A culinary guide to Istanbul, Turkey

The city that straddles Europe and Asia has found its stride and is at last gaining recognition for its creative take on traditional Turkish cuisine.

By Paul Osterlund
Published 26 Oct 2020, 08:00 GMT, Updated 5 Nov 2020, 04:57 GMT
Food vendor selling simit in Golden Horn, locally known as Haliç.

Food vendor selling simit in Golden Horn, locally known as Haliç. 

Photograph by AWL Images

If you’re looking for something to soak up the excesses of your night come 4am, you’ll have no trouble finding it in Istanbul. You’re never too far from a compact cafe selling döner cut straight from the spit, or a street vendor selling buttery, chickpea-studded rice topped with morsels of chicken breast from a small cart illuminated by a single lightbulb. This is truly a 24-hour city.

Turkey’s — and Europe’s — largest metropolis has an unusual geographical position, split in two by the Bosphorus Strait, which connects the Black and Marmara Seas, their shores hemming in the urban sprawl on either side. And while this is a place that has become defined by its crowds, its 16 million people bring with them an energy that translates to a rich and diverse dining scene. 

The city is home to a strong culinary tradition that reflects its residents, who hail from all over Turkey and beyond, arriving with their own recipes and cuisines. In this respect, it’s practically an entire nation of its own. Adventurous eaters can venture from one corner of the city to another just to taste a specific delicacy often unavailable anywhere else, save from its region of origin. Take the cusine of Turkey’s southeastern Antep region, for example, which you can taste in Köyiçi, a neighbourhood nicknamed Little Antep. 

As well as street-food carts selling cheap and tasty bites, you’ll find grillhouses serving skewers of kebab, and meyhane (traditional taverns) offering an array of meze served alongside glasses of raki, Turkey’s aniseed-flavoured spirit of choice. There are also neighbourhood tradesmen’s cafeterias dishing up affordable, comforting food for those on the go, plus some of the most highly regarded fine-dining restaurants in the world. 

It’s not all traditional cuisine, either. Once considered slightly behind other global cities in terms of trends — both culinary and otherwise — Istanbul is catching up faster than ever, with a new wave of hip restaurants offering food and drink that’s as photogenic as it is delicious. There are third-wave coffeeshops and edgy bars serving locally made craft beer and American-style barbecue, which were nowhere to be found a decade ago. There’s even a place selling experimental takes on poutine. You’ll never be short of opportunities to eat — so come hungry.

Step off Istiklal and into Beyoğlu’s maze of backstreets, which are home to hundreds of bars, cafes and restaurants housed in historic buildings.

Photograph by Alamy

A day in Kadiköy

Grab a fresh simit, the ubiquitous sesame seed-studded bread ring sold at stands everywhere in Turkey, and join the commuters on the ferry. It will take you from Karaköy in Beyoğlu, on the European side, to the district of Kadıköy, over in Asia. And while aboard, order a tulip-shaped glass of black tea — which actually has a seductive red hue — to enjoy with your simit.

The half-hour journey gives you the chance to see both sides of the city from the Bosphorus. While passing the ‘Historical Peninsula’, catch glimpses of some of the old city’s best-known attractions, such as the Hagia Sophia and the Topkapı Palace.

Disembark at the pier, a few minutes’ walk from Kadıköy proper. In recent years, this has become many locals’ favourite district, with an eye-popping number of bars and restaurants opening on what seems to be a daily basis. Many visitors don’t make it across to this side of the water, so it’s a great way of experiencing the energy of the city with the Istanbulites. 

Head to the lovely residential area of Moda, in central Kadıköy, to visit Moda Coastal Park. It’s a popular hangout during the warmer months, when young people come to sip beer, eat sunflower seeds and enjoy the view. 

Stay in Moda to have lunch at Korkmaz Büfe, a small restaurant with just a few tables, which serves arguably the best doner kebab in the city. So highly regarded is this spot that it runs out of its glorious spit-roasted meat, without fail, by late afternoon every day. Get there early and order it as sandwich in a half-loaf of fresh bread, or as a portion atop a bed of rice.

Come afternoon, explore the busy streets of Kadıköy, stopping off at Kadıköy Fish Market and the Rexx Cinema, one of the few-remaining old-school movie theatres in Istanbul, which screens the latest domestic and international films. It even has a terrace, should you fancy a breath of fresh air during the intermission that’s common during Turkish films.

Sit down for dinner in the heart of the district at Çiya, one of the city’s most famous restaurants. It’s helmed by Musa Dağdeviren, one of Turkey’s foremost food historians, who endeavours to preserve regionally specific recipes that are at risk of being forgotten. 

Lahmacun — Turkey’s answer to pizza — is a crispy, round flatbread topped with a thin layer of minced beef, herbs and vegetables. 

Photograph by Getty Images

A day in Beyoğlu

The heart of European Istanbul, Beyoğlu is home to the city’s famous Taksim Square, as well as Istiklal Avenue, a mile-long pedestrianised stretch. Though the street itself has become rather commercialised, its beautiful architecture retains plenty of charm.

Step off Istiklal and into Beyoğlu’s maze of backstreets, which are home to hundreds of bars, cafes and restaurants housed in historic buildings. Lades 2 serves menemen, a classic Turkish breakfast dish of lightly scrambled eggs with chopped peppers and tomatoes to which toppings such as shredded chicken, sucuk (beef garlic sausage) or beyaz peynir, a sharp, white sheep’s cheese not unlike feta, can be added. You could spend days just exploring Beyoğlu’s backstreets, but if you don’t have that kind of time, allow at least a few hours after breakfast. Stop by the Şen Deri leather shop for handcrafted bags, before taking a quick break at Hazzo Pulo Passage, a courtyard of quaint shops surrounding a tea garden. 

A short walk from Hazzo Pulo is Dürümzade, a hole-in-the-wall that dishes up grilled kebab wraps in the style of the southern province of Antalya, one of the country’s top food destinations. The expertly grilled meat is served inside flatbread that’s just slightly crunchy. Dürümzade was among the late Anthony Bourdain’s favourite Istanbul restaurants — he visited the city twice on his travels for TV — and his photos are plastered on its walls, which today function as something of a memorial. 

Spend the afternoon in a traditional hammam, such as the 15th-century Ağa Hamamı, which is much more relaxed (not to mention reasonably priced) than the hammams in the old city.

After your brisk scrubdown, head for dinner at Eleos, one of the city’s best and most lavish taverns, where the the meze is delicious and the seafood is fresh and perfectly cooked
— don’t miss the calamari. The best tables have views of the Bosphorus, and while it’s on the pricey side, the food and scenery are well worth it as are the excellent service and the free plates of food that are regularly brought out throughout the meal. Reservations several days in advance are necessary. 

A day in Meyhane

Istanbul is synonymous with meyhane, traditional taverns popularised during Ottoman rule as places to enjoy alcohol with your meze. Drinking was prohibited at various points over the centuries, but these taverns stood firm and today, while some things (the decor) have changed, others (raki as the beverage of choice) remain. 

One local institution is Safa, on the edge of the old city in the Yedikule neighbourhood, close to the 1,500-year-old walls of Constantinople. Open since 1948, Safa features a simple menu of meze in an elaborately decorated setting — the walls are lined with empty raki bottles and photographs of Istanbul from decades past. It’s run by the charming Arif Kızıltay whose his father Süleyman opened the meyhane more than 70 years ago. 

Another great option is Cibalikapı, which has an outpost by the Golden Horn, as well as a branch in Kadıköy (the former being rather more homely). It’s not cheap, but its meze is the best in town, made by expert hands from the best seasonal ingredients. Eat outside if you can — the terrace offers views of the Golden Horn and is perfect for warm nights.

In Beyoğlu, you’ll find plenty of meyhane, their tables spilling out onto the street, but one metro stop away, in Kurtuluş, is Astek. A cosy local favourite, it recently added a second floor to cater to its rising popularity. The meze is always fresh and delicious, and head waiter and manager Mehmet often treats guests to extra plates, Turkish coffee and glasses of mint liqueur.

Meyhane in the Beyoğlu district. Istanbul is synonymous with meyhane, traditional taverns popularised during Ottoman rule as places to enjoy alcohol with your meze.

Photograph by Picfair

Three food markets to visit in Istanbul


1. Tarlabaşı Sunday Market 
Tarlabaşı, in Beyoğlu, is a hilly quarter filled with grand old buildings (some restored, some left to decay) constructed by the Greeks and Armenians who lived here in the first half of the 20th century. This market remains one of the most lively and extensive in the city, with regionally specific produce on offer, including cheese, vine leaves, hazelnuts and more.

2. Feriköy markets
Two weekend markets are held in a large, covered space in the hip Bomonti neighborhood. On Saturdays, Feriköy Organic Market offers locally produced organic goods, from yoghurt to avocados. On Sundays, the space is given over to Ferıköy Antique Bazaar, the most expansive in the city, at which you can haggle over old records, jewellery and china. Don’t miss the gözleme stand at the entrance, which sells freshly made pastries stuffed with potatoes or cheese and parsley, lightly grilled until the edges are crisp.

3. Kadıköy Fish Market
Here you’ll find rows of sellers exuberantly hawking fresh seafood (above), while the nearby shops sell numerous varieties of pickled fruits and vegetables. Need a caffeine fix? Look out for the row of cafes serving strong Turkish coffee.

Three bars to visit in Istanbul


1. Marlen
This sixth-floor establishment overlooking a strip of Beyoğlu bars is a chic, low-lit space with leather sofas, low prices and friendly service. It’s a great place for draft beer or red wine, and the excellent menu includes a particularly tasty chicken schnitzel.

2. Papillon
This is a favourite with the younger crowd, though it hasn’t changed in at least a decade, so expect disco balls and a soundtrack of the pop hits of yore. During happy hour, it’s one of the cheapest places for an afternoon drink, while its kitsch vibe makes it an ideal late-night destination.

3. Asmaaltı 
Serving dependably cold beer on tap (just what’s needed during the hot summer months), Asmaaltı is an ideal spot for taking in Beyoğlu’s raucous atmosphere on the street-side tables. Alternatively, take your drink up to the pretty terrace for excellent views of the district.

Essentials
 

Getting there
Istanbul is typically served by Turkish Airlines, British Airways and Pegasus Airlines

Where to stay
Some rooms at Büyük Londra (formerly the Grand Hotel de Londres) feature views of the Golden Horn, and the lobby bar and terrace bar are well worth a visit. B&B doubles from £50 in 2021. 

Published in Issue 9 (summer 2020) of National Geographic Traveller Food

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