What To Eat In Istanbul: In this Istanbul food guide, we explore 42 different dishes, including traditional Turkish food and other Middle Eastern cuisine that is easy to find in the city. You’ll also find our review of the Istanbul food tour that took us to 12 different food stops across 2 continents in just 6 hours. It was epic.
From traditional Turkish breakfast at the Istanbul Spice Market to Turkish Meze (small plates), famous Istanbul street food, like the Iskender kebab and onto lesser known dishes as well as decadent Turkish desserts.
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What To Eat In Istanbul Food Guide – Table Of Contents
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Istanbul Food Tour Review (What To Eat In Istanbul)
An Istanbul Food Tour is the ideal way to get a taste of as much Traditional Turkish Food as possible, in the shortest amount of time. Great if you are on a short trip to Istanbul, or if you want to get a rapid orientation and introduction to Turkish cuisine from day 1. Then you’ll be ready to go explore and find more things to eat in Istanbul on your own.
Probably the most unique and comprehensive Istanbul Food Tour available is the Taste of Two Continents tour by Istanbul On Food. Why? Because this 6 to 7 hour tour takes you to 12 different stops, some with multiple dishes to try. And, of course, you taste a range of Turkish food from both the European and Asian side of Istanbul, all in one tour.
How many food tours have you taken which span two continents? This has to be a bucket list tick, as well as a super tasty time.
Below are some highlights from the tour to get you excited…
Istanbul Spice Market – Traditional Turkish Food
The Istanbul spice market is a traditional bazaar focused almost entirely on food products. It’s a bustling event with both a manicured, more touristy interior, as well as a more local outdoor zone where residents come to get their daily produce at a reasonable price.
So, the Istanbul spice market is not just about spices. Cheese, olives, Turkish pastrama (cured beef), dried fruits, Turkish delight, vine leaves, pickles, and all manner of fresh fruit and veg – plus a lot more. The Istanbul spice market is an essential spot to visit for any foodie but having a Turkish guide made it easy for him to select all the best items that would go together for us to enjoy a traditional Turkish breakfast…
Traditional Turkish Food: Breakfast
The basic Turkish breakfast has a few essential items included. Boiled eggs, cucumber, tomatoes, white cheese, olives and bread. Any Turkish person would be up and complaining to the manager if these basics were not on the table when out buying a sit down breakfast.
However, as we would be eating a lot of food over the 6 hour food tour, our guide selected some local delicacies, rather than feeding us those basics that most tourists would have had before.
Menemen is an egg dish, it’s sort of like a scramble or perhaps a Turkish omelette. There are many varieties of Menemen with different ingredients added. You might get one with spicy beef salami cooked in, or one with bell peppers and tomato. This might not be too far from what you’d eat back home, but wait…
The star of our breakfast table was the Buffalo Cream drowned in honey (Bal Kaymak). Imagine a beautifully fresh and rich cream, with the most luscious milky notes. Then multiply that flavor by 10 and add some luxurious local Turkish honey. The mix of cream and sweet will not help your waistline, but it will leave you dreaming of eating it again, long after you leave Istanbul. Trust me.
Now, what else would you have with breakfast? Tea or Coffee? Well…
The Turkish word for breakfast is “kahvaltı” which literally means “before coffee”. Although Turkish coffee is famous, it is not supposed to be had with or before breakfast, ever. So, to accompany breakfast, black tea with sugar, no milk, is the traditional way.
After our Istanbul spice market tour and our epic breakfast, we wondered how we’d make it through 11 more food stops… But, it was time for an eating break as we jumped aboard the ferry to Asia.
A ride across the Bosphorus is an important part of any visit to Istanbul. While our stomachs rested, our eyes feasted on the architecture of the city. Cooling breezes blew off the water, making the August heat less noticeable. Now, we’d just have to worry about the food sweats!
Our first Istanbul Food Tour stop in Asia was a sweet shop that specialised in making candy versions of things that look like fruit and vegetables, as well as making actually candied vegetables that don’t taste like vegetables! The biggest surprise was a candied walnut husk. The surprisingly large husk that is normally discarded after the walnut is removed, has here been transformed into a sugary treat.
After a sweet stop, time for one of Turkey’s most famous foods. Your first guess from the photo might be döner kebab. You’d be wrong. Long Before the döner kebab was invented, the art of cooking meat on a vertical rotisserie was first used in the early 19th century.
It was invented by a man called Iskender, in the city of Bursa, a few hours from Istanbul. The Iskender kebab has become a famous food across Turkey (more on that in the mains & meats section below) but most of the versions you’ll find on sale don’t have the family heritage. However, at Iskender Iskenderoglu in Kadiköy, you’ll find a restaurant still owned by Mr Iskender’s descendants. The restaurant has never been franchised, so you’ll find very few locations where you can taste an Iskender kebab quite as authentic as this.
This was only stop number 3 of our Istanbul Food Tour. Our bellies still had a long way to go but we don’t want to give away all the foods, so we’ll leave some as a surprise!
From a local favourite Meyhane (meze restaurant – more on meze later) to some of Turkey’s most famous desserts and a couple of more unique foods that are only for the fearless foodie adventurer. The taste of two continents Istanbul food tour was a fantastic journey through the cultural landscape of Turkey, as well as the actual landscape of the Bosphorus.
Below is our guide to other things to eat in Istanbul – most of these are not included on the tour, but some may be… We won’t be telling you which. You’ll have to take the tour to find out!
Istanbul Street Food & Snacks (Including Döner Kebab)
Istanbul Street Food is everywhere. In a city of over 15 million people, quick, easy and cheap food in Istanbul is a must. You will not go hungry, no matter your budget.
Döner Kebab & Dürüm
Probably Turkey’s most famous food export, the döner kebab can be seen on street corners across the city. The most popular way to eat this is not in a pita bread like you might have in Germany or the UK, but in a thin flatbread.
This thin bread version is called Dürüm and is one of the most popular Istanbul street food dishes.
If you want a Döner in a pita bread too, and why wouldn’t you, then we found one of the oldest Black Sea style Döner kebab shops in the city. Karadeniz Döner Asım Usta opened in 1973 and the original owner can still be seen hanging around the joint gesturing customers in to eat. The massive rotisserie stack of lamb sells out every day without fail. So make sure you arrive before 5 pm to get a taste. Arrive in the late morning to see the gigantic meat tower in its full glory.
But, is döner kebab a traditional Turkish food, or did it originate elsewhere? We explore the full history of döner kebab in our podcast (Coming early 2019)
Turkey’s boat shaped style pizza bread is probably one of my favourite things to eat from this whole list. Simple, but amazing. Choices with or without cheese, depending on your preference. The Spinach and yellow cheese offering at Yöremiz Pide & Lahmacun is incredible with a really salty hit. The dough is just a touch thicker are airier than others we tried.
Pide is definitely an essential food to try in Istanbul!
Speaking of Lamachun, as Yöremiz Pide & Lahmacun was baking up such good pide, we thought we’d try their Lamachun too. Lamachun is a thin and crispy bread with a spread of tomatoes and ground meat on top. Baked fast in the oven. Then topped with a squeeze of lemon. A great, light snack.
For only 4 lira (about 65 cents USD at the time) Lamachun is also a super cheap food in Istanbul.
Börek is a traditional Turkish food that is a baked, stuffed pastry. You’ll find Börek all around the region from Albania through to Armenia. It differs a little in every country so make sure to try it in Istanbul where you’ll see pastry shops all over the city.
Stuffed Mussels (Midye Dolma)
Another common sight for Istanbul Street Food is mussels. The concerning part is how you’ll see vendors standing with trays of mussels but without any way to keep them hot and fresh. To avoid food poisoning, stick to stores that clearly are keeping them hot. We visited a great place in Kadiköy as part of our two continents Istanbul food tour where they were perfect. They also do mussels deep fried and battered with a garlic dip – my favorite version.
Çiğ köfte is a vegan wrap made with ground bulgar wheat, tomato paste, walnut paste, pomegranate molasses and other spices. It’s a vegan version of what used to be a raw meatball. Food hygiene standards pushed vendors to get rid of the dangerous raw meat version and the new vegan alternative is a great replacement. Spicy and fresh and of course, healthy too. Try it at Cmr Çiğ Köfte, or just look out for it all over Istanbul.
An ideal vegetarian food in Istanbul.
Pilav (or Pilaf, or Pilau, or plov) is a staple rice dish found everywhere from eastern Europe to Western China. It’s a slow cooked rice dish that oozes umami. Street stalls all over Istanbul serve it with chicken, chickpeas and other toppings, always with the rice piled high in a glass showcase.
Both an ingredient, a breakfast food and a straight up delicious snack. Ezine quickly became our favorite Turkish white cheese. Salty like feta, but one step above in my opinion, with a slightly firmer texture.
Simit is a circular bread, sort of akin to a Turkish bagel. It’s crusted with seeds, typically sesame. It’s found all over the former Ottoman Empire region. Vendors around Istanbul all have the red and white carts as standard.
A favourite amongst the locals, Kokoreç is an offal kebab, wrapped in intestines and cooked until crispy on the outside on a horizontal rotisserie.
Balık Ekmek – Fish Sandwich
Balık Ekmek is Istanbul’s incredibly famous fish sandwich. Tourists and locals flood to stalls along the waterfront near Eminonu Pier to eat it.
Although it is a very well known food to try in Istanbul, it should be noted that almost all stalls these days use imported fish, not locally caught. The sandwiches are typically a lot of bread and very little fish. And, it’s a manic experience as hundreds of people jostle to get fed.
So, we gave it a miss. But, it’s worth knowing it’s an option.
What To Eat In Istanbul: Starters & Meze
Meze: Traditional Turkish Food Small Plates
Meze is a dining style for traditional Turkish Food. Think of it like Turkish tapas – though, of course, it was invented independently. Meze features lots of tiny plates of food. Various cold pastes and hot snacks will fill your table as you taste a big variety of Turkish flavors. Meze is an essential foodie experience, not to be missed.
Although Meze is available on a lot of Turkish menus, the type of restaurants that specialise in such cuisine are called “Meyhane”. So look out for anywhere with that name in order to try a big selection of Meze.
Some of our picks for what to order when you go for Meze.
Dolma – Seasoned rice, normally cooked in meaty broth, is stuffed in vine leaves. But the word dolma can refer to many different stuffed dishes (peppers, tomatoes, eggplants). All are “dolma” and all can be tasty when done right. Ask your server for more info.
Fava – Ground fava beans normally seasoned with dill and other spices, though recipes vary. The version we had at Ficcin was the best we had. Though other dishes there were hit and miss.
Muhammara – Walnut & Roasted Pepper Paste. Probably my favourite meze dish. It varies from place to place but the one at Antiochia was sensational.
Eggplant Salads – Sometimes served in a tomato sauce, sometimes in a yoghurt sauce, or just as a mashed up eggplant.
Tomato CousCous – Said to be the Turkish style couscous. The couscous is blended with tomato paste and herbs. We also had a cherry couscous at Galata Kitchen that was amazing, as part of a meze plate (pictured below). This is a great place to have vegetarian food in Istanbul. They do have a few meat dishes too.
Olives – Turkey has a lot of homegrown olives. Either grab them from the market (almost all vendors let you do taste tests) or find them on most menus. The wrinkly dried black ones, or the green ones infused with lemon and oregano, hit the top of my list but it depends who you buy from. So always do those taste tests!
What To Eat In Istanbul: Mains, Meats & Seafood
I mentioned the Iskender kebab above as we tried it as part of our Istanbul Food Tour. Iskender invented the original vertical kebab rotisserie in the 19th century. This invention eventually spawned the döner kebab. Before that happened, the Iskender kebab became a countrywide sensation and is now considered a traditional Turkish food.
Layers of lamb, shaved from the rotisserie, are placed on top of a chopped pita bread. Yoghurt, tomato and chilli is served on the side. Then for the final touch… Sizzling melted butter is poured liberally all over the top.
Head to Iskender Iskenderoglu in Kadiköy for the most authentic version, still owned by members of Iskender’s family today. The Iskender kebab there is the only dish on the whole menu.
Shish kebab is found all over Turkey, and the world. Meat on a skewer. It’s a simple but tasty dish. The way to push past that simplicity is to eat it at a restaurant with a twist. Bilice Kebap serves up the shish kebab on a huge platter with lots of little sides to play with. It’s a fun, interactive, street-side Istanbul food experience.
The Adana kebab is a spiced minced meat kebab that is skewered and grilled over coals. It hails from the Adana region of Turkey but is found all over Istanbul. We tried a fancy version wrapped in perfect durum bread at Antiochia, but street food versions are also good.
Manti is the Turkish version of dumplings. There are many different styles. The little triangle ones are the style from the Sinop region. The versions served with walnuts and yoghurt at Mantik were great – sadly their other Manti options were sub-par.
Köfte (& More Manti)
Köfte is Turkish flat meatballs (pictured top left). It does exactly what it says on the tin – it’s a meatball.
At the same restaurant (falls in Galata) we also had another, more typical, style of Manti – which are shaped like little pouches. We didn’t expect much from this little neighbourhood cafe, but actually, both those dishes were great. Especially those potato wedges.
Kebab meat on a bed of yoghurt. Pretty satisfying stuff!
Guvech & Prawn Guvech
Guvech just means Casserole or Stew in Turkish. You’ll find many different Guvech across Istanbul, but a local favourite is with tiny little shrimp. Most guvech are served topped with melted cheese.
Anchovies. Often served deep fried. These were out of season during our trip (August/September). But if you love deep fried salty little fish, then look out for these in season.
What To Eat In Istanbul: Desserts
Künefe is the Turkish version of this traditional Arab dessert. Thin and crispy noodle shaped pastry tops a cheese layer all soaked in sugary syrup and topped with ground pistachio. Though this may not have been invented in Turkey, the version we had at Dürümcü Emmi was one of the best things I ate in Istanbul. A new favourite dessert for me, I can’t wait to go back.
We shared one, people around us were ordering one each! A super popular restaurant with all round decent food but the Künefe is their standout dish.
If you’ve never been to Turkey you probably think of Turkish delight as a brightly colored, gel like dessert. I was never a fan. Once you have the high end stuff, made with the best nuts and honey, rather than cheap sugar and flavorings you get abroad, you’ll be converted.
Another of Turkey’s most famous desserts and a very traditional Turkish food. Baklava is popular in different forms around the region. They typically make theirs with sugar water rather than honey. Locals say this makes it less intensely sweet and easier to enjoy. I personally just find it less interesting than honey versions in other countries. Give it a try for yourself.
Turkish Ice Cream
A firm Ice Cream that they cut out of the freezer, rather than scoop. The chain cafe Mado can be found all over Istanbul and is serving up some really good examples of Turkish Ice Cream. Just google it to find the one nearest to you.
Sucuk means sausage. On this occasion, it is simply the shape of a sausage – definitely no meat inside. It’s actually filled with nuts, typically walnuts. A similar dish is the number one dessert of the Republic of Georgia, called Churchkella.
⇒ Check out our Mega Guide To Georgian Cuisine.
But, speaking of meat in desserts, this one really does have meat! Tavuk göğsü is a Turkish milk pudding dessert made with shredded chicken breast. It resembles glutinous white slop but is actually surprisingly creamy and delicious. You can’t taste the chicken but you do sometimes notice the stringy texture.
What To Eat In Istanbul: Other Middle Eastern Cuisines
Some countries that you probably weren’t likely to visit anytime soon, are actually well represented by immigrants who have moved to Turkey over the years. Get authentic cuisine from those regions, cooked by 1st generation immigrants, right in the heart of Istanbul.
After the recent Syrian refugee crisis, Syrian cuisine has become easier to get in Istanbul. Sad stories may lie behind the existence of these restaurants, but great flavors that are normally inaccessible to western tourists, are now here to experience.
The chicken Pilav (pictured) and Hummus took on all new flavors at Layale Samiye. Richer spices, cardamon and more created a delicately fragrant rice that goes way beyond the usual basic umami characteristics of Turkish Pilav.
Dolma is hugely popular in Turkey, but the Iraqi style version at Musul Mutfagi brings a new richness to this classic dish, especially the stuffed tomatoes. But, their Lamb Pilav was probably the star of the show for me. The restaurant is severely lacking in decor and ambience but don’t let it distract from the food.
Yemeni Cuisine & Iranian Cuisine
Although we didn’t get time to visit restaurants in Istanbul which represent these cuisines, our local friends assure us there are some great places to try this food which is rarely seen in English speaking countries. If you visit any or have suggestions, why not leave us a comment below?
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