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Walking through the arrival doors of the vast and sparkling new Istanbul (IST) airport, we were greeted by a colorful backlit photograph of Istanbul’s Bosphorus river with the slogan: “A glittering meeting of two continents.” Having read about Istanbul’s importance in world history as the intersection of Europe and Asia, we were well ready to agree with the alluring message, along with another we saw on the metro reading: “Turkey: The world’s history in one country.” Little did we know how apt that phrase would turn out to be.

How to Get There

Istanbul has a new airport so you’ll want to look for flights to IST when traveling this way and make it a point to print out your e-visa before you leave home. Turkish Airlines is the obvious choice for flying to Istanbul. The airline operates flights from nearly a dozen US cities, including New York-JFK, Washington-Dulles and Los Angeles. The best way to book an award flight on Turkish Airlines may be using miles from a Star Alliance partner. For example, you can use your United MileagePlus miles or transfer Chase Ultimate Rewards points at a 1:1 ratio to your United account. Economy flights on Turkish Airlines are 30,000 MileagePlus miles one-way.

You can also look to British Airways (via London), Air France (via Paris), KLM (via Amsterdam), Lufthansa (via Frankfurt), Delta (via Paris or Amsterdam), Emirates (via Dubai), TAP (via Lisbon or Porto) and Qatar Airways (via Doha). And, here’s how to use Air Canada miles to get to Turkey in business class.

Taking Kids to Istanbul

Taking my two daughters to Istanbul was a long-held dream, one that brought their elementary and middle school ancient and world history classes to life in a way no classroom lesson or model of the Parthenon could. We started our touristic explorations, as most Istanbul visitors do, with the Hagia Sophia, considered the world’s greatest example of Byzantine architecture with its glowing sixth-century mosaics and soaring dome. Across a broad plaza, the entirety of which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Sultanahmet (or “Blue” Mosque) shows off the splendor of the Ottoman Empire, despite a major portion of the famed interior being obscured by scaffolding as it undergoes a multiyear renovation program. It was also an introduction to the quiet peace of Islamic prayer, as it continues to be an active place of worship even during visitors’ hours.

Hagia Sophia (Photo by Kevin Boutwell / Getty Images)
Hagia Sophia (Photo by Kevin Boutwell / Getty Images)

The highlight for the girls, though, was undoubtedly Topkapi Palace, a seemingly unending complex of ornately carved, tiled and inlaid rooms and treasure chambers.  While I admired the intricate decor, they tried to imagine life in a complex where women lived separately from men and a cavernous separate kitchen was required just for dessert.

Topkapi Palace Istanbul
Topkap Palace (Photo by Salvator Barki / Getty Images)

Afterward, we walked across the Galata Bridge, watching fishermen reel in strings of sparkling silver anchovies and taking photo after photo of the minaret-studded skyline silhouetted above the Golden Horn. Then, to continue the Ottoman royalty theme, we caught a cab to experience the legendary afternoon tea in the Gazebo Lounge of the Ciragan Palace Kempinski hotel, an actual former 17th-century Ottoman palace resplendent with carved and polished marble. Served every day from 2–5pm in the hotel’s Gazebo dining room, it’s the real English-style deal, featuring tiered trays of spongy teacakes, scones with clotted cream, and elegant finger sandwiches, taken with traditional Turkish tea or the straight-from-London variety.

The Hagia Sophia on a sunny day in May delights a young photographer. Photo: Melanie Haiken
The Hagia Sophia on a sunny day in May delights a young photographer. (Photo by Melanie Haiken)

Over our next few days we worked our way through a checklist of Istanbul’s prime sights. We visited not one, but two underground cisterns, eerie underground reservoirs built to supply water to the Byzantine city, where repurposed Roman columns rise to support the dripping ceiling and plank walkways allow you to walk directly over the water. While the Basilica Cistern is the largest and best known, our favorite was actually the more intimate (and free!) Theodosius Cistern, just opened in January after an eight-year archaeological excavation, where more artistic lighting makes it possible to appreciate the engravings on the wall and a music and light show enhanced the atmosphere.

Of course we left plenty of time for shopping, something we do all too well. Our first market experience was the Spice Bazaar, where we sampled our way through the offerings of at least three booths, coming away with a taste for many of the sweets we’d learned about in the Topkapi Palace kitchen, and able to name our top three flavors of Turkish Delight. As if that wasn’t enough, we also visited the Grand Bazaar, a 15th-century maze of arched hallways that few tourists escape without bags stuffed with silk and cashmere scarves and at least one glass mosaic lamp colorful enough to rival Tiffany. While the girls browsed for brocade purses and trendy Evil Eye key chains to bring home to friends, I continued my obsession with Ottoman ceramic tiles and dishes to the point of risking the need for an additional suitcase. (I shop using my Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card, because it racks up double points on all purchases, not just travel and dining.)

Galata Tower, one of Istanbul
Galata Tower and the Galata Bridge, one of Istanbul’s most famous views. Photo: Melanie Haiken

Taking advantage of the long summer daylight hours, we finished that day with a climb to the Süleymaniye mosque, where Istanbul-ites gather to picnic and watch the sunset. Another must-see sunset view is the one from Galata Tower, built and rebuilt as a lighthouse 6th through the 16th centuries, and a colorful beacon to the historic Galata neighborhood below it. It’s an easy elevator ride to the top, but the narrow walkway might be too scary for small kids – and worried parents – in that case you can get a similar view from the rooftop terrace of nearby Galata Konak cafe.

We were intrigued to learn that Istanbul has a new and lavish Legoland Discovery Centre, located in the enormous and extravagant new Forum Mall, but a visit was preempted by the decision to take a ferry to the Princes Islands, a series of bucolic islands popular with Turkish young people for their pristine beaches and laid-back car-free culture. In fact, the islands are so care-free that the best way to get around is in a flower-bedecked horse-drawn carriage, which unquestionably turned out to be one of the highlights of our trip.

The horse-drawn carriages of Heybeliada Island, one of the Princes Islands. Photo: Melanie Haiken

No laundry list of sights, however, can convey the richness that is Istanbul, or the reason we now easily name it our favorite city, topping former favorites Paris, London and New York. One evening of strolling the curving pedestrian thoroughfare of Istiklal street, riding its historic tram, listening to the lively street musicians, and watching local teenagers laugh and promenade, and my kids were captivated by the young energy of the city.

Discovering Turkish Food

It didn’t hurt that they discovered a love of Turkish food, which turns out to be quite kid-pleasing with offerings such as kebabs, meatballs, pasta (known as manti) and a Turkish form of pizza called lahmacun. One of our favorite meals took place in the fish market of Kadikoy, a bustling neighborhood on the Asian side of the Bosporus, easily accessible via a fun 20-minute ferry ride. We chose a lokanta, a sort of grab-and-go Turkish delicatessen where the food is displayed in glass cases, making it easier to experiment with dishes that might seem mysterious when described on a menu. There are many such scattered all over Istanbul, with Sahin and Lades probably the best known, but we loved Kadikoy’s unassuming Yanyalı Fehmi Lokantası, which celebrated its 100th anniversary this year, as our waiter informed us proudly.

And then, of course, there were the desserts. There’s the weird, taffy-like ice cream called dondurma, sold in stands along Istiklal by showmen vendors who stretch it between paddles into yard-long strips. There are traditional confectionaries lined with glass cases showcasing mouthwatering puddings, colorful candies, and elaborately festooned cakes, and others specializing in baklava and similar flaky pastries soaked in honey and syrup. Fascinated to learn that one such shop, Haci Bekir Confectionary, was founded by an original chief confectioner to the Ottoman palace, we felt justified in trying as many of their traditional sweets as we could manage.

Rolls of Turkish Delight covered in nuts, rose petals, and dried fruit. Photo: Melanie Haiken
Rolls of Turkish Delight covered in nuts, rose petals, and dried fruit. Photo: Melanie Haiken

Where to Stay in Istanbul

When it came to choosing a place to stay, we used location to narrow down the search, as every major points brand has hotels at various locations throughout the city, with new ones opening all the time. In fact, in 2017 Marriott issued an announcement that it had no less than 11 new Turkish properties in the works, including a family-friendly Sheraton opening in 2020. The problem for families or anyone planning an itinerary focused on the tourist center is that the majority of brand hotels are located in business districts further out, and we wanted to stay within easy tram or metro distance. (Istanbul has plenty of taxis, and we took those too, but traffic can be unpredictable so you don’t want to be somewhere you’re entirely dependent on taxis.)

Among the most convenient choices are the InterContinental Istanbul (from 50k IHG Rewards Club points per night) and Grand Hyatt Istanbul (from 12k World of Hyatt points per night) located near each other within a short distance of Taksim Square, Istanbul’s largest plaza and a major metro hub. Both are five-star, bookable with points and have popular pools, and the Grand Hyatt receives high marks from parents for rooms spacious enough to accommodate both a rollaway and a crib. Also close to Taksim Square and payable with points, the Hilton Istanbul Bosphorus (42k–60k points per night) welcomes families with games, tricycles, baby monitors and health supplies free of charge. Another option for budget-conscious IHG members is the Holiday Inn Istanbul Old City, a 20-minute walk or short taxi ride from the Sultanahmet attractions, but further from Istiklal and the lively Galata area. But check cash prices before using points since we’ve seen nightly rates around the $100 mark. (And, here are some picks for luxury points hotels in Istanbul.)

Slightly further out but conveniently near the Sisli metro station, the pristine five-year-old Marriott Hotel Sisli is bookable at 17,500 points per night or for an extremely affordable cash rate. Bonvoy program families also love the centrally located Ritz-Carlton, Istanbul for its Ritz Kids program, which even extends to excursions tailored just for younger guests. It’s a Category 5 so costs 35k Marriott points per night, or use the free night certificate you get on your card anniversary with the Marriott Bonvoy Boundless Credit Card.

If your kids, like mine, love castles and palaces and can’t stop talking about the Topkapi Palace, you can build on the theme by staying at the Ciragan Palace Kempinski (Global Hotel Alliance), where we took our memorable afternoon tea. It’s not a points hotel, but kids under six eat free, kids 6–12 pay half-price for meals, and it tops every parent-favorite list for its over-the-top Princes and Princesses program. Kids are greeted with a teddy bear, a backpack full of supplies and the chance to don a “real” sultan’s crown, which they get to wear for a photography session resulting in a take-home portrait. We sprung for a stay using my Chase Sapphire Reserve, which I had also used to pay for our flights to keep all the points in one place.

Bottom Line

We loved our family trip to Istanbul and we’re glad we were able to hit the ground running. We arrived rested and refreshed thanks to Turkish Airlines’ nonstop overnight service from SFO, which included specially catered kids meals and a package of inspired — and sustainable — handmade wooden and cloth toys. Splurge for business class to get roomy, fold-flat bed-seats and multicourse meals with an array of appetizers and desserts served from a rolling trolley; the airline’s Miles & Smiles lets you earn points at most of the major hotel programs.

Have you been to Istanbul with your kids? What did they enjoy the most?

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