Istanbul is a one-of-a-kind melting pot of cultures and history bursting with fun and memorable things to do with kids.
It might just be our favorite city we’ve visited [so far], offering endless opportunities for discovery and adventure, whether you’re traveling as a family or adventuring solo, and everything in between.
In this post, we share our favorite things to do in Istanbul with kids, culled from a week exploring this fascinating city on our own.
(Psst…don’t miss our top picks on best budget-midrange places to stay in Old Town for families at the end of this post)
Here at AwayGoWe, we’re all about finding destination-focused experiences we can’t do anywhere else. That means extra points for things to do that involve exploring the local cultural heritage, interacting with residents, and getting outdoors.
You won’t find Legoland or the Aquarium on this list. What you will find are unforgettable family-friendly adventures geared to first-time visitors that are uniquely Istanbul.
While the activities we’ve chosen should be appropriate for all ages (infant to adult), you’ll need to use your best judgment with regards to your own child’s ability, maturity, and fitness levels.
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For example, some toddlers may do just fine walking the Basilica Cistern on their own, while others may need to be worn in a carrier for their own safety, as a courtesy to other visitors, or simply in the interest of preserving a very old place.
Our Favorite Things to Do in Istanbul with Kids
Explore Istanbul’s Mysterious Basilica Cistern
One of our favorite places in Istanbul to explore and one of the biggest surprises of our visit is the Basilica Cistern (or Yerebatan Sarayı, meaning “sunken palace” in Turkish), which is the largest of hundreds of ancient cisterns beneath the city.
This particular cistern originally formed the crypt of the 3rd century Stoa Basilica and was later converted into a cistern by Emperor Justinian I, with the help of 7,000 slaves. The cistern provided a filtered water source for the city’s elite up through the Ottoman conquest and into the 20th century.
All that history aside, the Basilica Cistern is one crazy place to explore, complete with giant upside-down Medusa head, resident goldfish, and much more, making it one of our favorite things to do in Istanbul with kids.
Book a guided tour of the Basilica Cistern in advance and skip the lines (they can get brutal!).
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Travel Back in Time on the Heritage Tramline
Istanbul’s growing modern public transport network is a great way to get around and see Istanbul.
A lot of visitors to Istanbul don’t know that there are also two heritage tram lines using vintage rolling stock, which is bound to excite train enthusiasts of any age.
Taksim-Tunel Nostalgia Tramway was the first heritage tram line to re-open in 1990. The line operates pre-1966 trams on the European side along Istiklal Caddesi between Taksim and Tunel.
A second heritage tramway, known as the T3 or Kadikoy-Moda Nostalgia Tramway, opened on the Asian side of the city in 2003 and features vintage trams imported from Germany.
In addition to getting to ride a slice of history, riding the heritage tram is also a great way for kids to experience a slice of everyday life in Istanbul.
Walk (and Climb!) Istanbul’s Ancient Land Walls
Though not as well known as many of Istanbul’s top attractions, exploring the ancient land walls of Istanbul is another one of our favorite activities in the city, offering a totally different angle for kids to experience Istanbul on their visit.
You could easily make a day out of tracing the length of the ramparts of ancient Constantinople. But why settle for walking alongside the walls when you can walk ON TOP of the walls! There are a few marked stairways along the route that are open to the public.
But be very cautious with younger kids as there are no guardrails in many areas (see photos)!
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Walking along the top of the walls is recommended for older kids/ teens or very young children in a sturdy carrier like the one we use (though this might be tough in some parts for some parents).
Tour a Fairytale Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet)
In an effort to assert Ottoman influence, Sultan Ahmed commissioned the construction of this incredibly ornate mosque on the site of the former palace in the early 17th century. It is by all accounts an awe-inspiring and masterful work.
Keep in mind that, while neighboring Hagia Sophia is a decommissioned place of worship, Sultanahmet is not, so you’ll want to be sure to dress appropriately and pay attention to local customs and posted notices.
Take a Boat Up the Bosphorus to an Ancient Fortress
We have a lot of favorite things to do in Istanbul with kids, but taking a cruise on the Bosphorus is close to the top with the Basilica Cistern and walking the Land Walls.
In fact, we’ve put together a complete guide for doing a Bosphorus cruise on your own and on the cheap, which you’ll definitely want to check out.
Taking a boat up the Bosphorus is a fun way to give your kids an overview of Istanbul geography and history while having an unforgettable experience.
Perhaps best of all, if you opt for the full-circle cruise, you get a few hours in the middle to stretch your legs, do some short hikes to an ancient fortress and a view of the Black Sea, and have a relaxing lunch at a restaurant with an amazing view, before getting back on the boat for the return journey.
Want to know more?
Adventure for the Senses at the Spice Market
It wouldn’t be a trip to Istanbul without spices and sweets!
We visited both the Spice Market and the Grand Bazaar (the ancient precursor to the modern shopping mall and still the largest covered shopping structure in the world). Between the two, we actually preferred the Spice Market, for its colors, smells, textures, and more traditional feel.
If your kids are keen on a treat (what kid wouldn’t be!), this is also a great place to try all sorts of goodies from around the region. Just be warned, you may want to plan a fairly active afternoon to burn off all that “energy.”
Climbing Galata Tower
If you’ve been looking for nine stories of medieval stone and mortar offering incredible views, look no further! Galata Tower is all that and more.
Dating back to the Crusades, the tower was built as a symbol of Christian influence in the region but later was converted into a watchtower for spotting fires.
Today, Istanbul’s dense neighborhoods and sprawling city limits make it a bit more challenging for your kids to spot potential fires, but the commanding view of this rapidly changing city might just make up for it.
HOT TIP: If you don’t plan to visit early, on a weekday, and/or during low season, be prepared for a long wait! Galata Tower can get very popular, particularly just before sunset.
Whirling Dervishes Dance & Music Performance
For an evening of traditional music and dance, head to a Whirling Dervishes show! We recommend checking out this one.
The Whirling Dervishes of Istanbul’s unique meditative art form are sure to entrance and enthrall even the tiniest tikes, making this a must-do with kids in Istanbul.
Book a live performance in person once you arrive, or you can book ahead now for more options and better availability.
Visit a Coffee Shop (with Secret Dungeon!)
If you like your coffee shops with a side of adventure like we do (who doesn’t!?), you’ll want to check out Palatium Cafe. You’ll love it for their wide range of coffee and pastry offerings, and the kids will love it for…well…its SECRET DUNGEON!
Head in the direction of the loo and look for the old staircase heading down into the lower recesses of this deceptively modern building. There, you’ll find an active archeological site with ruins dating back a millennium (or two?) largely open for exploration.
So, you like your coffee shops retro, do you? Well, this is about as retro as they get!
Sample Endless Flavors of Turkish Desserts!
You can’t visit Turkey without sampling any number of variations on the region’s amazing sweets. It’s not just Turkish Delight in Istanbul!
And there may be no better place to sample Turkish desserts than the venerable Hafiz Mustafa, due to their long-running history, selection, and numerous locations throughout the city.
Live Like a Sultan for an Hour at Topkapi Palace
If you and your kids want a little more history in your life, then check out Topkapi Palace Museum.
Older kids will marvel at the crown jewels and random and ornate accouterments of the former Sultan and his harem, while younger children are sure to love the amazing Gulhane Park adjacent to the palace (pictured in the featured image at the top of this post).
You can even book a guided tour of the Palace in advance and skip the line!
Ride a Ferry from Europe to Asia (and the Underground Train Back)
We couldn’t leave Asia off the list, now could we! After all, Istanbul straddles two continents, which is a pretty big deal.
Perhaps the best way to see Asia from the Sultanahmet area is by public ferry one way, then Marmaray rail for the return journey. The boat journey is great because it offers a chance to see many of Istanbul’s famous landmarks along the water, and who can resist a boat ride from Europe to Asia that takes less than an hour!?
Taking the Marmaray is equally fascinating but a very different experience. Taking this fairly recent addition to the city’s public transit system offers the experience of getting on a train on one continent, and…you guessed it…getting off in another.
Take a Boat to Tour the Maiden’s Tower
The Maiden’s Tower, just off of Istanbul’s Asian shore, has an interesting and varied history.
There’s of course the two legends attributed to the building of the tower — one involving an emperor’s attempt to thwart an oracle by imprisoning his daughter in a tower for 18 years to protect her from snakes, only for her to be fatally bitten by one hidden in a fruit basket given by her father on her 18th birthday; the other involving a love story between two ill-fated lovers.
And then there’s the historical record, which points to the tower being constructed in the 12th century for the purposes of connecting a chain across the strait in an attempt to control access to the city.
We found that the Turkish seem to prefer the legends over the historical record.
Visiting the legendary tower is not cheap, but it is a unique, one-of-a-kind experience to be had in this legendary city.
And, of course, you can always admire the tower (and the legend) from shore, while sipping a delicious beverage and Turkish snack from your very own Turkish comfy cushion (also pictured above). Simply secure your snack or drink from one of the many vendors dotting the area and stake your claim on a cushion or two.
Keep in mind that sunset and weekends get busy, so plan accordingly.
Take a Load Off On a Hop-On, Hop-Off Bus
All of this sightseeing making your dogs bark? Tired of carrying around your tuckered-out toddler?
With the sheer size of the city and all there is to see, exploring Istanbul with kids can make for some thoroughly exhausting days.
We recommend getting a hop-on/hop-off ticket for a couple of days of your visit to help lighten the load. You can get your ticket after you arrive in Istanbul, or better yet, arrange your hop-on, hop-off bus tickets online in advance.
Recharge on a Rooftop
Sitting on a rooftop and enjoying a meal or drink with family may just be a national pastime here in Turkey. And there might be no better place in Istanbul to do just that than Seven Hills Restaurant.
So, what makes Seven Hills so different than all the others? It might just be the view…
Not to mention the stunning view of the rest of the city and a couple of large bodies of water. Seven Hills ain’t cheap, but coffee, pomegranate juice, and some dolmas did just fine for us.
Money (+Time) Saving Tip
A lot of people tried to sell us what’s called an Istanbul Tourist Pass, which supposedly covers 30+ Istanbul attractions over 3-7 days but for a price. I suppose if you’re keen on seeing EVERYTHING, then this might make sense for you. For us, it did not.
We were advised by a friend prior to visiting Istanbul to get what’s called the Istanbul Museum Pass, which is completely different than the Tourist Pass.
The Museum Pass currently sells for about US$40, is good for five days, and can be purchased at a number of museums throughout the city. We calculated that even if we only visited a handful of the dozen or so attractions covered by the pass that it would pay for itself.
Plus, the pass allows you to skip the ticket lines and even provides additional discounts to attractions such as the Sehir Hatlari Bosphorus Cruise.
This site has a lot more up-to-date information on how and where to get an Istanbul Museum Pass.
It’s also worth mentioning that admission is free or heavily discounted for children of certain ages at most museums in Istanbul. However, you may still need to visit the ticket window to obtain a free ticket for your kids.
Where to Stay in Istanbul with Kids
With over 3,000 hotel options, we quickly discovered that finding the right place to stay in Istanbul is no simple task.
If you’re traveling with kids and want to stay within walking distance of major attractions for the best price possible, then finding the right place gets even more challenging.
Lucky for you, we’ve done the hard part for you!
(Check out our top picks below.)
We’ve stayed in hundreds of hostels, hotels, guesthouses, homestays, and apartments over the years across the globe (dozens more recently with young kids) and have our selection process down to a science.
Below, we’ve taken what we learned from our week exploring Istanbul and combined it with all-new hotel research for 2019.
All of our top picks are centrally-located near top attractions, recommended for families, and are considered budget to midrange accommodation in Old Town. They also exude some sense of place and/or local charm because we like that.
Bottom line: If we were planning our trip to Istanbul with kids right now, we’d book one of these three places.
Our Top Budget Pick in Old Town! Excellent value and room for kids in the heart of Old Town Istanbul. Includes breakfast, sea views in some rooms, and lots of amenities. Rated 9.3/10 on Booking.com. Click here for details.
Aslan Home Apart
Another great budget to midrange choice in the heart of Old Town. Includes breakfast and spacious rooms for families. Rated 9.1/10 on Booking.com. Click here for details.
A unique budget-midrange stay with kitchenette and terrace options. Perfect for families and extended stays in Old Town. Includes breakfast. Rated 8.9/10 on Booking.com. Click here for details.
One Final Word of Advice
The vast majority of travelers to Turkey don't encounter serious issues with safety and security. With that said, we've had stuff happen affecting our travel — severe weather, road accidents, broken bones, and other nasties.
When we have setbacks while traveling, it's a huge relief to know we have solid international travel insurance — from a financial standpoint, but also to have the support of English-speaking health care experts 24/7.
Most importantly, knowing we're covered for emergencies let's us focus on enjoying our trip, which to us is priceless.
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