Dear Culinary Backstreets,
My husband and I are planning a visit to Istanbul with two little ones in tow. We love to be adventurous with food and want to explore the city’s culinary scene, but are also a bit concerned about finding “child-friendly” places to eat. Do you have any recommendations?
We happen to be of the opinion that Istanbul is the greatest city in the world for parents traveling with kids, especially when it comes time to eat. The truth is, save for perhaps the fanciest places in town, almost every restaurant in the city is very “child-friendly,” because Turks happen to be some of the most child-friendly folks around. There are few places in town where other customers will shoot you a dirty look if your kids get out of line or spill their ayran. In some restaurants, you may even find the entire waitstaff oohing and aahing over your children and offering to take your kids on a tour of the premises, allowing you to have a few quiet moments to actually enjoy your food. And while most places may not have an actual kids’ menu, our experience has been that almost every kitchen in town will go out of its way to make kids happy, either by whipping up something that’s not on the menu or sending one of the busboys out to grab an order of French fries or a tost (pressed cheese sandwich) from a fast-food spot down the street.
A favorite venue among Istanbul families is Kır Kahvesi, an open-air café in leafy Yıldız Parkı that specializes in making gözleme, thin sheets of phyllo-like dough that are wrapped around different savory fillings and cooked on a griddle. For a more substantial but still affordable brunch, also in the park, head over to the Malta Köşkü. The hilly park has several playgrounds and a duck pond near Kır Kahvesi, plus fine views of the Bosphorus.
If you want to have a great day that’s fun for the kids but also allows the grown-ups to do some serious grazing, head over to the Asian side’s Kadıköy neighborhood. Start off with a ferry ride across the Bosphorus, something the kids are sure to love, and then make your way through Kadıköy’s pedestrian-only bazaar area, which is filled with numerous restaurants, food shops and fruit and vegetable stands. You will likely want to have lunch at the magnificent Çiya, which always has dozens of dishes on offer (including some very simple and child-friendly kebabs) and also has outdoor seating. If you’re still feeling a bit peckish, two of our favorite lahmacun (minced-meat flatbread) makers are just steps away. Continue on to the Moda area for a sweet finish of artisanal Turkish ice cream at Ali Usta and then walk it off, from playground to playground, on the waterfront boardwalk.
As kid-friendly as Istanbul’s people and eateries may be, the city’s car traffic can put a damper on any family’s day out, so mastering alternative modes of transportation offers pleasant surprises and relief from the clogged roads of the city. The Rahmi Koç Museum has an incredible collection of planes, trains and automobiles, including the early Turkish hot rod, the Murat. But skip the snack bar for a short stroll along the Golden Horn to Sütlüce, where the streets are full of simple grill joints offering the local specialty, sweetbreads, or köfte (meatballs) for the youngsters. Golden Horn ferries leave from the dock at the museum and return to Karaköy and Eminönü.
An hour’s ferry ride away from the city center are the Princes’ Islands, a cluster of small islands that defy Istanbul reality: they are car-free. Narrow roads wind through wooded hills, studded with little churches and old wooden houses, before descending to public beaches. Though fine on foot, the islands are best explored on rented bicycles or horse-drawn carriages. Büyükada, the largest of the islands, has a couple of great spots that we’re always happy to visit. On Heybeliada, a lazy lunch at Heyamola, where unusually high-quality meze and seasonal fish are served on a breezy waterfront terrace, is worth the excursion alone, while the tranquility that the island delivers will calm the nerves of any frazzled parent. – Yigal Schleifer and Ansel Mullins
Read our related advice columns on kid-friendly dining in Barcelona and Athens.