For centuries, Istanbul’s strategic location between east and west made it a melting pot of food cultures, right at the heart of the global spice trade. Nowhere is that legacy more intense than in its food culture, which comprises an incredible variety of ingredients and dishes inspired by a wealth of international influences.
But overwhelming choice can lead to confusion. With so many tantalizing dishes to choose from, where do you start? We’re here to share with you the must-try foods that no visit to Istanbul is complete without. From delicious flat breads to mouth-watering kebabs, you will be spoiled for choice when deciding what to eat in Istanbul. We’ll even let you in on our favorite Istanbul meal and where to get it. It’s not just a sandwich, it’s an experience like no other.
The following is a selection of some of the best dishes the city has to offer, including some beloved street food specials, and will help discerning foodies sort their köfte from their kumpir when deciding what to eat in Istanbul.
Köfte are essentially Turkish meatballs and feature heavily in the local diet. Made from beef or lamb – or a mixture of both – you’ll find them sold at street carts, where they are usually packed into bread to make a tasty and filling sandwich. They’re not always meatball-shaped either, sometimes you’ll find long, cylindrical köfte or burger-like patties. Usually grilled, they can also be boiled with vegetables to make a stew or baked in the oven. We particularly recommend içli köfte, which are like a Turkish version of the Italian arancini, and Kadinbudu köfte, both of which featured heavily in the cuisine of the Ottoman empire and are a step up from regular meatballs. The outside should be crispy, giving way to a soft, flavorful center. We recommend a visit to Namli Rumeli Koftecisi in Fatih.
One portion of köfte with a garnish/side dish that usually includes rice, tomato, pepper, onion, etc. costs around 20-25₺ ($3.50-$4.50 or €3-€4). The price changes according to type of kofte. For example an içli köfte or kadinbudu kofte is considerably cheaper at around 6.5₺ ($1.20 or €1).
One of the most popular street food dishes in the city, midye dolma is essentially mussels stuffed with rice, raisins, and pine nuts. The flavours are all brought to life through the addition of various herbs and spices, making this dish a must-try. Invoking happy memories of childhood days at the beach for many Turkish people, midye dolma is widely available throughout Istanbul. We particularly recommend Midyeci Ahmet in Ortakoy.
One midye dolma is 15 cent. If you go to Midyeci Ahmet in Ortakoy and get menu per person including 15 midye dolma, rice and one drink, it is around 25₺ ($3.50-$4.50 or €3-€4).
This traditional dish consists of rolled up grape leaves filled with minced meat and rice and usually eaten as meze. Debate rages around the origins of yaprak sarma, with Turkey, Greece and Cyprus all claiming it as their own. Regardless of who first created it, this dish is definitely one to try while in Istanbul.
One portion of yaprak sarma (a plate including 10-15 yaprak sarma) is around 12-15₺ ($2.40 or 2 .20€)
One of the most popular “fast food” dishes in Turkey, kokorec consists of lamb intestines wrapped around skewered sweetbreads and grilled. Rigorous hygiene standards are a priority in making kokorec, with skillful cleaning of the intestines an important step in its preparation. Care should also be taken when choosing where to sample this renowned dish and in Istanbul, we recommend Sampiyon Kokorec and Mercan Kokorec in Beyoglu, or Kral Kokorec in Eminonu.
One kokorec sandwich will cost you only about 15₺ ($2.60 or 2 .40€)
This is a baked potato like no other! Imagine an extra-large potato cut down the middle and stuffed with butter and cheese, then topped with pretty much whatever you like. Choose from olives, a variety of pickled vegetables, Turkish kısır (an essential ingredient in Turkish cuisine), yogurt, peas, corn – even hot dogs. Or you can just keep it simple with a dollop of ketchup or mayo. We recommend a visit to Ortakoy or Mr. Kumpir, where you’ll find some of the best kumpirs Istanbul has to offer. Trust us, this is one Turkish snack you’ll want to replicate when you get back home.
A kumpir in Ortakoy will cost you about 20-25₺ ($3.50-$4.50 or €3-€4).
Call it Turkish pizza if you will, this delicious snack is of Middle-Eastern origin as opposed to European. Its name comes from Arabic and means, “meat with vegetables”. A thin, circular dough base is topped with minced beef or lamb, to which a variety of vegetables can be added. Spices are also a staple ingredient, particularly cumin, paprika, and cinnamon but, unlike its Italian cousin, lahmacun does not contain cheese. Do like the locals and pair the traditional drinks of Ayran or şalgam suyu with your lahmacun.
A single lahmacun costs around 6.5₺ ($1.20 or €1).
This absurdly delicious flatbread is found throughout Istanbul and a comparison with pizza is probably more justifiable, given that it does contain cheese. Made from a similar dough to that of chapatis or pita bread, it’s traditionally baked in a stone oven then topped with the cheese. Several other toppings, including meat and vegetables, can also be added. You’ll find it served in most local restaurants or you can grab a slice from a street cart for a cheap snack on the go. Kuşbaşılı pide, which is topped with cubes of meat, is a particular favorite of ours.
The price of pide depends on the ingredients. If you eat a meat pide such as a ‘kusbasili pide’, it costs more, but a cheese pide is cheaper. A rough guide price is around 20-25₺ ($3.50-$4.50 or €3-€4).
Doner kebab (or kebap)
Loved all over the world by fans of Middle-Eastern cuisine, the doner kebab should need no introduction (but we will anyway). If you walk into a restaurant or fast food outlet in Istanbul and see a pile of beef or chicken rotating on what looks like a vertical spit, you’ll know you’re in the right place. The rotating meat is thinly shaved, packed into pita bread or lavaş (Turkish puff bread), and served with fresh vegetables. Doner kebabs are widely available in Istanbul and the chicken option is usually cheaper than the beef. For one of the best doners, we recommend a visit to Bayramoğlu Döner. Note that the dish is not called a doner kebab in Turkey, but simply a “doner”.
There are so many different types of kebabs in Turkey that prices vary wildly, but expect to pay between 25 and 65₺ ($4.50-$11.50, or €4-€10).
Similar to Chinese dumplings or Italian ravioli, manti are spheres of dough filled with spiced ground beef or lamb and then steamed or boiled. They are traditionally served with a garlic-flavored yogurt and butter that’s been mixed with tomato paste. Widely eaten throughout Turkey, you’ll find them on the menu at most local eateries in Istanbul and can even buy them ready-made in small stores and supermarkets. We could recommend a visit to Bodrum Manti & Cafe.
1 portion of manti is around 25₺ ($4.50 or €4).
Contrary to what you might think, falafel was not always commonplace in Turkey. Despite falafel being ubiquitous in most of the Middle-East, and chickpeas being a staple ingredient in Turkish cuisine, falafel never really featured heavily on the country’s menus. However, with an increase in the number of Syrian refugees entering Turkey, falafel has well and truly taken hold and we say the country’s cuisine is all the richer for it. You’ll now find these delicious balls of deep-fried chickpeas mixed with herbs and spices throughout Istanbul. They’re usually popped into a pita bread pocket or wrapped in flatbread and garnished with salad, vegetables and hot sauce. They can also be eaten without bread as a lighter snack.
1 portion (usually 6 falafels on a plate) is around 30₺ ($5.50 or €5).
If you’ve got a sweet tooth, you simply can’t leave Istanbul without trying this delicious local dessert. Baklava consists of layers of light filo pastry, filled with finely chopped nuts, and drizzled with honey or syrup. You’ll find many places in Istanbul selling baklava and quality can vary. The pastry is a very important element. When you bite or cut into it, it should crackle and flake. If it doesn’t, your baklava is not fresh. It should also have an intense buttery smell and be sweet but not sickly. In our opinion, you’ll find some of the best baklava in Istanbul at Güllüoğlu Baklava.
There are many different kinds of baklava and the price changes according to type and portion size: it’s sold by weight. If you go to Karakoy Gulluoglu, 0.5 kg (1 lb, about 12-14 pieces) of classic square baklava with pistachio costs about 65₺ ($11 or €10).
We’ve saved the best for last – our top tip for the best sandwich in Istanbul, in the best location. Head to Eminönü down by the harbor and make for the western side of the Galata bridge down by the lower entrance to the Grand Bazaar. Here you can feast on balik ekmek, or the best fish sandwiches Istanbul has to offer. Watch as fresh fish is bought straight from fishermen, and cooked right there on the fishing boats, stuffed into bread, and served to you with a small scoop of salad. (The words balik ekmek literally translate to “fish in bread”.)
This great Istanbul tradition has been going since a few smart fishermen decided to install broilers and fryers on their boats. It is now so popular with locals that long lines can form during peak hours. To avoid this, head for one of the balik ekmek restaurants under the Galata bridge. We recommend going in the evening so you can watch the sun set over the Golden Horn as you savor that delicious fish sandwich – a uniquely Istanbul memory that will stay with you forever.
One exquisite fish sandwich at Eminönü will cost only about 19₺ ($3.30 or €3).