If Istanbul’s been on your radar (and it should be), May is the perfect time to take the plunge. The weather’s not too hot, the city’s not as crowded and summer surge pricing won’t kick your budget overboard. We spoke to Koray Şahmali, president of local luxury tour operator Icons & Styles, to get his local picks on what’s best for families. Read his recommendations, from toy museums to shopping with teens, and ask us for an introduction if you’d like to plan a trip.
Istanbul has so many must-see sights and attractions. What should a family not miss on a first trip?
Istanbul is a city where East meets West, where its rich history blends with diverse contemporary lifestyles, yet people are living in cultural harmony. The top five sites a family should see on a first trip span multiple religions and historical eras: the Hagia Sophia, Topkapı Palace, Blue Mosque, Grand Bazaar and Spice Market, and the Dolmabahçe Palace.
Istanbul has so many amazing museums, but kids have a limited tolerance for art. What are your favorites for keeping a younger audience interested?
My favorites are the ones that can create extraordinary experiences, like the Borusan Contemporary. It’s a corporate headquarters during the week and a contemporary art gallery on weekends. They schedule fun classes for younger kids during gallery hours so children are more engaged with the art, not just looking at pictures on walls.
The Toy Museum, which is located on the Asian side of Istanbul, is another extraordinary experience. It is the only toy museum in Turkey and takes visitors on a journey of the history of toys. Kids can see toys their great-grandparents, grandparents and parents played with, and it’s a fun way of explaining to children how the world has evolved over the last 10 years.
For families traveling with teenagers, are there any really cool designer shops that they shouldn't miss that feature local designers?
Teens that want to shop should visit Mavi Jeans for denim, Misela for handbags and Bilstore for an edgy concept shop with fashion as well as books and music. For parents, the more high-end shops are Armaggan (art and design), Vakko and Beymen (the city’s top department stores), and the boutiques of Arzu Kaprol, Hakan Yıldırım and Zeynep Tosun (top Turkish designers).
Do you have favorite stores in the Grand Bazaar and any advice on navigating and negotiating?
Grand Bazaar is an exceptional experience and an amazing way of understanding the true nature of selling and buying. A good guide can help you navigate the stores and negotiations, and she’ll share her honest opinions on the value of what you’re buying. For those going solo, start with a “first offer” will be 20-25% less than the price listed.
For families that want to explore the Asian side of the city, what would you recommend?
Take a public ferry to cross from the European side to the Asian, and walk around the food markets and local shops and then complement that with a Beylerbeyi Palace visit. Be sure to walk around the famous Bagdat Street. It has Fifth Avenue-style shopping but is in a residential area, so you’ll also observe local living.
What are your favorite restaurants, both for dinner with the kids and for a parents’ night out?
The restaurants located on the Bosphorus are great for dinner with kids. The yacht and ship traffic is always entertaining. Bebek Balıkcısı, a local fish restaurant in a posh residential area of Istanbul, is one of my favorites for family dinners. The outside terrace in the summer is unbeatable. For parents Sunset, Le Petite Maison and Vogue are among my favorites.
Istanbul’s hotel scene keeps getting better. What are some of your old favorites, and what are the new openings you’re most excited about?
I love the Four Seasons, both in Sultanahmet and on the Bosphorus. The the Ciragan Palace, the Palace Suites or Grand Deluxe rooms are best. And the Park Hyatt at Nisantası and Pera Palace are my other favorites. The new Raffles, the St. Regis, the House Vault and the Mondrian are the new openings that I am really excited about.
Istanbul is usually the first stop in a bigger trip. What’s the ideal itinerary for exploring more of Turkey?
For first timers, I recommend eleven days. Start with three nights in Istanbul, then fly to Cappadocia for two nights exploring the “Fairy Chimneys.” Don’t miss an early morning hot-air balloon excursion. Fly to Izmir for a visit to Ephesus (you’ll just stay one night) then you can drive to Bodrum, the Turkish Riviera. Spend one more night in Istanbul on your way back. To see more details, real our Perfect Eleven Days itinerary.