I love traditional Turkish food! The cuisine of this country is one of the most delicious in this world! And I am not exaggerating 😊 There are some options for vegetarians, but Istanbul is a paradise for meat lovers, and the meat is mainly lamb and beef. I think it is a terrific idea to come here just for eating delicious traditional Turkish food. And here I have a more detailed list of what to eat in Istanbul.
Of course, many of these dishes can be found throughout the Middle East and in the Balkans as well, but the Turkish people have their way of cooking things.
Some of the links below may be affiliate links, meaning that I will get a small commission (it won’t cost you anything!) if you click and book tours or accommodation.
PS: do you know that you can dine with a local family? They do not speak much English, but your guide will translate if anything is unclear. In addition, you will get a tour of Sultanahmet’s backstreets!
What to eat in Istanbul for breakfast
Do you like scrambled eggs? I do. And Turks took this simple dish to a higher level. Menemen is not something sophisticated, it is just eggs with tomatoes and pepper. And what makes it special is the pepper. When I first tried menemen, I had ambiguous feelings: it was very delicious and… hot. You see, they used chili peppers, and I don’t like hot food. But I liked that menemen. Next time I asked them to add bell peppers instead, and the taste was too bland. So, I stand for menemen with chili pepper 🙂
Traditional Turkish breakfast
A traditional Turkish breakfast is huge and includes eggs, olives, sausage, cheese, vegetables, bread, fruit and tea, of course. It is a very hearty breakfast, but healthy in its most part. In the place we had breakfast at it included hard boiled eggs, cheese, sausage and vegetables, so I guess every restaurant and café has its own idea of typical Turkish breakfast.
What to eat in Istanbul as a main course
Kebabs are my love forever 🙂 There are many types, like adana kebab, iskender kebab, doner kebab, etc. Depending on the type you order it might be meat on skewers, usually lamb, or minced meat, or thin slices of meat in sauce. Kebabs are served with either vegetables, rice or yoghurt. My personal favorite is iskender kebab, which is thin slices of meat covered in tomato sauce. The best part is that all this goodness is put on pita which soaks all the flavours. And don’t forget about yoghurt. It is yummy!
Lentil soup (mercimek corbasi)
Mercimek is lentil from Turkish, and lentil soup is a truly traditional Turkish food. It is made entirely of vegetables, and after they are cooked, they are pureed with a blender until smooth texture. But be careful, it might not be vegetarian, as cooks may add chicken broth to vegetables. And the result is a delicious and hearty soup 😊
Well, if this did not convince you to try the soup, just keep in mind that lentil in general has many beneficial effects and is good for health 😊
Dolma translates from Turkish as filling. When it comes to food, it means anything stuffed: it may be stuffed grape leaves and peppers (extremely popular not only in Turkey), stuffed mussels (popular street food), eggplant, etc. I guess, the most widely known variety of dolma is yaprak sarma or stuffed grape leaves. When it comes to filling, the most popular one is rice, with other ingredients like minced meat, herb, spices added. The result is simply put delicious!
Kofte is minced meat patties. And the meat is not always lamb, quite often it is beef or a mix of beef and lamb. And, of course, herbs are very important, some put cumin, others add parsley: there is no single recipe. But everyone uses meat and onion 😊
Sometimes koftes are shaped like patties, in other cases they are wrapped around skewers. Frankly, it does not matter, as the result is going to be amazingly delicious 😊
Do you love pizza? I do 🙂 And lahmacun is a very distant relative to pizza. It is a thin piece of dough with toppings on, usually it is minced meat, and often it is hot meat. I just mentioned in my list of travel tips for Istanbul that food is often spicy and hot here, so if you don’t like it, better ask before you order. Nevertheless, lahmacun is delicious and definitely worth a try.
You just have to try fish in Istanbul! After all, it is famous for the pictures of people fishing on Galata Bridge 🙂 We ordered grilled tilapia – something really unknown to us 🙂 – at Akbiyik Restaurant. I don’t know how they cook it, but it was divine. We had fish in another place as well, but here it was much-much better. It does not have much garnish, so you will most likely have to order something else. If you do, order shrimps (just read about them below).
I tried grilled octopus for the first time in my life in Istanbul. It was a high-end restaurant in the last floor of a luxurious hotel. I was invited there and did not have to pay. I never went there again, as I did not have money for it, but I still remember how delicious that octopus was 🙂 So, eat seafood in Istanbul. Probably, you won’t see many places serving octopus, but they will likely have shrimps. We had shrimps, hot again 🙂 in the above mentioned Akbiyik Restaurant and it was simply amazing!
Pide is flat bread with different filling, mainly minced meat and cheese. Of course, vegetables and herbs are added as well 😊 And it can be spicy, so be careful ordering it.
But then, I saw something else called pide as well: local flatbread. It is puffy and soft, and we loved it. Unfortunately, it is not served everywhere, but if you can get it, do it. You won’t regret it 🙂
What to eat in Istanbul for dessert
Who has not heard of baklava? This sweet goodness is made of thin flaky dough and layered with nuts and honey. My favorite ones are baklava with pistachio (the more pistachio, the better) and chocolate. Usually, they add cocoa to the dough, but some even sprinkle baklava with chocolate, which is better, of course. Everyone in my family loves baklava, so I bring home about 5-6 kilograms of it every time I visit Istanbul 🙂 And, you know, it does not last long 🙂
If I was to choose between baklava and kunefe, I would opt for the latter. Kunefe is cheese, lots of cheese, pistachios and sugar syrup. It is baked in a special metal dish, and always served hot so that the cheese is chewy and stringy. In addition to the above-mentioned ingredients, some add thin noodle-like pieces of dough. The result is simply divine!
Well, this one is very interesting, but not unusual, at least, not to me 😊 Basically, it is rice boiled in a lot of milk (süt is milk from Turkish) and water with sugar, flour or starch and some other ingredients. In my family we cook it just with milk, sugar and rice, so the Turkish sütlaç has a different taste. I like our version, but I didn’t like much the Turkish one. But, tastes differ 😊
What to eat in Istanbul: street food
I am not sure whether borek can be called street food, but I decided to put it here as it is perfect for a quick grab and is sold in bakeries around the city.
Borek is thin phyllo pastry layered with cheese, meat or other fillings. The one I had is called su boregi or water borek and it is my understanding that it is always made with cheese. As the seller explained me, the phyllo dough is boiled in water before adding filling and being put to the oven, hence the name. Honestly, it is very delicious! And hearty, remember that 🙂
Oh yes, this one like very much 🙂 Balik ekmek is translated from Turkish as fish in bread, and it is exactly what you imagined: fish in bread 🙂 The freshly caught fish is grilled and put inside a cut bread together with onion rings. As simple as it sounds, the result is yummy. In addition, you can buy pickles to complement the fish.
The place to buy balik ekmek is at Galata Bridge. There are many boats where fish is grilled in front of Yeni Mosque: this is where we bought ours. At the other end of Galata Bridge there are other stalls, but they put tomatoes as well in balik ekmek. I have read in many reviews that balik ekmek is better there, but, as I tried both versions, I prefer the one in front of Yeni Mosque.
Simit is my absolutely favorite street food in Istanbul. The best things about it are that you can find it everywhere in Istanbul and it is cheap, 1,25 or 1,5 Turkish liras.
Simit is a round bagel-like bread covered with sesame seeds. Though simple, it is very delicious. Just make sure that it is fresh, trust me, you don’t want a stale one.
Simit is perfect for a quick grab, and my personal advice is to pair it with orange juice 🙂
Kumpir is a huge baked potato with filling. And there is a wide variety of fillings available starting with sausage and ending with olives. I don’t remember my selection, but I didn’t like it.
I think the fillings I selected, though were delicious separately, did not pair well. I guess I will have to give it another try 🙂
This one will not sound fancy 🙂 It is finely cut roasted sheep intestines mixed with spicy ingredients and put on big pieces of bread. Strangely so, it was really yummy 🙂
We did not see many places selling kokorec in the European part of Istanbul (I think there is one around the Egyptian Bazaar), and had it in the Asian side. As it is spicy, I strongly advise to buy a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice: it worked like magic in my case 🙂
I love Italian gelato, and I thought I would never try anything similar. But Turkish ice cream is so delicious! One of the best in the world 🙂 Well, technically, because I have not been to the whole world.
Mado chain is one of the most famous places for ice cream lovers. But I think that ice cream sold in the street stalls is not worse 🙂 They have a wide selection of flavours and colours, and it is divine 🙂 Perfect during a hot day 🙂
Gozleme is quite famous and hearty meal. It is thin dough with different fillings like cheese, meat, etc. The dough is nothing special, flour with water and salt, so the main ingredient is the filling.
I did not see it sold often, one place that I remember is at Pierre Loti. There they bake gozleme on a special pan (I have no idea what it is called 🙂 )
Frankly, I think gozleme with cheese is bland, so I would opt for one with peynir (it is cheese as well similar to feta).
Roasted chestnuts and corn
Well, these ones are pretty straightforward 🙂 Sellers roast them right on the street, and the smell can be felt from afar. Chestnuts are very popular, they are addictive as sunflower seeds 🙂 They taste a bit like potatoes.
What to drink in Istanbul
I love Turkish tea! I usually order black tea with bergamot. But my favorite part is the tulip-shaped glasses 🙂 There is something fancy in it 🙂
But to buy tea to take home go to shops. There are so many varieties, that I usually get lost. Usually the shops sell different mixes that include herbs, mint, rose, etc. The scent is marvelous!
Some sellers make tea for buyers to try. One of them offered me mint tea and did not warn me, and it was such a strong tea, that tears started running down my face. And pomegranate tea offered by another seller was so sweet, that I couldn’t drink it.
Well, I have to voice my opinion regarding the famous apple tea 🙂 I don’t like it 🙂 I don’t know what it is brewed from in Turkey, but I saw it sold as powder, and it does not inspire much trust.
Well, unfortunately I can’t say much about coffee as I don’t drink it. But my friend loves it, and I trust her opinion 🙂 All places in Istanbul offer coffee. As far as I know the authentic Turkish coffee is brewed in a special way: finely ground beans are boiled with cardamom and sugar. The result, I heard, is amazing 🙂
The best juices are squeezed right in front of the buyer 🙂 I know that Istanbul is associated with pomegranate juice, but my favorite is orange one.
A cup costs between 7 and 10 Turkish liras, and you can see stalls with fruit almost everywhere at the tourist attractions.
But the selection is not limited to oranges and pomegranates: there are many fruit and vegetables on offer. And the best thing is that they squeeze them right in front of you so you can follow the process.
This is just a selection of traditional Turkish food, and I strongly advise you to try as much as you can 🙂 And below are some places I can recommend.
Where to eat in Istanbul
Frankly, considering the abundance of restaurants and cafes in Istanbul, it is very difficult to choose one. You just walk along the street and from every place you are called in and offered free tea or bread if you choose their restaurant. Considering the high competition and similar menus, the freebies are a necessity.
Still, I have some places to recommend.
We had breakfast a couple of times in a small café Antik Bufe right at Divan Yolu Street not far from Sultanahmet tram stop. I loved their menemen! And they make kumpir as well.
Another place we went frequently to is Sultan Saray Cafe Restaurant not far from the above mentioned Antik Bufe. They have a wide selection of kebabs, everything is very delicious. The owner and the staff are very nice and friendly, and we got tea for free 😊
For fish definitely go to Akbiyik Fish Restaurant not far from the Blue Mosque. Like I said already, the fish we had here was amazing! Make sure to order shrimps as well: they are yummy!
If you check the reviews of the restaurants above on Google or Tripadvisor (I encourage people to check reviews first!), you will see that they are far from being glorious. So, I guess I need to give an explanation on why I recommend them. I went to these places personally a couple of times and I have never had any problems with waiters, bills or food. So, just be careful and read reviews first.
Şirvan Sofrasi is the place that has good reviews both on Google and Tripadvisor, and I really liked the place. They have a wide selection of kebabs, fish and other traditional Turkish food, and everything is yummy! And the place itself is very cosy and picturesque.
Bon appétit, my friends 🙂