What’s the first thing your friends ask you when you return from a trip? If they’re anything like mine, the burning question is almost always, “How was the food?”
And if you’ve just returned from a trip to Istanbul, your answer might be: “The food was over-priced, mediocre, typical tourist fare”.
But if you follow these tips for finding the most authentic, best-tasting food in the city, your answer could be: “The food was amazing! Exotic, bold, and delicious. Istanbul is a melting pot of cultures and each one has left its mark on its diverse culinary offerings. It was the best food I ever ate!
Visit a Market
Built in 1461 in the heart of Istanbul’s Old City, the Grand Bazaar is the granddaddy of all markets. It’s one of the oldest and largest in the world, with over 5,000 shops crammed into 60 streets. It’s also one of the world’s most visited tourist attractions, with 250,000 to 400,000 people browsing its stalls every day.
Do put it at the top of your list of things to do in Istanbul!
Spend a leisurely afternoon there soaking up the atmosphere. Sip tea from a delicate tulip-shaped glass in one of the many cafes. Watch the crowds pass by. Hunt for treasures. But save your culinary discoveries for somewhere less touristy.
Somewhere like Balik Pazari.
Istanbul’s covered fish market, Balik Pazari, is a bustling, vibrant place with a reputation for selling the best fish and shellfish available in Turkey. If you’re used to buying your seafood on a pink styrofoam tray wrapped in plastic, be prepared to have your mind blown!
The fish bazaar is located in the Beyoglu district and is open daily from dawn to dusk.
Shop at Gourmet & Specialty Stores
Much like the great gastronomic centers of Europe, when it comes to food shopping in Istanbul, the best bread comes from a bakery (ekmekci), the best pastry from a pastry shop (pastane), and the best candy from a confectionary. Follow the lead of local cooks and seek out the superior quality of products in the city’s specialty stores.
Begin your search with a visit to Istanbul’s Kadikoy district and a stop at Haci Bekir. In business since 1777, this gloriously restored candy shop is famous for its kaymaklı lokum (Turkish Delight stuffed with fresh clotted cream).
But don’t stop there.
Spoil yourself with more mouthwatering food souvenirs like pistachio marzipan, Turkish Delight, tomato and pepper pastes, pomegranate molasses and pickles.
Take a Food Tour
Taking a food tour is a fun way to discover Istanbul’s best bites. With a local as your guide, you can unravel the mysteries of this complex cuisine as you explore the city’s backstreets and markets. You’ll learn about the history, tradition, and cultural significance of various dishes while chowing down in hidden eateries you’d never discover on your own. You’ll also get to know the often fascinating people and stories behind the food.
If you only have a few days in Istanbul, taking a food tour will give you the chance to taste a wide variety of food in a short period of time. If on the other hand, you’ll be enjoying an extended stay, you’ll benefit from learning where to shop and how to order with confidence.
Eat With a Local
Peer-to-Peer dining is all the rage amongst culinary travelers (it’s like Uber for foodies) and since Turks are well known for their unwavering hospitality, eating with a local may well be the most memorable experience you have in Istanbul.
Websites like Viz Eat, Eat With, Meal Sharing and Traveling Spoon connect you with local hosts who are waiting to welcome you into their home for an authentic Turkish feast. A typical menu might start with cold mezes (appetizers to be shared) like cheese and yogurt. Hot mezes, like börek (meat, cheese, or spinach-filled pastry) are next, then grilled meat served with rice pilaf. Dessert is often a selection of baklava served with strong Turkish coffee.
Since eating in Turkey is as much about social interaction as it is about sustenance, expect plenty of lively conversation about food and culture, and don’t be surprised if you make a few new lifelong friends before the evening ends.
Take a Cooking Class
Now that you’ve eaten with a local, learn how to cook those amazing dishes for yourself!
Cooking classes represent experiential travel at it’s best. They also happen to be my favorite way to learn about different cultures and cuisines.
Look for a class that features a traditional menu with dishes that are culturally important and authentic to the region, like sarma (vine leaves stuffed with rice and meat) or karniyarik (eggplant stuffed with meat and tomatoes).
Don’t worry if you’re not the next Julia Child. There are plenty of cooking classes in Istanbul to choose from. If you’re an adventurous or confident cook, choose a hands-on course. If you’re on the shy side, sign up for a cooking demonstration instead.
Either way, you’ll leave with new recipes, new friends, and an unforgettable experience.
Be aware of local holidays and celebrations when traveling to Istanbul (or anywhere!) since they can seriously affect your plans.
During the holy month of Ramazan, many Turks fast from sunrise to sunset. If you’re in Turkey during this time, it’s polite to refrain from eating and drinking in public during daylight hours. Muslim restaurants will understand if you are non-Muslim and will be happy to serve you indoors although they may not offer alcoholic beverages.
Once the sun goes down, the feasting begins and many eateries offer special banquet-style fixed-price menus.
Following Ramazan is Seker Bayrami (Sugar Festival), a three-day celebration of all things sweet!
Estimated 2017 dates for Ramazan are May 26 – June 25 followed by Seker Bayrami from June 25 – June 27.
Istanbul’s Defining Dishes
- Simit – a sesame-studded bread ring, reminiscent of a bagel
- Baklava – layers of filo pastry, folded over, rolled around a filling of nuts, butter,and sugar, then soaked in syrup
- Kebab – grilled or skewered meats, and a variety of other meat-based dishes like soups and stews
- Lahmacun – flat bread most often topped with ground meat, onion, chili and parsley (Turkish pizza)
- Turkish Delight – nougat candy served with a variety of flavors and fillings
- Mezes – tapas-style small plates, often eaten at meyhanes
- Hamsi – anchovies
- Pide – Turkish flatbread
- Raki – grape spirit infused with aniseed
- Kahvehanı – coffeehouses
- Çay bahcesis – tea gardens
- Meyhanes – taverns
- Kebapçıs – kebap restaurants
- Where to Find the Best Breakfast, Street Kebabs, and Bean (Yes, Beans) in Istanbul
- Istanbul Street Food Guide: What & Where to Eat
- Istanbul Food, After the Perfect Bite
A culinary travel expert, Laura Goyer is the founder and editor of The Culinary Travel Guide, a Certified Culinary Travel Professional (CCTP), and a proud member of the World Gourmet Society. When she’s not working, she’s creating new taste memories, searching for unforgettable land and seascapes, and brushing up on her Spanish. For more food travel inspiration, follow The Culinary Travel Guide on Pinterest and Facebook.