For Food Lovers: Where To Eat In Istanbul

Istanbul Food

A short Introduction to turkish food

In Istanbul, every meal is a celebration, every dish a journey through centuries of culinary evolution. This city doesn’t just feed your body; it nourishes your soul with its rich and varied food traditions.

Turkish Breakfast – A Feast for Kings: Skip the hotel breakfast and dive into the opulence of a traditional Turkish morning feast. It’s a spread that can only be described as epic: platters of jams, cheeses, eggs, olives, dips, breads, and an array of other delicacies. Just when you think you can eat no more, more delights appear, irresistible in their variety and taste.

Kebab – The Quintessential Turkish Experience: Far beyond the late-night offerings of British university towns, the authentic Turkish kebab is a revelation. It’s simply roasted, sliced meat, yet each variety – from doner to cağ, iskender to shish – brings its own unique preparation and flavor profile. This is a culinary export that truly deserves its fame.

Balik Ekmek – Istanbul’s Street Food Staple: These grilled fish sandwiches are a testament to the beauty of simplicity. Freshly made, affordable, and utterly delicious, Balik Ekmek is a quintessential Istanbul experience, perfectly capturing the city’s love affair with street food.

Manti – Delicate Dumpling Delight: These tiny, hand-rolled dumplings are a marvel of Turkish cuisine. Boiled to perfection, they’re topped with a tangy mix of garlicky yogurt and melted butter, often finished with a sprinkle of sumac or dried mint. The art of Manti is in its size – so small that, according to legend, forty of them should fit on a single spoon, a testament to the cook’s skill and patience.

Turkish Tea – Çay, a National Obsession: Turkey’s love for tea is evident in every corner of Istanbul. Served black, often sweetened, and piping hot in charming tulip-shaped glasses, it’s not just a drink but a symbol of hospitality and companionship in Turkish culture.

Simit – The Ubiquitous Sesame Treat: This circular bread, encrusted with sesame seeds, is a common sight in Istanbul. Resembling a bagel but closer to a crusty roll in flavor, Simit is a staple at breakfast and a constant companion in street stalls throughout the city.

Turkish Delight – Lokum Redefined: Forget any preconceived notions of Turkish Delight; the authentic Lokum in Turkey is a revelation. Filled with nuts and devoid of the excessive sweetness and chewiness of its western counterparts, it’s a treat that will redefine your taste buds.

Baklava – Sweetness from the Ottoman Era: This glorious dessert, a legacy of the Ottoman Empire, is a rich tapestry of pastry and nuts, usually pistachios, generously soaked in honey or sugar syrup. Each bite is a trip through history, decadent and satisfying.

Breakfast in Istanbul

Breakfast in Istanbul is not just the first meal of the day; it’s a lavish ritual that reflects the city’s generous spirit and rich culinary traditions. Known as “kahvaltı,” which literally means “before coffee,” Turkish breakfast is a spread that could easily cover every inch of the table with its variety and abundance. It typically includes an array of cheeses, from the mild, stringy “çökelek” to the rich, aged “kaşar,” alongside platters of fresh and dried fruits, a variety of olives, tomatoes, cucumbers, and an assortment of jams and honey. Eggs are another staple, often served as “menemen” – a hearty dish made with scrambled eggs, tomatoes, green peppers, and spices.

For tourists eager to dive into this culinary feast, there are a few must-try dishes that stand out. “Simit,” a sesame-encrusted bread, is perfect for dipping into “çilbir,” a delectable mix of poached eggs and yogurt, seasoned with garlic and drizzled with melted butter and spices. Another not-to-be-missed delight is “börek,” a flaky pastry filled with cheese, spinach, or minced meat. To truly embrace the local breakfast culture, one should also try “bal kaymak” – a heavenly combo of clotted cream and honey, best enjoyed with a piece of fresh, crusty bread.

Experiencing breakfast in Istanbul offers more than just a meal; it provides insight into the Turkish way of life, where food is a means of coming together and celebrating the day ahead. Most neighborhoods in Istanbul boast a variety of breakfast spots, from the traditional “kahvaltı salonları” (breakfast salons) to trendy cafes offering modern twists on classic dishes. To enjoy breakfast like a local, head to areas like Beşiktaş or Kadıköy, where you can find bustling breakfast venues filled with both locals and tourists alike, all gathered around tables laden with delicious, colorful dishes, starting the day with a feast for the senses.

a bowl filled with different types of food on a table

Kebab in Istanbul

The kebab, Istanbul’s culinary ambassador, transcends the simple concept of grilled meat to represent an art form that’s deeply embedded in the city’s gastronomic DNA. While the term “kebab” encompasses a broad range of dishes, each with its own preparation, seasoning, and presentation, the common thread is the meticulous care with which the meat is marinated, cooked, and served. Varieties such as “döner” (meat cooked on a rotating spit), “şiş kebab” (skewered meat), and “adana kebab” (spicy minced meat on a skewer) are just the tip of the iceberg, offering a glimpse into the diverse and rich world of Turkish kebabs.

For those on the hunt for the ultimate kebab experience in Istanbul, insider advice is gold. Look for places where the locals eat; a busy spot with a high turnover ensures the meat is fresh and cooked to perfection. Another tip is to seek out specialty kebab restaurants that focus on specific types of kebab, as these are likely to offer the most authentic and high-quality selections. Pay attention to the aroma and the grill; a good kebab place fills the air with enticing smells and showcases the cooking process where diners can see it, promising not just a meal but a spectacle.

Finding a great kebab place in Istanbul might seem daunting given the plethora of options, but it’s also an exciting culinary adventure. Areas like Beyoğlu and Kadıköy are teeming with reputable kebab houses that have been perfecting their craft for decades. Don’t hesitate to ask locals for their recommendations, as many Istanbulites take pride in pointing you towards their favorite spots. Whether you end up in a humble street-side eatery or a more established restaurant, the quest for the perfect kebab is sure to be a memorable part of your Istanbul journey, blending delicious flavors with the warmth of Turkish hospitality.

a white plate topped with meat and vegetables

Traditional fare

Delving into Istanbul’s traditional fare is like taking a step back in time, where each dish tells a story of empires, cultures, and the people who’ve shaped the city’s culinary landscape. Beyond the famous kebabs and sweet treats, the city’s gastronomy is rich with dishes that have been savored for centuries. “Dolma” and “sarma,” vine leaves or vegetables stuffed with spiced rice and meat, showcase the intricate flavors and techniques passed down through generations. Meanwhile, “çorba” (soup), such as the hearty “lentil soup” or the rich, tangy “tarhana,” made from a fermented mix of grain and yogurt, offers comfort in a bowl, reflecting the simple yet profound flavors that are characteristic of Turkish home cooking.

Exploring traditional fare in Istanbul also means encountering “meze,” a selection of small dishes served to accompany drinks, often as a prelude to the main course. Meze plates can range from simple fresh herbs and cheese to more complex offerings like “muhammara,” a spicy walnut and red pepper dip, or “hummus” enriched with Turkish olive oil. These dishes are not just about sustenance but are a way to bring people together, encouraging conversation and sharing over a communal table.

For those eager to experience the authentic taste of Istanbul, dining in “meyhanes” (traditional Turkish taverns) or visiting local “lokantas” (eateries) is indispensable. These places often serve up timeless recipes, providing a glimpse into the city’s culinary soul. Look for establishments that are bustling with locals, as these are likely to offer the most authentic and lovingly prepared dishes. Venturing into neighborhoods like Balat, Fatih, or Kadıköy can lead to delightful culinary discoveries, where traditional Turkish fare is served with pride and history is savored in every bite. Engaging with the city’s traditional cuisine is not just about eating; it’s an immersive experience that connects you to the heart of Istanbul, one dish at a time.

a group of people standing on a pier next to a body of water

Turkish desserts

In the realm of sweet indulgences, Istanbul is a treasure trove that goes far beyond the globally recognized Turkish delight and baklava, although these classics remain essential tasting experiences. The city’s sweet treats are a testament to the Ottoman Empire’s influence, blending intricate flavors with delicate textures. “Künefe” is a heavenly dessert made of shredded kadayıf (a type of dough) filled with melted cheese, all soaked in sweet syrup and often served with a sprinkle of pistachio on top. Another must-try is “şekerpare,” a soft, semolina-based dessert drenched in syrup, striking the perfect balance between sweetness and texture.

For those with a sweet tooth, exploring Istanbul’s dessert scene is akin to discovering a new language of taste. Insider advice for finding the best sweet spots includes looking for specialty dessert shops or “pastries display selective focus photography,” which focus on traditional Turkish desserts. These places often have a long-standing history and a reputation for using family recipes passed down through generations. A good sign of a quality dessert place is its popularity among locals, especially after meal times when families gather for a sweet treat.

Venturing into Istanbul’s bustling markets and historic districts can also lead you to artisanal vendors selling freshly made “lokma” (deep-fried dough soaked in syrup) or “gözleme” with sweet fillings like Nutella or banana. The city’s vibrant café culture also offers a contemporary twist on traditional desserts, serving up classics with modern flavors and presentations. To truly immerse yourself in Istanbul’s sweet landscape, let your curiosity guide you to the colorful displays and enticing aromas of local bakeries and dessert shops, where each bite tells a story of tradition, innovation, and culinary artistry.

a man cooking food on a grill in front of a red cart

Drinks and Beverages

Istanbul’s drink culture is as diverse and historic as the city itself, offering an array of beverages that range from the traditional to the contemporary, each with its own story and place in Turkish society. At the heart of this culture is “çay,” Turkish tea, a staple in every household and business, served in delicate, tulip-shaped glasses. This strong, black tea, brewed to perfection in a two-tiered pot known as a “çaydanlık,” is a symbol of hospitality and companionship, consumed at all hours of the day and night. Walking through Istanbul, one is never far from a “çay bahçesi” (tea garden) or a bustling café where locals gather to sip tea and catch up with friends.

Another iconic drink is “Türk kahvesi,” Turkish coffee, renowned for its strong flavor and the thick grounds that settle at the bottom of the cup. Prepared in a small pot called a “cezve” and often sweetened with sugar during the brewing process, Turkish coffee is as much a ritual as it is a beverage, traditionally followed by the art of fortune telling from the coffee grounds left in the cup. For those looking to cool down, “ayran,” a refreshing yogurt-based drink, offers a tangy respite from Istanbul’s hustle and bustle, perfectly complementing the city’s rich, savory dishes.

For visitors wanting to dive deeper into Istanbul’s beverage scene, exploring the city’s burgeoning array of craft cocktail bars and local “meyhanes” can provide a modern twist on traditional Turkish drinking culture. Here, one can enjoy “rakı,” an anise-flavored spirit often referred to as “lion’s milk” due to its milky appearance when mixed with water. Rakı is typically enjoyed alongside meze, fostering a sense of unity and celebration among diners. Whether you’re starting your day with a strong Turkish coffee, unwinding with an afternoon tea, or toasting with rakı at night, Istanbul’s drinks offer a taste of the city’s rich cultural tapestry, inviting visitors to linger, savor, and connect.

Recommended Restaurants and Bars in Istanbul

Here are some of my personal recommendations.

  1. Ciya Sofrasi
    • Description: Nestled in the vibrant neighborhood of Kadıköy on the Asian side, Ciya Sofrasi is a culinary haven for those seeking to explore Anatolian cuisine.
    • Location: Kadıköy, Asian Side
    • Recommendation: Don’t miss the opportunity to try their kebab varieties and regional dishes that change seasonally. A reservation is advisable, especially for dinner.
  2. Mikla
    • Description: An upscale restaurant located atop the Marmara Pera hotel, offering a modern take on Turkish and Scandinavian cuisines, complete with breathtaking views of the city.
    • Location: Beyoğlu, European Side
    • Recommendation: Opt for the tasting menu for a comprehensive experience of Chef Mehmet Gürs’ innovative dishes. Booking in advance is essential.
  3. Karaköy Lokantası
    • Description: A stylish yet traditional Turkish tavern (meyhane) known for its seafood and mezes, located in the hip Karaköy district.
    • Location: Karaköy, European Side
    • Recommendation: Try their grilled octopus and be sure to sample a variety of mezes. It’s popular among locals and tourists alike, so consider reserving a table.
  4. Sultanahmet Köftecisi
    • Description: A historic eatery famous for its succulent grilled meatballs, located in the heart of the Old City.
    • Location: Sultanahmet, European Side
    • Recommendation: The meatballs and “piyaz” (white bean salad) are must-tries. Ideal for a quick and delicious meal while exploring nearby attractions.
  5. Pandeli
    • Description: An iconic restaurant situated above the entrance of the Spice Bazaar, known for its classic Turkish dishes and stunning blue-tiled interior.
    • Location: Eminönü, Near the Spice Bazaar
    • Recommendation: Enjoy traditional dishes like “manti” and “imam bayildi.” No reservations are needed, but it’s best to arrive early.
  6. Mürver Restaurant
    • Description: Located in the trendy Karaköy neighborhood, Mürver offers a seasonal menu with dishes cooked over a wood fire, boasting a stunning terrace view.
    • Location: Karaköy, European Side
    • Recommendation: The smoked and grilled dishes are phenomenal. Booking a table on the terrace for sunset views is highly recommended.
  7. Nevizade Street
    • Description: Not a single venue but a bustling street full of traditional meyhanes and fish restaurants in the heart of Beyoğlu.
    • Location: Beyoğlu, European Side
    • Recommendation: Great for experiencing Istanbul’s lively dining culture. Try a variety of mezes and enjoy rakı in one of the street’s many establishments. No specific reservation needed, but weekends can get crowded.
  8. 360 Istanbul
    • Description: An elegant rooftop bar and restaurant offering 360-degree views of the city skyline, known for its cocktails and international cuisine.
    • Location: Istiklal Avenue, Beyoğlu
    • Recommendation: Perfect for a night out. The cocktails are creative, and the atmosphere is vibrant. Reservation recommended for dinner.

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