Category Archives: Istanbul

Istanbul Apartment Renting: Not Quite the Pits

We always try to find apartments to rent when we travel, for the value, space, and convenience compared to a hotel. Istanbul has a unfortunate dearth of apartments for rent for tourists, so our choices were limited.  We found an agency called Manzara Holiday Aparments, and despite our early legwork we only found one reasonably priced apartment open for the week we were there.

Kitchen sans microwave or toaster

Kitchen sans microwave or toaster

The St George apartment is downhill about 2 blocks from the Galata Tower, and is across the street from a hospital.  The building is very old with a lot of character including well worn and slick marble stairs and a faintly sewerish smell in the stairwell. The apartment is on the second floor (a treacherous proposition with luggage) and is simply furnished in a very small space. There are no bedside tables and only one wardrobe in one of the bedrooms. The curtains do not block out the streetlight just outside the window. There was no toaster or iron but the staff kindly brought these to us. The bathroom is nicely redecorated but the shower leaks and does not drain like anything resembling normal, there is no soap shelf in the shower, no countertop for bathroom items, and no hooks or towel racks.

To top it off, the apartment directly above us was being remodeled. No, that’s too kind. They were using jackhammers to rip out the drywall and concrete to the posts, for 10 hours a day. With a 2 year old child who needed naps, the construction workers were kind enough to stop for a mid day break, but would you rent this apartment at all in these circumstances?

Upstairs apartment gutting

Upstairs apartment gutting

The rental fee was reasonable relative to hotels, but other associated costs were quite high. The transport from the airport was twice the cost of a taxi. The staff kindly had arranged for a meal to be prepared for our arrival, but 3 little eggplants for 50 euros? The staff was generally helpful and attentive, but overall this experience was not ideal or a relaxing place of respite. With some more specific questions upfront, a different apartment and different plans for food and transportation, Manzara might be able to redeem itself in another experience. In retrospect, the advantages of having an apartment while traveling with a toddler far outweighs the risks of getting a dud like this.  There’s probably nothing we could have done to prevent the downsides, but we did our best to make the most of it and would still recommend renting rather than paying more and getting less in a hotel.

Thrive, Don’t Just Survive, Sightseeing With Your Toddler

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IMG_0311_2Whether it’s the Eiffel Tower, the Taj Majal or the Hagia Sophia, these majestic landmarks are to a toddler what acapella hymns are to a rock star – Bo-Ring.  This doesn’t mean you have to put sightseeing on hold though. Sightseeing can be fun for both you and your toddler but you, not the Hagia Sophia, have to create the fun for your child.

Our latest trip to Turkey put our toddler Grace, and our creativity, to the test.  Here we were in a country rich in ancient culture and all she wanted to do, understandably, was play in the park.  While we never found the golden key to hours of leisurely exploration, we did come up with a few tricks that helped Grace enjoy each experience and, in turn, gave us the chance to absorb the wonders of Turkish antiquity.  The specifics here are related to Turkey but the tips apply anywhere we’ve traveled with Grace.

Tip #1: Have a place for your toddler to rest and relax when little legs get weary.

Most of the time in Turkey this “place” was the Ergo Baby Carrier. There were too many steps throughout Istanbul and other parts of Turkey to make the stroller very practical.  The vast (and mostly flat) Topkapi Palace was an exception, though the side rooms and narrow hallways make it a tossup as well.  Many historical sites with crowded spaces have no-stroller signs in any case.

Tip #2: Relax your family rules about candy and other treats.IMG_0216_2

A big bag of Yummy Earth organic lollipops went with us to Turkey and helped us grab a few extra minutes in the Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, and many a restaurant meal. They were our trick of last resort and, since Grace rarely gets candy otherwise, they were a huge treat.

Tip #3: Take lots of outside, freedom breaks.

As much as we can we keep stretches of sight-seeing, especially indoors, limited to 1-2 hours at a time. In between sights we intersperse meal and snack breaks as well as lots of time to run and play freely. Contrary to what the Lonely Planet guidebook says, there are playgrounds and parks all over Istanbul. There’s a great one located within Gulhane Park (next to Topkapi Palace).  There are walking trails and playgrounds every quarter mile or so along the Sea of Marmara.  In Beyoglu there are nice playgrounds at the Metro stops at Tophane and Fendikli. The Sultanahmet Park, between the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, was also a favorite. Although it doesn’t have a playground, it has a huge fountain and lots of grass plus its central location made it a place we stopped several times to let Grace run free.

IMG_0136_2If the weather is bad or a park isn’t to be found, just about everywhere you go you can find a shopping mall. Shopping malls throughout the world seem to always have a food court, open areas where kids can run or walk (find a quieter corridor), and often times they have kids play areas with kiddie rides, bouncy houses, or even ice-skating rinks. When all else fails, ice cream breaks will always perk everyone up too.

Tip #4: Keep your toddler on her regular nap schedule.

As nice as it would be to stay out and about all day like we did in our childless days, hanging out with a cranky toddler just isn’t worth it. We kept a 2-3 hour window open every afternoon to go back to our apartment, have lunch, read books and play and then let Grace nap. She’d be well-rested enough for us to get out for a few more hours before dinner and even to push her bedtime back an hour or so.

Tip #5: Find something in each site that is special and interesting for your toddler.IMG_0332_2

In the Hagia Sophia an ancient step became a dancing stage and a long ramped tunnel was incredibly exciting. In the Grand Bazaar free apple tea from a shop owner was a special treat. In the Istanbul Archeological Museum a Trojan Horse kids could climb into was a fun discovery for Grace.  In the Spice Bazaar samples of Turkish Delight, dried figs and apricots made her day. We always have a small bag of special toys on hand as well. It’s stocked with finger puppets, stickers, small books, crayons and paper.

IMG_0307_2Tip #6: Accept the reality that you may not see everything you want, or for as long as you want, but in exchange you get to experience someplace incredible in the company of your child.

These are some ways we’ve found to keep Grace content so we can all enjoy ourselves, wherever we are. Do you have a tip that’s made sightseeing more toddler-friendly?

Diapers and Laundry and Diapers, Oh My!

Question from my best friend, Lisa: What do you do about laundry and diapers when traveling overseas?

Answer: Always make sure we have easy access to both!

It’s actually somewhat amusing that Lisa asked me this question. Twelve years ago she and I spent a college summer in Germany where, for two months, our clothes did not once see a washing machine. We were too poor and cheap so, for the entire summer, we washed our clothes in the bathroom sink using dishsoap. I think the dishsoap was Lisa’s idea. We smelled lemony fresh and, for the most part, looked pretty clean.

Don’t think Steve and I are laboring over hotel sinks washing out Grace’s grubby t-shirts, at least not most days. Now that we can actually afford to do laundry the modern way, we do. We always first price out the cost of having someone else do our wash for us. In developing countries like Honduras laundry is a non-issue because it is so cheap to have someone local do the wash (a few dollars/ load).  In Buenos Aires this was the case as well, even though our apartment did have a washer. We preferred to spend our time sight-seeing than waiting for a load to finish so frequently utilized the low-cost lavanderia (wash-and-fold) around the corner where the price even included ironing Steve’s shirts!

In more developed countries like Turkey the cost to have someone else do the wash was outrageous. Istanbul surprisingly also didn’t seem to have a single public laundromat. Luckily for us we had rented an apartment from Manzara Apartments and they had a washing machine in their offices they let us use (one of the few good things about this company – more on them in a later post). The washer was tiny though (held about half of what our washer at home holds) and there was no dryer. We just washed the absolute necessities since we then had to trudge a quarter mile home with the wet laundry to line-dry it.

For the most part though, when we travel we are able to do our own laundry because we rent apartments/houses equipped with washers. On our recent escapades in Turkey we rented a house at the coast during our second week. It was equipped with a washing machine and a huge sunny deck for line-drying the clothes. We returned home with suitcases full of clean clothes rather than the usual post-vacation piles of dirty laundry.

One thing we never, ever use are hotel laundry services. Almost always these services are outrageously expensive no matter the country, up to $5/ item. If we’re that desperate we’d rather resort to me and Lisa’s “dishsoap laundry method” than shell out such exorbitant amounts.

As for diapers, we usually try to take enough with us for an entire trip because diapers overseas are almost always imported from the US and therefore very expensive. Diapers aren’t heavy so they don’t add a lot of extra weight to our luggage, and as we use them up they make room for whatever souvenirs we’re collecting along the way.

On our most recent trip to Turkey we found ourselves short on diapers the last day at the WOW Istanbul Airport Hotel. I called down to the front desk to find out where we could buy diapers in the area. I was pleasantly surprised when the kind man on the other end, in very broken English, said they’d send some up.  An hour later no diapers had arrived so I called again. This time no one on their staff knew anything about the phantom concierge’s promise to send up diapers nor did anyone even know what “diapers” were. I tried the British word “nappies.” I tried explaining “you know, the thing babies poop and pee in.” I was transferred to six staff members before the last guy asked me to spell “diapers.” I did and he said he’d call me back. Five minutes later, after what I imagine was a lot of frantic googling and then titters when the staff figured out what I wanted, he called me back triumphant: “We do not have any in the hotel.” OK, that would have been nice to know an hour ago when someone else was promising diaper room service. Sadly we found a local grocery store and bought an entire pack of 36 diapers of which we used one. We left the rest of the package behind in our room so if you happen to go to this hotel and need diapers, just tell them you know some crazy Americans left some behind and they’re probably languishing in the hotel’s lost-and-found.

We have yet to find a country that doesn’t have very easy access to diapers and wipes, despite any language barriers. Though often expensive, every corner pharmacy or drugstore around the world seems to carry Huggies and disposable wipes. Too bad for the landfills but good for traveling parents.

Children Are Everybody’s Business With The Turks

IMG_0855Turkey has the “it takes a village” mentality when it comes to children, even in the metropolis of Istanbul. Turks trust each other with their children and they expect us, as visitors to their country, to trust them with our children as well. Everybody notices children and jumps to help with them, cuddle them or soothe them during a tough moment.

Turks simply love children and have created a culture where it’s fine to express that.  The most common form of attention is the cheek-pinching. I’m surprised Grace doesn’t have bruised cheeks from the number of pinches but she has endured it with surprising, well, grace. A maitre’d standing outside his restaurant as we passed noticed her face was dirty and summoned a waiter to bring him a cloth to scrub it clean. As we boarded a public bus heavy-laden with bags and a stroller a kind young woman scooped up Grace, held her on her lap and sang songs to her as if she were her own. On a scenic boat trip up the Bosphorus where Grace quickly became bored, a young man who spoke no English picked her up and read her one of her picture books. She’s been given many pieces of candy from strangers, led awayIMG_0254 by a security guard museum to show her off to his friends, had shopkeepers adjust her clothing and received all kinds of free food in restaurants from thoughtful waitstaff.

Such lavish attention from strangers is disarming for us Americans, so accustomed to adults in keeping their distance from children unless they are 1) related to them 2) know them well or 3) have some kind of malintent.   At first we (Grace included) were a bit taken aback by the attention total strangers would shower on our tiny two-year old. Once we realized the approach was universal and well-meaning though, we relaxed and, as long as Grace still felt comfortable, we tried to be as well.   As we head home after two weeks in Turkey we’ll have to readjust to strangers remaining just that, while trying to maintain that caring attitude towards other children ourselves.

Discovering Modern Istanbul Along Istiklal Caddesi

Like many world cities, Istanbul is a complex mix of the new and the old. Everywhere we turn we are reminded by a cobblestone street, a crumbling mosque or an historic tower that we are walking in the steps of ancient history. But this is a vibrant, bustling metropolis, the economic and cultural center of a nation bidding to enter the EU.

The core of modern Istanbul life is Istiklal Caddesi, a pedestrian-only shopping zone full of people no matter the time of day.  Our apartment was located just a 10 minute walk from one end of Istiklal so we spent quite a bit of time on our trip meandering and discovering what it had to offer.img_0044

A “nostalgic tramway” reminiscent of San Francisco’s streetcars runs the length of Istiklal. Since the street is built on a slight slope, the most comfortable way to explore it with little ones is to ride the tram from the southern most point to the top end of the street (Taksim Square) and walk back down. That way it’s slightly downhill the whole way plus the tramway is a lot of fun for kids.  You can reach the start of the nostalgic tramway by taking the Tunel funicular from Kadikoy. When you exit Tunel at the top (end of the line – there’s only one stop) you’ll see the streetcar stop right outside. You buy your ticket from the driver for 1 Turkish lira (about 60 cents).

Istiklal Caddesi is jam-packed with fashionable boutiques, kitschy tourist shops, cafes, movie theaters, restaurants, and historical sights.  We most enjoyed just walking along and people-watching, stopping here and there for a bite to eat or for a cup of coffee.  After riding the nostalgic tram to the end, Grace and I started our first day of exploration of Istiklal after we dropped Steve off for his conference at the Hilton near Taksim Square. First we stopped to try a simit from a branch of the chain Simit Sarayi. A simit is a ring of baked dough dipped in sesame seeds, similar to a bagel. You see simit vendors selling their snacks from red carts all over the city. They’re cheap, fresh and very good.

img_0040Back out on the street Grace and I followed Rick Steve’s walking tour of Istiklal Caddesi in his Istanbul guidebook (highly recommended), which pointed out some of the historical sites along the way. There are some old movie theaters, churches, mosques, flower and fish markets, that kind of thing. We didn’t feel the need to stop long at any of the sites but following the tour at least I knew what I was seeing along the way.

We made a stop at the Ipek silk shop about halfway along the street, on the left if you’re headed towards Taksim.  It’s a high-end silk shop with very helpful staff and good quality scarves. I found a few nice cotton/wool blend scarves (the shop has more than silk). Grace was the princess of the shop with all five shop attendants doting on her, kissing her, and even tying a jaunty scarf around her neck which they gifted to her (and she proceeded to lose on the street shortly after we left!). We have quickly learned that Turks adore children and have no qualms about showering children they don’t know with affection. Grace slowly warmed up to the idea of such expressive strangers and started to return their love with shy waves and air kisses.

There’s a great English language bookstore, Robinson Crusoe (#389), along Istiklal. They have English speaking staff and a wide-range of books about Turkey and other English-language books. It’s a good stop if your kids need something new to read as well.

A fun culinary treat along Istiklal Caddesi, and throughout Istanbul, is ice cream. Turkish ice cream is thick and img_0426stretchy so the servers (found in cafe windows along the street – you’ll spot them by their red and gold hats and vests) do all kinds of tricks with their gooey concoctions. When we stopped for a cone after dinner one night the server shot a long metal rod out the window at Grace. Stuck to the end of it was the scoop of ice cream with a cone. When Grace grabbed the cone, the cone (and scoop) detached perfectly in her hand. But the server wasn’t going to let her get off so easily. He continued to grab the whole thing away from her but reaching out and slapping the end of the metal stick back on the ice cream, to which it stuck and he could pull it away. She was bewildered but amused by the whole endeavor but eventually he let her eat it in peace.

We ate a few meals along Istiklal Caddesi during our time in Istanbul too. Haci Abdullah  (Sakizagaci Cadessi 17, just off Istiklal (past the Aga Mosque) was rated one of the best restaurants in the city by Lonely img_0421Planet Turkey, so we had to give it a try.  The food was good and the service was fast, plus it’s a large fairly noisy restaurant, a good thing when dining out with a toddler. Still it was expensive for what we got and we found we enjoyed Hala (about halfway up Istiklal Caddesi, on the right side if you’re headed towards Taksim Square) so much more. Hala serves gozleme, a traditional thin crepe-type dough folded over various ingredients like cheese, spinach, ground meat and other vegetables. The crepes are made in the restaurant window where you can watch women roll out the dough and cook it over a griddle right in front of you, which is very fun for kids.  We also tried their stuffed grape leaves (dolma) and Turkish ravioli (manti), both fresh and tasty.

Overall Istiklal Cadessi is an entertaining place for families, worth at least a short outing during your stay in Istanbul.

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Making Ourselves At Home In Istanbul

After 20+hours of traveling we arrived at our “home” for the week in Istanbul. We’ve rented a little flat from Manzara Holiday Apartments, a company that owns a number of apartments for rent to tourists in the residential neighborhoods surrounding the Galata Tower.  We sought out this company both for the comfort of an apartment as well as the authenticity of living in a local neighborhood, close to the tourist attractions but not set squarely in the middle of them.

istanbul-flat-kitchenGrace and Beth in the apartment’s tiny kitchen

We’ve rented their 2-bedroom St. George apartment. It’s small, tiny in fact, but so much more space than we’d have in even the best hotel. It’s simply decorated, mainly with Ikea furniture but also a few interesting old pieces like a trunk for a TV stand and a huge rickety cupboard for a closet in Grace’s room. It’s eclectic and suits our needs.

istanbul-grace-roomGrace checks out her new digs

We’re on the first floor, which in Turkey (and most of Europe) means actually the second floor (what we call the first floor, they call the ground floor). To get up to our apartment we have to ascend a steep, narrow, curved staircase. The paint is peeling in the stairwell and it smells musty, like very old building. I like that smell. Our neighbors seem to be several conservative families. Although Turkey is a secular country, it’s more than 90% Muslim. Most women we’ve seen around do not cover their heads but the women in our building do. One is even fully shrouded in black although her face is uncovered. The neighbors are kind but aloof. I’m sure they know we’re just another tourist family passing through their building, but they don’t seem to mind we’re here.

istanbul-flat-livingroomThat’s not part of the living room, that is the living room

istanbul-dinnerStuffed eggplant and salad prepared for us by Manzara.  It was nice to have dinner ready when we arrived but at 25 Euro each, I think we’d find a local fast food joint next time.

We arrived here exhausted Sunday afternoon. Manzara had prepared a light meal for us and stocked a few groceries in the fridge, both at our request. We settled in, helped Grace get comfortable in her new room (including hanging a black sheet over the window to block out the very bright streetlight outside her window), and tried to keep ourselves awake until a decent bedtime. With the 10 hour time difference and almost no sleep on the plane, we were all exhausted but knew if we went to bed too early we’d be up in the middle of the night. We kept Grace up until 5pm, I konked out shortly after 6, and I think Steve managed to stay awake until 9pm.  It was a tough night for Grace but every time she woke up she’d go back to sleep quickly with her favorite lullabies. In the end none of us woke up until 7am so we truly made up for the lost sleep. We awoke to a cool morning and cloudy skies but that didn’t stop us from heading straight out after breakfast to discover this ancient city. More about Monday’s explorations tomorrow.

istanbul-flat-frontGrace and Beth outside the St. George apartment Monday morning, ready to take on the day.