the math didn’t add up for the 30-day card.
- Dress appropriately. While Istanbul is a modern Islamic city where you’re as likely to find crop tops as you are burkas, keep in mind that many of the top places to visit in the city are religious, and dressing appropriately is important. Many sites have headwear for women to use. But you’ll also want to ensure that shoulders and knees are covered for both adult men and women.
- Watch out for scams. Istanbul is a fairly safe city. But it is big, and in any big city, there are people who look to take advantage of those who are unfamiliar. Make sure that you confirm taxi rates ahead of time and ensure that taxis always turn on the meter. If you feel that you’ve been taken for a ride, report it. Istanbul is also a popular place for pickpockets. Keep your wallets and purse secure. And if you find people (even children) brushing against you or “dropping things” near you, pay special attention.
- Carry cash, but not too much. Turkiye, Istanbul especially, uses credit cards and debit cards extensively. Have some cash on you, but not too much, just in case your money goes missing.
Enjoy Your Time In Istanbul With Kids!
Many of my friends in the travel world regularly talk to me about how Istanbul is their favorite city. After visiting the city with my family, I completely understand why they feel that way. Istanbul is dramatic, beautiful, ostentatious, and vividly exciting. It’s a city where the street food is just as good as the five-star restaurants, and it’s hard to find a street that doesn’t tell a story.
If you’re planning on visiting Istanbul with kids, book your trip. It’s a place that you’ll never forget.
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