What to Eat in Istanbul: Mouthwatering Turkish Food you Should Try at Least Once!

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We should all experience a visit to Istanbul at least once in our lives. The architecture, its rich history and culture, and a collection of interesting traditions are all worth the visit. And Turkish food too!

Often included among the most delicious tastes in the world, food from the Balkans offers a variety of incredible tastes you should try. If your trip is around the corner and you’re wondering what to eat in Istanbul, read on and discover everything you shouldn’t miss at a Turkish table.


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Best Food in Istanbul

What to eat in Istanbul

Basic Things You Need to Know about Istanbul

Get Ready for Turkey!

RESOURCES TO PLAN YOUR TRIP TO TURKEY!

Book your flight: I use Skyscanner to compare prices before booking a plane ticket.

Explore Turkey by Ferry: Ferryhopper has the best ferry ticket deals in the Mediterranean.

Book your accommodation: I’ve tried many different platforms for accommodation, but none of them beats the advantages of Booking.com.

Book your car: The best way to find an affordable car to rent is to use a powerful search engine that compares all the rental companies in the market. I use Discover Cars.

Book your tours: Live unforgettable adventures and cultural experiences with Get Your Guide. For instance, you can visit Hagia Sofia, discover the Basilica Cistern, take a day trip to Cappadocia, or enjoy a magic Bosphorus cruise at sunset.

Don’t forget travel insurance: Things can go wrong at times, but travel insurance will protect you against illness, injury, theft, and cancellations. I recommend Safety Wing for peace of mind.

Where is Istanbul

Spreading between Asia and Europe, Istanbul is a magical place on the edge of two continents. Facing the Bosporus strait, Istanbul is not the capital of Turkey, but it is the most remarkable city in this Balkan country with strong Asiatic, Middle East, and Mediterranean influences.

How to Get to Istanbul

What to eat in Istanbul
Istanbul International Airport

The most convenient way to get to Istanbul is by plane. The country’s national carrier, Turkish Airlines has flights connecting Istanbul to dozens of destinations in Europe and the rest of the world, and their fees are often quite convenient.

The city is easy to reach from any European capital, with flying times varying from 2 to 4 hours from cities such as London, Paris, or Milan.

If you’re traveling from the US, keep in mind that a direct flight from the east coast takes between 10 and 12 hours.

There are two international airports in Istanbul. The one located on the Asian side, Sabiha Gokcen Airport is quite far from the center of the city and it receives most low-coast flights to Istanbul.

On the European side of Istanbul, New Istanbul Airport is more convenient, just minutes from the center of town.

What to eat in Istanbul

Ferry trips to cities such as Bodrum or Fethiye are common as well, especially for a few close-by Greek islands.

Trains arrive at both the Asiatic and European parts of Istanbul from Bulgaria, Greece, Hungary, Romania, and the Middle East but travel times can be very long.

It is also possible to get to Turkey by car from other Europe and Asiatic countries but traffic can be really heavy and parking nearly impossible.

You can also travel to Istanbul by bus from Austria, Bulgaria, France, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Iran, Russia Switzerland, and more.

When is the Best Time to Visit Istanbul

What to eat in Istanbul

I personally love the special atmosphere of Istanbul in winter, with street food vendors selling delicious roasted chestnuts on every corner of the city.

I prefer winter also to indulge in comfort food such as manti or hearty regional casserole dishes.

What to eat in Istanbul
Don’t you think that these look super comforting for a cold winter?

Spring and fall are great for travel in any Mediterranean area as the weather is mild, allowing plenty of sunny days to get out and explore.

Summer, instead, is great if you’re also planning to enjoy the magnificent Turkish coast. The city tends to be packed and prices are also less convenient.

Where to Stay in Istanbul

What to eat in Istanbul

There are endless hotel options in town and it can be difficult to decide where to stay. I always suggest trying to stay close to Sultanahmet, especially if this is your first visit.

Prices for a good, basic hotel usually start at €50-70 per night. However, don’t forget to always read the hotel reviews before booking!

I enjoyed (a lot) my stay at Antea Hotel, it is only a 5-minute walk to Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque and it features a roof-top terrace with city views, an indoor pool, a sauna, and a Turkish bath. The breakfast was delicious and it is also pet friendly.
Click here for more information and to get the latest prices.

What to eat in Istanbul

Other alternative places I suggest are these:

  • Didn’t find the right place to stay? Check this link to look for the best hotel deals as well as rental homes if you still don’t know where to stay in Istanbul.

Ok, now yes, without further ado, let’s discover what to eat in Istanbul for a tasty adventure in Turkey!

What is the Local Food in Istanbul Like?

What to eat in Istanbul
This is pretty much the image of most restaurants in Istanbul.

During the centuries, the Ottoman Empire expanded its boundaries across different continents spreading its culture and traditions.

At the same time, the empire received influences from faraway lands and civilizations, and its cuisine did not escape such a fate.

Turkish cuisine influenced the dishes from most Balkan countries, but it also incorporated gastronomic traits from Central Asia, the Middle East, the Caucasus, and the Mediterranean. 

What to eat in Istanbul

The Ottoman Empire was also a sort of bridge between the East and the West, where routes for trade also allowed the arrival of exotic ingredients to the empire.

As a consequence, the national cuisine is vast and varied, making a trip to Istanbul – of any given length – seems too short to taste the local gastronomy.

What to eat in Istanbul
This was my first meal in Istanbul, and it was deliciously unforgettable!

On the streets of Istanbul, food seems to be available on every corner. Inviting food smells invade the atmosphere whenever you get off a bus, cross the road, or walk around.

Anywhere you go, street vendors offer bread, mussels, nuts, and fried bites any tie of the day. And while small restaurants display endless trays with inviting dishes, bakeries and pastry shops pile skyscrapers of sweets drizzled in honey.

Baklava shop, Istanbul
Baklava shop, Istanbul.

Anything from hearty stews, to savory pies and tempting sweets, in Istanbul food is a feast and these are some of the best things you will have to try!

Delicious Things to Eat in Istanbul

In no particular order, these are some of the best dishes to look for in Istanbul:

Lahmacun

What to eat in Istanbul
Lahmacun

Although it might be tempting to compare it to pizza…well no, don’t. This terrific dish is a thin, oval piece of dough topped with minced beef (mutton or beef), abundant spices, and finely chopped vegetables, including onions, tomatoes, parsley, and herbs, and sometimes drizzled with a few drops of lemon juice.

Baked until crispy, this is one of the most popular dishes in Istanbul, offer eaten as street food but also as a proper starter at a restaurant. It’s a beloved dish all over Turkey too and the toppings can vary in different regions.

Midye (Mussels)

What to eat in Istanbul

Quintessential street food in Istanbul, mussels can be found on any corner and they are super tasty. Mussels are cooked in enormous rounded pans and served in a small paper container with just a drizzle of lemon juice.

Mussels can be stuffed, deep-fried mussels, or steamed and spicy. Yet they are always so delicate and light that you could eat a ton of them and not even notice.

Foodie or not, definitely, make a stop and have a few Turkish Liras worth of midye, they are both affordable and delicious.

Simit

What to eat in Istanbul: Simit

Halfway between a bagel and a pretzel, this traditionally Byzantine dish finds its roots in ancient times all over the Balkans. If you’re used to Greek bread (or Cretan food), think of it as a koulouri when it comes to its shape.

Simit is a soft, even chewy at times, round bread that is baked after it was sprinkled with abundant sesame seeds.

Simit is another super popular snack you will find on the streets, there are dozens of picturesque red simit carts all over the city!

Köfte

What to eat in Istanbul

Meatballs are another staple dish that has made Istanbul food and Turkish cuisine famous.

Although it is a characteristic recipe found everywhere in the Balkans, köfte has different versions in Turkey and they are all delicious (see below for köfte several varieties).

Normally, köfte is made from lamb, beef, or a combination of both. The meat is seasoned with spices and herbs which give the meat its typical flavor.

Köfte is often served with rice, spicy sauce, and grilled tomatoes, peppers, or onions. In some restaurants, they also serve them with bread and a yogurt-based sauce.

Çiğ Köfte

What to eat in Istanbul
Çiğ Köfte was a true surprise!

Although I am not a fan of raw meat, I was taken to a typical Iskender Istanbul restaurant and this was part of the selection of dishes we were served. It wouldn’t have been polite to refuse to try this dish and to be honest… I loved it!

Çiğ köfte is a raw köfte that is normally served before the main dish as a meze (a small dish or appetizer, think of a Spanish tapa or a Greek meze). The raw meatball is normally made of lamb and it is quite spicy.

The cook shapes it leaving the imprint of the fingers in the meatball and serves it cold with lettuce.

Why? Well, you would normally wrap it in a fresh leaf of lettuce (to lessen the spicy taste) adding a few drops of lemon juice before eating it. Some people also wrap it inside hot, flatbread.

The dish is really savory and it has a strong taste that’s surprisingly delicious.

İçli Köfte

What to eat in Istanbul

Another fantastic starter I tasted during the same meal, this kind of köfte comes a fried croquette made of ground beef or lamb, tons of spices, and finely chopped onions.

The dish, which is also known as bulgur koftesi, is a very affordable, popular, and rich dish that can be a bit spicy, but not much.

Lavaş Ekmeği and Tulum Peynir

What to eat in Istanbul
Lavaş ekmeği is to be spread with butter and tulum peyniri (a variety of Turkish cheese).

This very thin kind of pita bread is served hot and directly from the oven. It arrives at your table as big as a balloon and it loses the air inside little by little, remaining soft, flat, and easy to open and fill with raw meatballs…

What to eat in Istanbul
Tulum pyniri.

Or…better, spread a mixture of butter over it which melts with the heat, and a rather spicy, savory cheese, tulum pyniri, which gives a pleasant salty taste to the whole dish. The cheese can be served grated or in slices, or both!

Manti

What to eat in Istanbul
Manti.

This was my absolute favorite dish, manti is serious Turkish food that every local love and enjoy, usually at the family Sunday lunch!

This is, hands down, one of the most popular foods to eat in Istanbul, and for a reason: it’s delicious! So much so that I attended a cooking lesson where we learned how to make manti.

What to eat in Istanbul

These very small dough dumplings filled with minced lamb or beef meat and onion might remind you of the Italian Cappelletti...

Well, you will be deceived, they are not similar at all. They can be served with hot tomato sauce, a sprinkle of chili pepper, and a good amount of yogurt on top that adds that extra touch of acidity, giving this dish a unique twist!

What to eat in Istanbul
Making manti.

Learn how to cook Turkish with a private cooking lesson:

Balık Ekmek

What to eat in Istanbul

Another dish that surprised me since I am not a huge fan of fish… however, stunning!

This sandwich encloses the essence of Istanbul and it is really a mouthwatering treat that you won’t forget.

What to eat in Istanbul

Rather simple but absolutely tasty this is a grilled fish sandwich with lettuce. The lettuce adds a touch of crispness that also grants color and enhances the flavors.

Sounds plain? Well, it is! However, the bread is fresh, soft, and tasty while the fish is cooked by the sea in a really inspiring scenario!

What to eat in Istanbul

Before arriving in Istanbul, and even not loving fish, I had imagined this was going to be the end of the world. It was.

Want to try it? Head to Tarihi Eminönü Balık Ekmek, right behind the Spice Bazaar, next to the Galata Bridge.

Kumpir

What to eat in Istanbul
The most delicious kumpir I’ve eaten was on the streets of Istanbul.

Love potatoes? Then, there’s no way you do not love kumpir! These baked potatoes can be very simple… or just the bomb!

The cook will slice the baked potato in half and will mix the soft potato with loads of butter and cheese.

After that, he will cover the potato mixture with the toppings of your choice, anything from olives, meat, sauces, more cheese, vegetables, and mushrooms. Tasty and decadent!

To learn more about Turkish food, join a street food tour in Istanbul:

Döner

What to eat in Istanbul

You cannot really say to have been in Istanbul if you have eaten doner, can you? One of the most beloved legacies from Turkish to the world, doner is a delicious dish that can be enjoyed on the street or at a restaurant.

The meat cooks right next to the fire while turning on these giant vertical rotisseries which can now be seen almost anywhere in Europe.

In fact, doner is extremely popular in most European countries.

The meat, often lamb, is shaved off as it cooks to make a delicious meal that can be eaten inside pita bread or served as a dish with fresh tomato, lettuce, fried potatoes, and a portion of sour yogurt.

İskender

What to eat in Istanbul

Also known as İskender kebap or kebab, this is a popular meat dish in northwestern Turkey (Bursa) that has spread and become popular all over the country and it’s easy to find in Istanbul.

It is prepared from grilled lamb roasted and cut thin, served with hot tomato sauce placed over pita bread.

It is accompanied by copious quantities of melted butter and yogurt on the side.

What to eat in Istanbul
I really enjoyed this dinner!

This dish is easily found in plenty of restaurants with the names of İskender kebap or Bursa kebabı, from the region where it was created. 

Gözleme

What to eat in Istanbul
A woman cooking Gözleme on the street in Istanbul.

One of the most delicious things to try while walking the streets of Istanbul is Gözleme.

Gözleme is a crispy, golden Turkish flatbread cooked on a hot iron surface, that can be eaten plain but much more tasty when served stuffed with all sorts of tasty fillings including potatoes, cheese, spinach, spiced beef, mutton, or lamb.

İncir (Figs)

Turkish figs

Figs, as well as all dried fruit and nuts, are a true delicacy. Mostly sold in abundant quantities in bazaars and markets, in general, their quality is superb and the size truly outstanding.

If you visit the Grand Bazaar or the Spice Bazaar, ask for one to try and you will be wanting to take home more than a kilo.

Sweet, tender, and with a unique taste, Turkish figs are a real gem in the culinary crown of the country.

Want to learn more?

Türk Kahvesi (Turkish Coffee)

What to eat in Istanbul

This is a rather strong beverage. It is an unfiltered coffee made with roasted and finely grounded beans which are simmered inside a cezve (or pot), some people prefer it with sugar.

The grounds settle in the cup once it has been served. Turkish coffee is an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Turkey confirmed by UNESCO.

There are four degrees of sweetness in Turkey: 

  • sade (no sugar)
  • az şekerli (half a teaspoon of sugar) 
  • orta şekerli (one teaspoon) 
  • çok şekerli (one and a half or two teaspoons)

Learn more about Turkish coffee:

Çay (Turkish Tea)

What to eat in Istanbul

Turkish tea or çay is a variety of black tea drank without milk and typically prepared using two stacked kettles (çaydanlık) designed to prepare it.

Water is boiled in the lower kettle and then some of the water is used to fill the smaller one on top and infuse some loose tea leaves, producing a very strong tea.

Once it is served, the remaining water is used to dilute the tea on an individual basis, giving each consumer the choice between strong (koyu), medium (tavşan kanı>, literally rabbit blood) or light (açık).

They serve it in small, tulip-shaped glasses with cubes of sugar. If in the mood for something even more delicate, sweet, and tasty, try elma çay or apple tea… It’s addictive!

Baklava

What to eat in Istanbul

Baklava is a super caloric, rich, and sweet pastry made with layers of filo or philo, a very thin unleavened dough that has chopped nuts and great amounts of honey or syrup drizzled on top.

This is a characteristic dish from the Ottoman Empire that can be easily found in most Middle Eastern and Balkan countries.

Ayran

What to eat in Istanbul

The national drink of Turkey, ayran is a cold drink made with yogurt, water, and salt as the main ingredients.

Although it might not sound like your cup of… ayran, it goes extremely well with grilled meat and rice dishes, you won’t regret trying it!

Sahlep

What to eat in Istanbul

Sahlep is originally a kind of flour made from the tubers of an orchid, containing glucomannan, which adds thickness when used in gastronomy.

It is used to produce a vanilla-flavored drink, of a milky consistency, normally served with cinnamon powder and a side dish of lokum (see down), ideal to heat you up after long walks in the cold Istanbul Winter. 

Lokum (Turkish delight)

What to eat in Istanbul

These worldwide famous Turkish sweets, which no tourist ever fails to take back home, are a traditional jelly-like treat, made with gel, starch, and sugar.

There are many varieties as well as tastes and they are often served with tea, Turkish coffee, sahlep, or any other hot drink.

Some of them also may contain pieces or whole nuts. Traditionally, they are flavored with rosewater, lemon, orange, or mint.

As you can see, there is plenty of delicious food to try in Istanbul… where do you want to start from?

Pin This Guide to What to Eat in Istanbul for your Next Vacation in Turkey!

What to eat in Istanbul

About the author of this blog:

Gabi Ancarola | The Tiny Book

Gabi Ancarola

Gabi has been living in Crete for the last five years. On the island, she juggles being a solo mom, hosting culinary tours in summer, translating, and freelance writing.
She’s written for Greek Reporter, published several travel guides about Greece, and had more glasses of frappe than any regular person would be able to handle.

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8 thoughts on “What to Eat in Istanbul: Mouthwatering Turkish Food you Should Try at Least Once!

  1. Kirralee @ Escape With Kids says:

    So much delicious food! The food was one of my favourite things about Turkey but that was before kids. I would love to introduce all this yumminess to the kids one day.

    • Gabi says:

      It’s always difficult to travel with kids and, at the same time, make them enjoy local food… I don’t find Istanbul as difficult as other countries… But I travelled alone this time, so I can’t really tell honestly.

  2. worldwidewithkids says:

    I no longer accept the word ‘calories’ in my vocabulary…travel is making me fat! So much good food in this post Gabi, Im drooling. Which one was your favourite?

  3. Marta - Learningescapes says:

    This is making me so hungry! I was in Istanbul many years ago and I remember the most delicious lamb and fresh fruit. But I can see I missed an awful lot more: I was a teenager and I didn’t know any better – time to go back and put this right 😉

    • Gabi says:

      Probably I missed a lot to… a trip back is a must. For instance I go mad about raki, and I did not have a single glass this time. I would have liked to try it since they say it’s a bit different from the Cretan one… honestly? I forgot!

    • Gabi says:

      Manti is “the” dish for kids, Kevin, so similar to pasta in aspect, that they tend to like it (It’s really a kid’s fav in Turkey). But also Lachmacun, which we non-Turkish call “pizza” (to their horror!), is also a kids favorite!
      Thanks for passing by, nice to welcome you here!

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