Istanbul, where East meets West, boasts a rich and diverse culinary tradition that beautifully reflects its history and culture. If you wonder about the best things to eat in Istanbul, our comprehensive guide covers all the dishes, desserts, and drinks you must try. From mouthwatering kebabs to sweet and sticky baklava, and traditional beverages like Turkish tea, Istanbul offers a gastronomic journey like no other. In this guide, we will explore the famous must-eats of the city, including their variations, traditions, and the best places to savor them.
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The most famous food in Istanbul
Kebab, often dubbed the “Sultan of Turkish Cuisine,” is a savory delight that should be one of the things to eat while in Istanbul. Varieties like Iskender Kebap, Adana Kebap, and Döner Kebap abound, each offering a unique experience. Iskender Kebap features thinly sliced lamb on pita bread with tomato sauce and yogurt. Spiced ground meat on a skewer characterizes Adana Kebap, while Döner Kebap offers rotisserie-cooked meat. People savor kebabs at all times of the day, both in restaurants and as street food. Prices vary, with street food being more budget-friendly.
2. Lahmacun (turkish pizza)
Lahmacun, sometimes referred to as Turkish pizza, is a thin, round flatbread topped with a spicy mixture of minced meat, peppers, onions, and a fragrant blend of herbs. It’s a perfect on-the-go snack, often rolled up and devoured as a flavorful wrap. Lahmacun is not suitable for vegetarians or vegans but is available in restaurants and as street food. You can enjoy your lahmacun plain or how locals prefer with some salad and lemon juice inside. Prices are budget-friendly, making it an accessible choice.
3. Balık Ekmek (fish bread)
Balik Ekmek, a classic Bosphorus fish sandwich, features freshly grilled mackerel fillets in crusty bread rolls with onions, lettuce, and a zesty squeeze of lemon juice. While not vegetarian or vegan, it’s a must-try for seafood enthusiasts. This maritime delight is typically enjoyed by the Bosphorus waterfront and can be found as street food or in local eateries. For the most local experience, watch out for the fish bread boats that serve authentic Balık Ekmek on their boats or the boat’s piers. Prices are budget-friendly.
4. Mantı (Turkish Dumplings)
Manti, the tiny Turkish dumplings, are a culinary treasure. Filled with spiced meat and topped with yogurt and red pepper flakes, they are a delight for the palate. Manti is versatile and can be consumed for lunch, dinner, or as a snack. While it’s not a vegan or vegetarian dish, some variations offer vegetarian fillings. You can relish Manti in restaurants, as a lunch or dinner.
5. Islak Hamburger (wet burger)
Islak Hamburger, known as the “wet burger,” is a unique twist on fast food, with a juicy patty, soft bun, and a delightful tomato-based sauce that leaves it pleasantly soaked. This culinary adventure is a popular choice at local eateries and late-night street vendors, offering a flavor sensation you won’t want to miss. One of the most famous places to savor this delicacy is the fast-food restaurant Kızılkayalar, located near Taksim Square, where you can find the best wet burger in the city.
5. Kumpir (loaded baked potato)
Kumpir, a must-eat in Istanbul, turns a simple potato into a mouthwatering delight. Baked to perfection, the steaming potato is split open and topped with butter and cheddar cheese that melt into a delicious blend. But it doesn’t stop there – it’s further loaded with toppings like salami, sausage, corn, kısır, olives, and American salad. A final drizzle of pickles, ketchup, mayonnaise, and more makes it a flavor explosion. Ortaköy is the go-to spot in Istanbul to savor this delightful treat, and once you try it, you’ll understand why it’s a must-try.
6. Menemen (turkish scrambled eggs)
Menemen is a popular Turkish breakfast dish, a mouthwatering combination of scrambled eggs with tomatoes, green peppers, and a blend of aromatic spices. Often served with a sprinkle of feta cheese and a side of crusty bread, it provides a hearty and flavorful morning meal, making it the perfect way to start your day. Don’t miss out on the most authentic experience: locals like to dip their bread into menemen! Find the best Turkish breakfast places to eat menemen!
Read more about the best eats in Istanbul
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Turkish Breakfast in Istanbul
7. Gözleme (stuffed flatbread)
Gözleme, a thin, hand-rolled pastry filled with a variety of ingredients such as cheese, potatoes, minced meat, or spinach, is a beloved street food in Istanbul. Cooked on a griddle, it’s served piping hot and caters to the taste buds of both locals and tourists alike. While Gözleme is commonly enjoyed as a breakfast dish, it’s readily available and savored at any time of the day, making it a versatile culinary delight. Many of the bustling bazaars host small Gözleme stands that offer an authentic local experience. What makes Gözleme truly special is its high degree of customization, allowing you to choose from a range of toppings, including vegetarian options. However, if you’re vegan, it’s advisable to inquire about the inclusion of cheese in spinach or potato Gözlemes.
8. Börek (pastry)
Börek, a flaky pastry filled with ingredients like cheese, spinach, or minced meat, is versatile and satisfying. It’s commonly served as a snack, appetizer, or part of a larger meal. Locals prepare Börek at home for breakfast. You can find many Börek restaurants serving fresh pastries from early in the morning on. Börek is both available in restaurants and as street food, offering a wide range of vegetarian and non-vegetarian options.
9. Simit (turkish bagel)
Simit, often dubbed as the quintessential Istanbul street food, holds a special place in the hearts of both locals and visitors. Found on beaches, bustling avenues, and practically everywhere, simit’s unique flavor and texture make it irreplaceable among bakery products. The key is to act swiftly since these freshly baked delights are available from early morning and usually sell out by noon. To experience Istanbul like a true local, make it a tradition to grab a simit and share it with the seagulls before catching a ferry from Kadıköy or Eminönü. When it comes to simit, there’s a clear distinction in the minds of Turkish people – “street simit” always takes the crown over “bakery simit.” So, if you want to savor the authentic taste of Istanbul, opt for a freshly baked simit from the street, where it truly shines.
10. Tavuklu Pilav (rice with chicken)
Tavuklu Pilav features chicken and rice, often flavored with saffron. It’s a simple yet satisfying dish, offering a heartwarming and aromatic experience. You can find it in restaurants and local eateries. This non-vegetarian dish is moderately priced and perfect for lunch or dinner. Locals prefer this dish as a budget-friendly yet filling and satisfying dish. If you go to one of the esnaf lokantasi, you will find this dish there for sure. There are also many stands and eateries across all tourist places that solely sell Tavuklu Pilav.
11. Midye Dolma (stuffed mussels)
Stuffed mussels, or Mussel Dolma, are a common street food in Istanbul, frequently enjoyed from mobile stalls, especially at popular spots like Beşiktaş, Bostancı Beach, and Kadıköy. This delectable dish consists of a filling made from rice, herbs, onion, and oil, which is cooked in boiling water and served in pre-cleaned mussel shells. A dash of lemon adds the perfect zing to this seaside treat, making it a favorite among Istanbulites, particularly the young crowd, for late-night snacking.
Kokorec is a daring choice for the adventurous foodie. Made from seasoned and grilled lamb or goat offal (intestines), it’s often wrapped in a flatbread. While it may not be everyone’s cup of tea, it’s a delicacy cherished by many locals and can be found in specialized eateries throughout the city. If you want to eat Kokoreç in Istanbul, take care and do your research. Kokoreç needs to be eaten at a good place that pays attention to hygiene standards.
13. Meze (turkish tapas)
Meze is a collection of small, flavorful appetizers served before the main course. It includes a variety of dishes, from stuffed grape leaves to eggplant-based spreads. Enjoyed with friends and family, Meze is a delightful prelude to a larger meal.
14. Çiğ köfte
Cig Köfte, which means ‘raw meatball’ in English, has a fascinating history. It used to be made with raw meat, but due to a ban from the Ministry of Health, it’s today crafted with bulgur and other flavorful ingredients, making it fully vegan and safe to eat. You can find it as a starter in restaurants, but it’s recently become a popular street food, served in wraps with fresh salad, tangy pickles, and a dash of lemon juice for that extra zing. What makes it special is the amazing blend of spices, herbs, and pomegranate molasses, which gives it a burst of delicious taste. As a traditional dish turned modern street food sensation, Cig Köfte is a unique and tasty treat you shouldn’t miss when you’re in Istanbul!
Where to eat Cig Köfte: Try OSES Gurme for a blend of authentic cig köfte with modern hints.
Must-Try Desserts in Istanbul
Baklava is the crown jewel of Turkish desserts and should have a high spot on your list of things to eat in Istanbul. Layers of delicate filo pastry are carefully filled with finely crushed nuts and sweetened with honey or syrup. Each bite is a harmonious blend of textures and flavors, a testament to the delicate artistry that goes into creating this sweet masterpiece. Baklava can be found in Istanbul’s renowned sweet shops, traditionally paired with a small cup of strong Turkish coffee. The must-go place for authentic Baklava is Güllüoğlu, a cafe owned and run by the most-famous Baklava chef of Turkiye. You can find their place in Karaköy.
Read more about where you can find the best Baklava in Istanbul!
2. Turkish Delight (Lokum)
Turkish Delight, also known as Lokum, is a sweet and chewy confection. It’s made from a mixture of sugar, water, and cornstarch, which is flavored with various ingredients such as rosewater, lemon, pomegranate, or nuts. After shaping and cutting into bite-sized pieces, the candy is often dusted with powdered sugar or desiccated coconut to prevent sticking. Turkish Delight comes in an array of flavors and colors, and it’s a beloved treat for its unique and delightful taste. Turkish delight is usually served next to a cup of turkish coffee. Don’t hesitate to try the turkish delight in Eminönü before you buy.
Künefe, a must-try dessert in Istanbul, consists of shredded pastry, sweet syrup, and a layer of melted cheese. It’s crispy on the outside and gooey on the inside, creating a delightful contrast of textures and flavors. Baked to perfection, it’s then drenched in a sweet sugar-based syrup and adorned with crushed pistachios. Istanbul is the ultimate destination to savor this delight because the city’s expert bakers have mastered the art of creating this delectable treat. The contrast of textures and the infusion of fragrant flavors make it an unforgettable experience. Many traditional Turkish restaurants in Istanbul offer künefe, often serving it with small portions of fruits and milk to enhance digestibility and reduce blood sugar spikes.
Read more about the best Künefe in Istanbul!
4. Halka Tatlısı
Halka Tatlısı, aptly named for its circular shape, is a delightful dessert that revolves around deep-fried dough. Think of it as a Turkish version of churros – a crispy, ring-shaped doughnut fried to perfection and then bathed in chilled syrup. While it’s typically enjoyed warm, if you opt for a street vendor, it might come served cold. Caution: this sweet treat can be addictive. So, if you have a hankering for something sweet, give Halka Tatlısı a try and experience its tempting flavors for yourself.
5. Irmik Helvasi (semolina)
Irmik Helvasi is a sweet semolina dessert cooked with butter, sugar, and water. Flavored with a touch of cinnamon and often garnished with pine nuts, it’s a delicious way to satisfy your sweet tooth.
Traditional Turkish Drinks you have to try in Istanbul
1. Turkish Tea (Çay)
Turkish tea, known as Çay, is a staple of Turkish culture. It’s served in tulip-shaped glasses and enjoyed throughout the day. Whether you’re at a bustling bazaar or a serene teahouse, Çay is the perfect accompaniment to any conversation or moment of reflection.
2. Turkish Coffee
Turkish coffee is a thick, aromatic beverage brewed in a special pot called a cezve. Served with a glass of water and a piece of Turkish delight, it’s a drink to be savored. The grounds settle at the bottom, allowing for fortune-telling through coffee grounds, a fun tradition to experience.
3. Ayran (yogurt drink)
Ayran, a traditional Turkish yogurt-based drink, is a refreshing and iconic part of local culinary culture in Istanbul. Local Turkish people commonly consume it by mixing yogurt, water, and a pinch of salt to achieve a perfectly balanced blend. The result is a smooth, slightly tangy beverage with a frothy top. This creamy concoction serves as an excellent accompaniment to hearty kebabs and spicy dishes, offering a cooling contrast to the rich flavors. During your time in Istanbul, trying Ayran is a must as it has the ability to quench your thirst and enhance your dining experience, particularly on warm and bustling days while you’re exploring the city.
4. Raki (turkish Ouzo)
Raki, known as “Lion’s Milk,” is a traditional Turkish alcoholic drink with a distinct anise flavor. It’s usually consumed by diluting it with water, turning the clear liquid into a milky white. This transformation is where the nickname “Lion’s Milk” originates. People often enjoy Raki alongside a rich spread of meze dishes, which feature a wide array of small, flavorful appetizers, making it an integral part of Turkish social gatherings and a symbol of shared moments and camaraderie.
5. Salgam Suyu
Salgam suyu is a unique fermented beverage made from purple carrot pickles, turnips, and spices. It has a tangy, salty flavor that locals enjoy as a digestive aid.
6. Boza & Salep
Boza, a slightly fermented and thick drink, is crafted from a combination of bulgur, sugar, and yeast. This hearty beverage is a winter favorite and is occasionally adorned with a dash of cinnamon or roasted chickpeas.
Salep, on the other hand, is a comforting and creamy drink prepared from the powdered tubers of a wild orchid. This delightful, milky concoction is particularly cherished in the colder months, and a pinch of cinnamon can elevate its cozy flavor profile.