Istanbul is a great city to visit with kids. It has a wonderful mix of history, culture and general vacation activities. You’ll have plenty of options to get the kids learning a little more about a foreign culture, even while indulging in those sunny days at the seaside. But for those of you imagining a super-cheap vacation, you might be surprised. Despite the favorable exchange rate for dollars or euros to lira, you’ll find that prices on many things in the city (especially museums) are pretty similar to those that you would find in the rest of Europe. Fortunately, there are free activities that you can take advantage of so that you can save your money for more museums or Turkish ice cream. Here are some of our favorites:
Visit a Few Mosques
You can’t visit Istanbul without visiting a mosque or two, and some of the best, including the Sultanahmet Mosque (also known as the Blue Mosque), are free. The architecture and the interiors of the mosques are unlike anything you’ve ever seen, and it can also be interesting to watch people at prayer. You’ll hear the mosque prayer-calls from all over the city at various hours of the day; try to time things right so that you can hear the call between the Hagia Sophia and the Sultanahmet Mosque at least once. Pro-tip: If the kids aren’t too interested in the mosques, try printing off some mosque coloring pages to get them interested in the architecture and designs.
Istanbul has long been known for its shopping, being an important part of the Spice Route between Asia and Europe. Even if you’re looking for a free activity, window shopping at the Grand Bazaar, Spice Market or Sunday’s Bomonti Flea Market can be a lot of fun. And if you or the kids are looking for souvenirs, these can be cheap places to pick them up, especially if you’re ready to haggle!
Take a Walk Along İstiklal Caddesi
This street, which spans the distance between Taksim Square and Galata Tower, is one of Istanbul’s main shopping streets, and you’ll find everything from restaurants to local shops to H&M. But one of the main draws, especially if you’re traveling with kids, is the plethora of performers that gather along the length of the street.
Enjoy the Waterfront
Stroll across the Galata bridge, and you’ll see plenty of fishermen reeling in their daily catch. On a nice day, wander from there along the waterfront in either direction. There’s plenty of great people-watching near the ferry ports, as people hustle onto and off of the ships. Kids will be amused by the boats and the seagulls, and it makes for a pleasant outing for the whole family. Treat yourself to some of the cheap ($2 or less) balik ekmek (fish sandwiches), or bring along a picnic lunch and find a place in the sun to sit and eat.
Head Out to the Princes’ Islands
Although your ferry ride out to the islands won’t be entirely free, it’s a relatively cheap ride on the public ferries, and you can spend a whole day cruising the Turkish coast and exploring the islands where it kind of feels like you’ve stepped back in time since transportation is limited to walking, bicycling or riding in horse-drawn carriages. There are some nice beachfront areas, picnic spots and hiking trails on the islands. It takes a little over an hour to get out to the islands from Istanbul, but bring some bread on the way out for the kids to throw to the seagulls; on the way home, they should be tired enough from a day in the sun that they can get a little sleep.
Watch Some Movies
It’s always a good idea to have a backup plan in mind for rainy day when the kids refuse to go to another museum or for a lazy evening in the hotel. If you’re traveling with a laptop, tablet or smartphone, the kids can sit back and watch a movie or two while you scour the guidebooks and plan the next move. Because Netflix, Hulu and other streaming services limit your ability to access their content when you’re traveling abroad, you’ll need to use a Virtual Private Network (VPN) to hide your IP address and make it look as if you were still back at home—but don’t worry, setting up a VPN on your device is a lot easier than trying to drag the kids along to something they’re not interested in doing!
Have you been to Istanbul with your family? What were some of your favorite activities? Let us know!