Sitting on two continents, Istanbul is an utterly magical and literally unique place. One could argue that Europe and Asia alike claim the Turkish city for her charms. It is a melting pot of cultures like no other. Therefore, Istanbul food couldn’t be any less fascinating. A mixture of tastes from both East and West, food in Istanbul is a vital part of the city itself. A touch of spice here, a sprinkle of sugar there and the mesmerising scent of butter make the Turkish cuisine one of the most diverse in the world.
Being Greek, we are very familiar with the cuisine of Turkey. We have literally grown up on most of the foods we include on this list of must-try food in Istanbul. Greeks and Turks have lived together for centuries so it’s hard to trace the actual origins of each dish after all. Yet, for some inexplicable reason, almost everything we tried in Istanbul tasted so much better than its Greek counterpart. Not to mention that food in Turkey is way more affordable than in Greece. So, come have a taste of the amazing Istanbul cuisine with us.
What to eat in Istanbul
Before listing some of the most delicious things to eat in Istanbul, we would like to point out that this list is by no means exhaustive. We spent five days there so it was practically impossible to taste everything. That said, you will see that we did a pretty good job. When it comes to food, we are the champions.
Furthermore, there are a few things about Turkey food culture you should keep in mind. First of all, the best way to try as many different kinds of food as possible is by sharing meze dishes, exactly the way we do it in Greece as well. Secondly, don’t miss the chance to take your time over a hearty Turkish breakfast at least once. Turkish breakfast is an experience in its own right. It comprises of fresh vegetables like tomatoes and cucumbers, exquisite olives, local cheese and delicious eggs.
Last but not least, street food carts are omnipresent in Istanbul and they offer super cheap snack solutions which can prove lifesaving in-between endless sightseeing sessions. Of course, you can (and, sometimes, should) try a couple of the delicacies in the Istanbul street food section below at restaurants as well.
Best food in Istanbul
Lahmacun is a round, super thin flatbread with minced meat and a mix of vegetables, herbs and spices on top. It is a common mistake to call it a Turkish pizza. There is no cheese in lahmacun and it has nothing to do with pizza other than it is oven baked as well. It comes with a handful of parsley and lemon which you add on top of the lahmacun while it is still hot. Then, you wrap and enjoy. Katerina fell in love with Turkish lahmacun, which is also ridiculously cheap (about 10TL=1,5€).
2. Yalanci dolma
Sarma is an entire category of Turkish (and Greek) food. The word sarma means wrapping so this dish comprises of stuffed vine, cabbage or chard leaves. The filling usually consists of rice, minced meat and various herbs and spices. By far the most interesting sarma version is yaprak sarma which is made with vine leaves. The vegetarian version of this dish is yalanci dolma and it is hands down the most delicious type of sarma out there. A meze portion of yalanci dolma costs about 15TL (2,5€).
I assume that kebab doesn’t require a special introduction. Nowadays kebabs are available at pretty much every country in the world. However, Katerina regards the beef kebab she had in Istanbul as the best she’s had in her life. There are many kinds of kebabs in the Turkish cuisine. Most of them share some characteristics in common. They are made of grilled ground meat (most often lamb or beef or a combination of the two) and served with grilled vegetables. Prices vary but expect something around 45TL (7€) on average.
Menemen is actually scrambled eggs the Turkish way. Eggs are cooked in a delicious tomato sauce with green peppers and various spices and the dish is served with loads of bread for good reason. Menemen is usually breakfast material but you can also enjoy it as a main dish throughout the day. I must tell you here that I am quite squeamish about eggs. I only eat hard-boiled eggs or overcooked omelettes. Scrambled eggs are not my thing because I can’t risk having runny eggs land on my plate. However, I’ve met my match in menemen. This stuff was so good that I just didn’t care. I devoured it. For a dish of menemen expect to pay as low as 15TL (about 2,5€).
5. Kuru fasulye
A recipe can hardly be as simple as kuru fasulye yet claim a high position in the list of must-eats in Istanbul. Kuru fasulye is a dish of dry beans cooked to tender perfection in a plain yet mouthwatering tomato sauce. This no-frills dish is the epitome of comfort food in Istanbul and it’s also great value for money (about 15TL=2,5€/portion). You can eat kuru fasulye on its own but Turks usually pair it with pilav, their famous non-sticky rice or even erişte. The latter is a simple yet delicious side dish of homemade pasta.
Hamsi are small, anchovy-like fish found in the Black Sea. The best way to enjoy hamsi is fried and the dish is one of the most superb delicacies originating in the Black Sea region of Turkey. There is no need to worry about fish bones as they are super tiny and tender. We like our hamsi with a touch of lemon.
Pide is a boat-shaped, pizza-like miracle topped with loads of cheese and other ingredients. We could say that the main difference between pide and pizza is that the former doesn’t contain tomato sauce. In Greece, we call this dough masterpiece a peynirli, which means with cheese in Turkish. Funny, right? The way in which the two cultures have intermingled throughout the centuries is absolutely fascinating.
8. Patlican közde
Patlican közde is in essence a warm eggplant salad. It is made of grilled or smoked eggplants which are then peeled and mashed. It is an excellent appetizer or side dish and it goes well with spicy flatbread. Vegetarian food in Istanbul at its best!
Meatballs in Turkey come in all sizes and shapes. They are made of minced meat (lamb, beef or both), herbs and spices. You can find them in most Istanbul restaurants as well as fast-food places where they go by the name köfte ekmek (meatball sandwich).
Istanbul Street Food
These iconic bagel-like snacks topped with sesame seeds are literally everywhere in Istanbul. Nostalgic red carts loaded with simit are omnipresent across the city’s streets. Occasionally, you will also see men carrying huge trays piled with simit on their heads. Yes, on their heads. A simit is the ideal street snack to grab in-between your sightseeing to satisfy your hunger until the next proper meal. You can pair it with some cheese triangles if available. A simit costs as low as 1,5-2TL (0,30€).
Almost every simit street vendor, also sells açma. The latter is fluffier than a simit and it reminds more of a brioche bun rather than a bagel. Sometimes açma is filled with Nutella. If you come across this version, look no further. An açma costs pretty much the same as a simit.
Kumpir is the Turkish version of a jacket potato. It really must be the best baked potato in the world. Turks use huge round potatoes for kumpir. After the potato is baked, its flex is mixed with loads of butter and cheese until its texture feels like velvet. Then you can add all the toppings you want from a wide variety: olives, corn, various salads, sausages, peas and many more. Expect to pay about 25TL (4€) for a kumpir regardless of how many toppings you will choose.
4. Kestane & Misir
Streets in Istanbul are dotted with carts offering the healthiest snacks possible. Roasted chestnuts and corns. Can you think of anything better?
5. Balık ekmek
Balık ekmek or fish sandwich is perhaps the most popular Istanbul street food which dates back to the 19th century. Back then, every time fishermen had a great catch, they used to set up makeshift grills on their boats so as to serve their customers fresh grilled fish with bread. Nowadays, there are only two or three boats at the Eminönü side of Galata Bridge on board which fish is grilled and then served in half a loaf of bread with lettuce and onions. A squeeze of lemon juice and a sprinkle of salt make a huge difference. For a balık ekmek you will pay 15TL (2,5€). Alternatively, you can try balık ekmek at any restaurant on either side of Galata Bridge. A word of caution. Even though the sandwich is made with fish fillet, we stumbled upon some rather large fish bones so tread carefully.
6. Midye dolma
Who would have guessed that mussels would be one of the commonest street food in Istanbul? When you walk around Istanbul you can see stalls of mussels stuffed with rice on every other corner. That said, perhaps you would be better off trying midye dolma at a good restaurant instead. You wouldn’t want food poisoning to ruin the rest of your vacation, would you? We’re not saying that this will definitely happen. Nor do we want you to start asking yourselves Is it safe to eat street food in Istanbul? kind of questions. We’re only saying that seafood can be tricky so it’s better to be on the safe side.
Top Turkish drinks
Çay in Turkey is not just a drink. It is a whole mentality. A synonym to Turkish hospitality. Turkish tea is served in small tulip-shaped glasses resting on colourful saucers. You can enjoy a glass of tea in Istanbul practically everywhere and at all times. In fact, you don’t even order çay in Istanbul. As soon as you sit at a café, snack bar or even on board the ferry, a waiter comes along with a tray full of çay glasses to serve everyone. Turkish tea is quite strong so it is a good thing that it comes in such small glasses. This way you can have a glass (and find a brilliant excuse for some rest) at many intervals throughout the day. Prices start from as low as 2TL (0,30€) and the highest we’ve seen was 5TL (0,80€) at the hotel café.
2. Turk kahvesi
Turkish coffee is what we grew up to call Greek coffee. So if you’re travelling to Turkey, ask for a cup of Turkish coffee but if you are in Greece, order a cup of Greek coffee. It’s exactly the same thing so there is no reason why you should trigger a diplomatic crisis by using the terms interchangeably. OK, we’re only joking here. But, still, don’t swap the names, just in case. Served in a small espresso-like cup, Turkish coffee is quite strong. Actually, it’s somewhat stronger than its Greek counterpart. Make sure to let the waiter know beforehand if you want your coffee straight, sweet or medium sweet. Sugar is added at the boiling stage and you can’t add it afterwards. Also, try to avoid drinking your coffee all the way to the bottom of your cup because the coffee powder that sits down there leaves an unpleasant taste.
Raki is the traditional alcoholic beverage of choice in Turkey. It is very similar to Greek ouzo as they are both anise flavoured. I don’t like either of them but Katerina enjoyed a glass of Yeni Raki which is apparently the most popular raki brand in Istanbul. Be warned: alcoholic drinks are the most expensive thing in Turkey at the moment due to heavy taxation imposed by the state. Avoid unpleasant surprises by checking prices on the menu before ordering. We didn’t. When we asked for the check, we realised that we had to pay 170TL (27€) for two glasses of raki. It was shocking considering that our food cost a mere 70TL (11€).
4. Meyve suyu
Meyve suyu means fruit juice in Turkish. Small shops and stalls all across Istanbul sell freshly made juices from a variety of fruit. Orange juice is extremely popular while pomegranate juice is also quite common. A glass of fresh fruit juice starts from 6TL (1€). You can also feast on fresh fruit. For instance, pineapple slices on sticks are sold everywhere.
Ayran is similar to buttermilk or even yoghurt but it has a salty touch. This is why I don’t like it. On the other hand, Katerina liked to wash down her spicy meals with a bottle of ayran.
6. Şalgam suyu
This is yet another traditional Turkish drink that I didn’t like one bit but Katerina did. Turnip juice with floating pieces of pickles is very popular with locals and they usually pair it with their balik ekmek.
Unmissable Turkish desserts
Hands down the most popular Turkish dessert is baklava. In Istanbul you can find baklava in various shapes and sizes. It is usually made with pistachio but there are walnut variations as well. Of course everything is a matter of taste, but go for the pistachio one. There are no words to describe the amazing blend of pistachio and butter aromas as soon as you take a bite of the crusty filo pastry. Needless to say that baklava in Turkey is nothing like any other baklava you may have tasted elsewhere in the world. Expect to pay about 90TL (14€)/kg on average.
Turkish ice cream is unique in terms of taste but, most importantly, texture. Dondurma is thick, chewy and it doesn’t melt easily. That’s why dondurma vendors tend to have fun with unsuspecting customers who see their ice cream disappear from its cone right before their eyes. Well, you have to experience this to understand what we’re talking about. So, when in Istanbul, approach any dondurma shop or cart and wait for the show to begin.
This is not dessert. This is heaven on earth. A layer of string pastry is topped with cheese, then comes another layer of string pastry. Covered in loads of butter, künefe is then cooked in small copper dishes and served hot. Don’t be fooled by its small size. It’s super filling. Order kaymak or dondurma with your künefe. By the way, kaymak is very similar to clotted cream and it has an equally divine taste. One künefe costs about 15TL (2,5€).
4. Kemalpaşa tatlısı
Kemal Pasha is a mouthwatering dessert. It consists of little dough balls which are fried and covered in syrup. Try it with either kaymak or dondurma.
Muhallebi is a thick and extremely aromatic milk pudding with perfect texture. It comes in many flavours. We tried the pistachio one and loved it. There was something about muhallebi which reminded us of our childhood and that was simply priceless. It costs about 15TL (2,5€)/bowl.
6. Tavuk göğsü
Tavuk göğsü is yet another kind of milk pudding only that its main ingredient is chicken breast. Yes, that’s right. Chicken breast. The latter is shredded and so perfectly incorporated into the pudding that it’s impossible to trace. Still, knowing that there is chicken in there, I couldn’t bring myself to try it. Katerina did and loved it. A variation of tavuk göğsü is kazandibi. The latter is almost the same as tavuk göğsü but it’s caramelised on one side.
Lokum or Turkish delight is candy in the shape of small cubes. It comes in various colours and flavours and it is always covered in icing sugar. Lokum is perfect with your Turkish coffee and it is a great gift idea to bring back home.
8. Halep kadayifi
Similar to baklava in taste but less tender in texture, halep kadayifi comprises of string pastry wrapped tightly around pistachios and other nuts and covered in syrup. The way halep kadayifi is displayed on shop windows across Istanbul is utterly impressive.
Where to eat in Istanbul
For the best traditional food in Istanbul, head to a lokanta, a typical no-frills restaurant where food is the focus and there is no alcohol on the menu. We tried some of the best Turkish food, including fried hamsi and kuru fasulye with erişte, at Hayvore in Beyoğlu and everything was superb. Try to eat at least once at this Turkish restaurant which serves dishes from the Black Sea region as well as delicacies from other parts of Turkey. Check out those raving Foursquare reviews and get a taste of Hayvore.
If a fun night out is what you have in mind though, you’ll be better off at a meyhane where you will enjoy a wide selection of Turkish meze along with alcoholic drinks. For that purpose, on Katerina’s birthday we had dinner at Asmali Cavit in Beyoğlu which is famous for its delicious meze dishes for good reason. By the way, this is a wonderful place to try midye dolma, as well as epic yalanci dolma. For kebabs and patlican közde, head to Zübeyir Ocakbaşı, one of the best places to eat in Istanbul.
We tried lahmacun, pide and menemen at Forno Balat in Fener. Amazing tastes and a cosy interior are totally worth the trip to this picturesque part of Istanbul. Now, regarding kumpir, it’s not at all hard to come across it in Istanbul. However, for the best kumpir in the city head to any of the various stalls near the beautiful mosque at Ortaköy. Stall number 6 is reportedly the best one. We can confirm that their kumpir was out of this world. For Turkish coffee, head to any of the traditional coffee shops scattered across the city. We had our cups at Mandabatmaz which is hands-down one of the most authentic cafés in Istanbul.
As far as the huge chapter of dessert is concerned, we tried künefe, muhallebi and halep kadayifi at Hafiz Mustafa and everything was divine. Hafiz Mustafa have many locations across Istanbul and you can enjoy their creations at their charmingly old-fashioned cafés. We tried pistachio as well as chocolate baklava there too and, God, were they good! Karaköy Güllüoğlu is yet another popular baklava chain you shouldn’t miss. We had the pleasure of trying tavuk göğsü and kemalpaşa tatlısı at the extremely authentic Özkonak Lokantası in pretty Cihangir neighbourhood. Since we are still on the subject of dessert, Istanbul is dotted with Bolçi shops which sell superb chocolate creations. Just step inside one of them and get lost in the realm of chocolate.
Prices at all the restaurants, cafés and pastry shops we visited range from ridiculously low to reasonable. The only exception is the price of alcoholic drinks but we have already explained all about it.
Join an Istanbul food tour
Joining a food tour in Istanbul is one of the best ways to get to know with the culture and tastes of this special city. Especially if you are visiting Istanbul for just a couple of days or so, a delicious Turkish food tour is your best shot at tasting many authentic dishes in as little time as possible as well as being introduced to the culture of eating in Istanbul.
Hey, you’ve reached the end of our Istanbul food guide. For now. The truth is that in Istanbul we found yet another place we’ll keep going back to. We literally fell in love with the city and we want to go back for more. More to see, more to feel, more to taste. So, keep checking on this Istanbul food list of ours because we plan to keep adding more Turkish goodies in the future. Until then, happy food travels everyone!