A Foodie’s Guide to Istanbul: Must-try Dishes and Where to Find Them

With its location straddling Europe and Asia, Istanbul’s cuisine draws influences from diverse cultures and traditions.

As an ancient crossroads and capital of empires, the city is a true melting pot that has absorbed and blended flavours over the centuries into its own distinct and delicious fare. From Ottoman palace recipes to home-cooked comfort food to modern fusions, Istanbul offers endless epicurean discoveries around every corner.

This guide covers must-try staples – both street food and restaurant dishes – as well as recommendations on where food-focused travellers can experience authentic local cuisine.

We’ve focused on more central neighbourhoods, where you might have booked your hotels in Istanbul, frequented by visitors while also suggesting some local favourites off the beaten path.

Iconic Turkish Street Foods

When walking Istanbul’s cobbled lanes and bustling bazaars, the aromas of sizzling meat, spices, and freshly baked bread tempt from all directions. Quick, tasty, and cheap street bites make the perfect fuel between sights.

Simit

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These ring-shaped sesame-crusted breads can be considered Istanbul’s signature snack. Sold from ubiquitous carts and shops, simit is best enjoyed freshly baked, with the inside still slightly chewy. Try the sesame-crusted or cheese-filled variety.

Best place to try: Anywhere! But for hot-from-the-oven, Karaköy Güllüoğlu bakery is next to Galata Tower.

Börek

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Buttery, flaky phyllo pastry envelopes either cheese, ground meat, or spinach in these hearty and savoury pastries, an Ottoman staple. Try su böreği (water börek) for a lasagne-like layered version.

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Best places: Eminönü or Karaköy for street stands dishing up homemade borek daily.

Doner kebab

Thin slices of seasoned meat are stacked and roasted vertically on a spit, then shaved and stuffed into bread. Wrap options include beef, chicken, or lamb doner with tomato, onion, parsley, and spices.

Best place: Şehzade Cağ Kebap – a no-frills spot for perfect cağ kebabs since the 1950s.

Balık ekmek

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Literally “fish bread”, these grilled fish sandwiches make for Istanbul’s ultimate street food. Mackerel or bonito are stuffed into crusty bread with onion and herbs for a sublimely simple treat.

Best place: Eminönü Bridge or Karaköy Fish Market for the freshest off the boats from local fishermen.

Midye dolma

Plump mussels stuffed with fragrant rice, pine nuts, currants and spices. Sold by street carts and best enjoyed atop the Old City’s ancient walls.

Best places: Along the old city walls, especially near Edirnekapı.

Kokoreç

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Late-night street food doesn’t get better than kokoreç – grilled lamb intestine wrapped in bread with spices. Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it!

Best place: Masko Kokoreç in Beyoğlu, always packed.

Traditional Turkish Meals & Meze

To fully immerse in Istanbul’s food culture, sit down for more leisurely multi-course meals that showcase regional ingredients and cooking techniques.

Family-run lokantas serving home-style classics rub shoulders with upscale restaurants fusing modern interpretations of traditional recipes.

Whatever your budget, don’t miss meze (small starter plates) which allow sampling a range of Turkish flavours.

Cold and hot veggie meze-like plump olive oil-soaked fava beans, smoky eggplant with garlic yoghurt, and char-grilled peppers kick things off.

Meat and seafood meze such as fritters and kebabs then open up the appetite for hearty main plates of meaty stews and grilled fish.

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Here are some highlights of Turkish cuisine to try on any food traveller’s Istanbul itinerary:

Mant

Tiny parcels of dough stuffed with meat or cheese, boiled then topped with garlic yoghurt and melted butter.

Best place: Mim’s Manti for family recipes passed down four generations.

Ali Nazik Kebab

Tender lamb or beef on smoky eggplant puree and garlic yoghurt.

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Best place: Ciya Sofrasi Kadiköy for excellent modern kebabs.

Iskender kebab

Thin doner meat ladled in tomato sauce and butter over bread, with yoghurt on the side. Named for its 19th-century inventor, an İzmir chef who perfected the dish for an Ottoman sultan.

Best place: Ciftehan’s century-old Beyoğlu location, still run by the same family.

Köfte

Seasoned ground meat patties, grilled or fried, range from football-sized to bite-size. Connoisseurs say good kofte should be extra juicy.

Best places: Köfteci Arnavut for juicy beef and lamb kofte since 1947.

Grilled sea bass

Simply prepared levrek (sea bass) makes the perfect intro to Turkish seafood, accented with olive oil and lemon. Pescatarians shouldn’t miss the fried mussels and grilled octopus either.

Best places: Sur Balık in Balat, Istanbul’s first seafood restaurant serving fresh catches since 1962.

Kuzu tandır

Slow-roasted lamb with aromatic spices, on a bed of smoky eggplant and peppers. Tandir refers to the clay pot oven.

Best place: Çiya Sofrası for melt-in-the-mouth lamb, as well as excellent veggie meze.

Baklava

Syrup-soaked layers of crisp phyllo stuffed with pistachios and walnuts. No trip is complete without this sweet, sticky, sublimely rich dessert.

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Best place: Güllüoğlu Baklava Cafe for the widest variety, from classic to chocolate or pumpkin spiced.

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Sutlac: Slow-baked rice pudding, infused with orange flower water or rose water, dusted with cinnamon and topped with almond slivers.

Best place: Hatay Has Kral Sofrası for the creamiest sutlac in town.

Flavour-packed Turkish Breakfasts

Breakfast is hardly an afterthought here. Locals and visitors alike fuel up on hearty morning spreads showcasing cheeses, eggs, vegetables, breads and rich dairy treats.

Standard items include sliced cucumbers and tomatoes, sheep’s milk cheeses, black olives, clotted cream kaymak, tangy strained yoghurt, fruit preserves and honey.

Made-to-order omelettes, savoury vegetable dishes or lahmacun flatbreads may also emerge from the kitchen.

Wash it all down with strong black Turkish coffee or fragrant çay (black tea) – sipping these hot drinks is as much a pillar of the culture as sharing good food.

Here are the top breakfast stops for various budgets:

  • Splurge: Nicole Cafe in Bebek – Tableside views of the Bosphorus Strait. Generous breakfast plates served on antique china inside an elegant 19th-century seaside mansion. Reservations are essential.
  • Mid-range:The House Cafe in Ortakoy – Homestyle cooking and trendy vibes overlooking the iconic Ortakoy pier and mosque. Their borek is superb.
  • Budget:Siragan Kulliye Cafe – Within an Ottoman mosque complex courtyard, offering simple yet substantial breakfasts. A calmer, cosier, less touristy option. Cash only.

Final Words

Istanbul’s cuisine tells unique stories rooted in its storied past yet continuously evolving.

We hope our recommendations offer a delicious introduction to Turkey’s dynamic food culture.

But the magic comes in going beyond any one list, embracing detours and discoveries – that’s what makes this Eurasian crossroads so endlessly tempting for wanderlust foodies.

 

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