My husband and I had grand plans to take the kids on a European vacation–at some point. We figured when the stars aligned and flight prices dropped, we’d go somewhere “easy,” like Italy. Then he announced he was soon heading to Istanbul for work, and I realized this should be our family’s first big travel adventure. It’s not that we hadn’t flown with our children before, but our destination was usually sandy, and I mean like Club Med Punta Cana-sandy, not Sardinia-sandy. If we could manage to navigate Istanbul with four kids, I thought, we’d know that we were ready to resume the ‘grown-up’ trips we used to take–the ones that involved lots of walking and lingering over food rather than sandcastles.
It was definitely time to try. So what if our knowledge of modern Istanbul was somewhat limited to Turkish Delight candy and our favorite take-out, kabobs? Ignorance turns out to be completely freeing. There were no must-sees I’d been collecting information about, hoping to use one day on Our Big Trip. I couldn’t obsess over the usual kid issues and details, because I just didn’t know enough to worry. Guidebooks would be read on the plane. I decided if we could take in one site each day and pair it with a nice meal in a restaurant, I’d call it a success.
It proved to be a relative bargain. Flights were half the price of Rome, and so was lodging–totaling about a week at Club Med, actually. I found an apartment on vrbo.com (you can see the Hendek at stay-istanbul.com). It was smaller than one I would have chosen if I’d had time to waste analyzing the layout and the ideal sleeping arrangements, as I usually do. The street was lined with electricians, not cafes, and in the Beyoglu neighborhood, not on the tour-bus route. But our rental was within easy walking distance of Istikal Street, where the Turkish chain stores and people watching are; the Galata Tower, which we could climb to see the magnificent Istanbul skyline; and a tram station which could take us to the historical sites like the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sofia, and the Grand Bazaar. So: perfect for us.
Exploring the city on our own was not difficult, even with a six-year-old. There were many narrow, crooked streets and lots of cute stray cats mincing around. Spooky Roman cisterns to be explored underground. We took a packed tram everywhere: lots of excitement for all. Most nights on Istikal Street, the kids ate a rubbery ice cream that was theatrically stretched and twirled before it was served. They learned they didn’t much like Turkish delight, but they loved the made-to-order lollipops near the Topkapi Palace. Candy makes culture go down easy. We all noted the Turkish flags flying from windows around Taksim Square–most of them were also emblazoned with a picture of Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey. (We left just before the May riots against Turkey’s conservative president began.) At the Istanbul Modern art museum, the kids loved the video installation of a woman unwrapping multiple headscarves one by one (Nilbar Güres’s “Undressing”), then sat for lunch at the museum’s restaurant overlooking the Bosphorus. There was lots to see: the Bosphorus is crazy-busy with ferries zipping around. (Many times we noted how Istanbul made New York seem orderly and uncrowded!) We took a ferry to the Asian side of Istanbul for lunch and again up the Golden Horn to visit Eyup–the fourth holiest site in Islam, according to my 12-year-old. He was also able to inform us, as we walked through the Eyup cematary, that the number of flowers on a woman’s headstone mark how many children she had. I can’t tell you how much I loved having my son as my tour guide.
Being 12, though, he was also happy to point out that the Galata Bridge is considered a tourist trap lined with overpriced fish restaurants. I loved it for sitting at a table by the water, playing backgammon and enjoying the sunset before dinner–which we did, twice. (Backgammon is a huge game in Turkey: most cafes have boards for you to use.) The kids also loved the old-fashioned wooden tops that my 10-year-old bargained for (ten for ten Euros!) at the Grand Bazaar. Curiously, these tops entertained the kids before and after every meal for the entire week. We also carried a Ziploc of crayons and paper, and a few new European comic books bought at the English language bookstore. Whenever we passed a playground, we stopped. In most restaurants we ordered kabobs and the Turkish “pizzas” called pide, which are flatbreads with toppings.
It wasn’t all perfect, of course. At one point, my 12- and 10-year-old sons started beating on each other–on the sidewalk–over something stupid like whose top was whose, and they were soon surrounded by excited male shopkeepers. I’m not sure what that reaction was about. I couldn’t tell if they were going to pull them apart or egg them on. I moved us on before it became clear. The only shots I have of the Blue Mosque and other amazing sites are the many blurry ones my 10-year-old insisted he take. I also have a few of him very slowly putting his shoes on outside of each mosque we visited. While we waited not so patienly: just like at home! My 6-year-old also tried to run away from us through the meticulously planted tulip gardens outside of the Topkapi Palace–a “must see” that I then realized we would not.
But ultimately the kids proclaimed that everything in Istanbul was their favorite. It smelled good: the air was always filled with a nice wood smoke. It sounded exotic: the echoing calls to prayer mixed with honking horns and shouting vendors. It was interesting to look at: My 8-year-old daughter and I observed the different ways Turkish women dressed. Many didn’t wear headscarves. Some who did matched theirs to the color of their stilettos, or paired them with Converse, hoodies, and skinny jeans. A few older ladies with head scarfs and conservative black coat-dresses were also smoking cigarettes. It all seemed to sum up the spirit of Istanbul.
Obviously, there’s so much we didn’t get to do in our 8 days there, but we felt lucky to experience what we did. Six months later, we are all still reminiscing. My husband and I continue to be sustained by the “We did it!” feeling we got upon returning home with all of our children and luggage in tow. What’s next? We wonder giddily. It’s a whole new world.