İstanbul is the new cool and a center of world-class cuisine as vibrant and diverse as its many neighborhoods. From traditional cuisine in the old city and modern Anatolian tasting menus in Beyoğlu and Bomonti to the freshest of fish by the Bosphorus coast, there’s so much to explore for dedicated gourmands in this city of unforgettable flavors.
İstanbul represents the confluence of Türkiye’s diverse gastronomical world, past and present, traditional and modern, pure and experimental, high-end and budget-friendly. The city caters to all palates with its traditional establishments where Ottoman palace cuisine is being resurrected, and modern fine dining restaurants, as well as healthy joints serving plant-based alternatives, and gourmet street food corners. As the meeting point of two continents, İstanbul is home to every single regional specialty of the vast country and a wonderous culinary journey awaits its visitors who would like to explore the “taste” of Türkiye.
The Old City: A Maze of Timeless Flavors
Start your culinary journey in the city at Sultanahmet, the Old City and its most important food market: Mısır Çarşısı (Spice Bazaar). This covered market has been flourishing since its inception in 1664 with its iconic mounds of spices in a full spectrum of colors, its traditional sweets, dried fruits and nuts. Outside, vendors selling an endless array of cheese and pickled vegetables line the streets, while the smell of freshly roasted Turkish coffee from the historic coffee roasters lingers in the air. Street food stalls and corners are plentiful in the Old City, where one can find stalls selling fish sandwiches in Eminönü, as well as simit, kestane kebap (grilled chestnuts) and közde mısır (roasted corn). The Old City is also where some of İstanbul’s oldest restaurants still serve the classic fare inspired by the Ottoman palace cuisine derived from royal archives, resulting in unique dishes such as kavun dolması —a sweet and sour Ottoman dish where a melon is filled in and baked with a juicy mix of minced meat, almonds and currants.
New Turkish Cuisine on the Rise
Walking across the Galata Bridge with its iconic fishermen is like taking a journey in time because once one arrives in Karaköy and continues up into Beyoğlu and later on Bomonti, the city’s modern gastronomic scene unfolds with splendor. Some of İstanbul’s best fine dining venues await in these charming neighborhoods with their carefully selected tasting menus. İstanbul’s premier haute cuisine locations look out over the city from their minimal dining rooms with floor-to-ceiling windows. Tasting menu dishes, which look more like artworks, represent a celebration of Anatolia’s rich world of recipes and ingredients, reinterpreted by the creative ardor of celebrity chefs. Bites are accompanied by local wines, selected with pride from Türkiye’s burgeoning boutique vineyards where native grape varieties such as Bornova Misketi, Narince, Öküzgözü and Kalecik Karası are thriving and being recognized with international awards.
A Feast Along the Idyllic Bosphorus
İstanbul is a metropolitan city in transformation, but one thing has not changed for ages: the city dwellers’ intimate relationship with the Bosphorus. This 30-km-long natural straight brings in a constant flow of fresh fish to the city, while the promenades and the lush foliage alongside its banks make the Bosphorus the primary destination for escapes from the hustle and bustle of İstanbul. The neighborhoods like Arnavutköy, Bebek, Rumelihisarı, Yeniköy and Anadolu Hisarı are famous for their cafes and restaurants that offer classical Turkish breakfast —a long feast where lots of salty and sweet fare are brought to the table, including egg dishes like menemen, cured meats, cheese and olive varieties, jams, fruits and nuts and local bread types including the sesame seed-crusted simit.
The shores of the Bosphorus are also populated by upscale fish restaurants, where the list of mezes (cold appetizers served on small plates) is always long and the freshest catch is simply grilled and served with a wedge of lemon —preferably to be accompanied either by a cold glass of Turkish white wine, or a chilled glass of rakı (anise-flavored local spirit). In the evenings, Kuruçeşme and Arnavutköy also become alive with chic craft cocktail bars where award-winning mixologists make their own bitters and syrups and create drinks with unique ingredients.
In Search of the Simple Culinary Pleasures
İstanbul’s food scene is as diverse as it is exclusive. One can savor some of the best local flavors in a typical esnaf lokantası (tradesmen restaurant) serving local businesses traditional home-cooking; in an ocakbaşı (grill house) where you can sample a variety of kebabs around a huge grill, or in a meyhane where a rich selection of mezes are accompanied by glasses of rakı over long chats among friends, at times also accompanied by street musicians.
Across the Bosphorus, the more bohemian neighborhood of Moda at the historic heart of Kadıköy district has its very own charms. This is one of the best places to feel the city’s young vibe with its coastal parks stretching for miles, buzzy neighborhood cafes, pubs and more street food joints. Of course, no mention of Kadıköy would be complete without its famous bustling market, where everything from fresh fish to pickles, olives, cheese, produce and coffee can be found along a network of interconnected shops and vendors. Here, you can also try the best examples of street food, including döner kebab (rotating roasted meat), midye dolma (mussels stuffed with aromatic rice), and kokoreç (grilled lamb intestines served in sandwich bread). The marketplace and the streets surrounding it also offer several joints for the sweet tooths, where one can savor lokum (Turkish delight), akide şekeri (old Ottoman style candies), all kinds of baklavas and milk puddings, including the ages-old recipe of tavukgöğsü —a mélange of milk pudding with chicken breast shredded into tiny fibers to add texture to the dessert.
After filling one’s bags with the best ingredients the city has to offer, the journey ends at one of the local restaurants near the Kadıköy marketplace, with a hearty meal of classic Anatolian dishes like red lentil soups, stuffed dried eggplants and bell peppers, stuffed cole and wine leaves, all kinds of fried boiled and baked köfte (meatballs) and more. The kind of meal that the people of this country have been making and taking comfort in for centuries, served in a city where the unique food culture is the result of both heritage and contemporary verve.
Order Fish and Meze Like a Local
In a meyhane or fish restaurant, start with a string of classic meze plates. Lakerda (cured bonito), marinated seabass or mackerel, tarama (cod roe mixed with olive oil, lemon juice, and bread), and mumlu balık yumurtası (salted and driedgrey mullet roe covered with wax) are among the local cured seafood alternatives. They are usually accompanied by refreshing plant-based favorites like fava (bean puree), patlıcan salatası (grilled eggplant salad), and haydari (yogurt dip with garlic and fresh herbs) and followed by ara sıcak plates (hot appetizers) like paçanga böreği (fried filo pastry rolls with pastrami spring), kalamar tava (deep-fired squid rings) or karides güveç (shrimp casserole). Finally, the fish of your choice is served. It can be a grilled or baked mackerel, bonito, bluefish, seabream or john dory, as well as fried horse mackerels and anchovies, depending on the season.