10 Lessons Learned in Istanbul

 

89 Hours, 2 boys, too much Ice Cream and not enough coffee!

Our final sunset in Istanbul, which coincide with the end of the Holy Month of Ramadan this year!

Our final sunset in Istanbul, which coincide with the end of the Holy Month of Ramadan this year!

Istanbul, the only city in the world stretching between two continents, is a destination that has fascinated me for decades. Since I was a child, back in Venezuela, I viewed Turkey as this capti vating country, full of great stories and legends, which fuelled my imagination and made me dream about visiting it at some point in my life.

Having lived in the Middle East for a decade now (yes, in May 2019 I officially crossed the 10 years mark!) my adult interest in Turkey, and particularly Istanbul, was much more about the fascinating historical heritage than about old tales and stories… and after reading Dan Brown’s Inferno, I desperately wanted to go to both Hagia Sophia, the famous Orthodox Church, turned Mosque, turned Museum; and the Basilic Cistern equally.

Whilst many want to shop their life away in the over-4-thousand shops at the Grand Bazaar or relish in the artwork and curiosities in the city’s countless museums, my bucket list for Istanbul was simple:

1.     Visit Hagia Sophia – Walk around its ancient corridors, look at the second church’s ruins and take a moment to witness its amazing centuries-old frescos; and

2.     Visit the Basilic Cistern – Walk around the dark and humid pathways that once guaranteed water supply for a big art of the city, visit the two Medusa heads and imagine Robert Langdon’s experience in this mysterious location in Inferno.

In all honesty, anything extra that I could tackle during our 3-day tour in Istanbul with 2 boys in tow, was a bonus, since whilst in my heart, I wanted to see it all, I knew that holidaying with children is a whole different ball game.

Before having children I could walk for hours on end, moving swiftly in between alleyways and stopping only for seconds to take photographs of the different things I encountered… tourism with little humans is about compromising, negotiating and constant stops to either take them to the toilet, feed them or let them play for a bit. Not to mention navigating the ancient streets with strollers.

If you, like me, have been fascinated about Istanbul and are planning a trip with your own family, here are the lessons we learned, things we loved and challenges we faced:

As cute as they look, these streets were a pain to push a stroller at!

As cute as they look, these streets were a pain to push a stroller at!

1.     Don’t leave without sunscreen: Seriously. So much sunscreen. For real. I am NOT pale. In fact, I’m quite tanned in general, yet the long strolls made a number on me and #MrB and we learned that SPF50 can surely make holidays better.

2.     Beware of the roads: Even though we aren’t expert travellers, our trips with the boys have always involved strollers and that was never a big deal… except here! The ancient uphill roads, cobble stone streets and narrow alleyways meant manoeuvring them was hard. Like, REALLY hard. If your kiddos aren’t great walkers, beware. Or perhaps take some heavy weightlifting in the previous months to be prepared for it.

3.     Read the small print: I normally make extensive research before we travel to have clarity about what to do and avoid whilst in our destination. However, I didn’t have a chance to do so this time and I paid for it. I found a deal that seemed too good to be true and it certainly was. Costing us 320 euros for 3 days of “activities”, it ended up giving us anything but sorrow. The offer was mostly deceitful and full of fluff that we didn’t even need. When I dared to complain, the supplier was rude and we ended disappointed and having to cancel it on the second day.

4.     Trust the Local Guides: Again, I don’t normally do this. But, with a closing door, a window was opening and, as I was calming down after the original heartbreak of our original tourism company failing us, we stumbled upon a fantastic local guide who took at heart the challenge of guiding us and went above and beyond to make our visit to Sultanahmet perfect. If in Istanbul, forget the fancy companies or complex deals and go with a local who can cater to your needs. I told Yunus: “We have until 6:30pm (aka 4hrs) to visit Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, the Topkapi Palace and the Basilic Cistern. All, with the strollers. Can you do it?”. His response? “Yes, let’s go!”. And he made it happen! If he hadn’t entered our journey, I would have probably continued crying and feeling sorry for the misfortunes of the trip. Instead, we left with a completed bucket list, thanks to this true gentleman and learned scholar who focused on us enjoying our time there while imparting his knowledge (at least part of if) of the vast historical journey of this amazing city we now call Istanbul.

As always, Yunus kept us company and allowed us to discover Istanbul happily!

As always, Yunus kept us company and allowed us to discover Istanbul happily!

5.     You think you know, but you have no idea: When we booked our little Istanbul flat, the owner warned us about the mosque in the back (Istanbul is the Turkish city with the largest amount mosques with over 3,100 for its 14 million population). “We come from Qatar, mosques aren’t an issue” we thought. That one was a mistake. As beautiful as they sounded at 8pm, as they announced the breaking of the fast, they kept us awake through the night and without the A/C noise that protects us back home, they did a massive number on our sleep. 

6.     English isn’t enough: This one was a shock. Outside of the touristic areas, and even within some of them, like the airport, English isn’t widely spoken. In fact, most of the people we met, including the lovely janitor of our AirBnB, can’t speak or understand English at all. Not a big deal if you’re patient and loving… perhaps a bigger deal if you lose your cool. Just in case, toilets are called: Tuvaletler.

The boys’ first breakfast consisted of French Toast made with our homemade bread, strawberry jam and bacon. The boys LOVED it!

The boys’ first breakfast consisted of French Toast made with our homemade bread, strawberry jam and bacon. The boys LOVED it!

7.     Whenever possible, keep it Simple: When it came to the food, we kept things pretty straightforward. I packed our own bread from Doha, as well as some Kiddo-Approved snacks, and we focused on eating fresh local produce and simply grilled proteins whenever possible, even repeating food choices time and time again. As much as I’m a fan of variety and change, when in holidays simplicity is relaxation.

8.     Kids are Royalty: If there was one common theme we encounter time and time again was people who would bend over backwards to interact, engage and entertain our boys. At first, I thought it was something to do with MY boys (they are really cute after all!), but I soon realised it was something about children in general. In cabs, restaurants, queues, museums, shops or cafes, children are cared for and given sweets, treats, smiles and high-fives from strangers abundantly. Now, if yours are on the shy side, like mine, and if you’re into bodily autonomy, like we are, this might make things awkward. But, don’t be surprised, apparently it’s a Turkish thing!

9.     Small can be Better: As much as I wanted to see the Grand Bazaar, Istanbul’s almost 600-year-old market, I’m not a fan of over-crowded places, so instead of heading there for sweets, spices and souvenirs, Yunus proposed to take us to Arasta Bazaar, a smallish strip of shops where you can find all the items from the other Bazaars minus the stressful spaces. What a treat that was! We found all our treasures there whilst the boys played (and were given more sugar than they had ever eaten before because… well read #8!) and left without any stress or overwhelm (other than on our credit card!).

Beautiful and small Arasta Bazaar in the Sultanahmet Area in Istanbul

Beautiful and small Arasta Bazaar in the Sultanahmet Area in Istanbul

10.  Dared to be Surprised: In the end, my biggest learning here was to allow myself to be wowed, surprised and amazed, not by its luxury or exuberance, but by its natural beauty, colourful flowers, stunning sunsets and warm people. 

That was it for us. Eighty-nine hours packed with long walks, loads of data and information, colours, smells, flavours and connection time. We left knowing we had witnessed a city with much more to share with the world than it has till this day. As the French Naturalist Petrus Gyllius said:

“All other cities are mortal, but I think Istanbul shall be eternal as long as mankind exists.”

After our time there, I couldn’t agree more.