Many flock to Istanbul for the history, the views, and the culture. For us, however, Istanbul is the mecca of food. Although we only had roughly 35 hours in Istanbul, we managed to eat more than 15 different dishes and honestly enjoyed every single one of them. Even if you’re not quite as ambitious as us, pick a few dishes from our list of the 19 best foods you must eat in Istanbul. We’ve also provided some practical information such as average street food prices in Istanbul, and hints on where to find the best food in Istanbul, Turkey.
Is it Safe to Eat Street Food in Turkey?
In short: yes. Personally, we found Istanbul to be incredibly clean, especially around the main tourist sites. You can also easily see into the street food kitchens and they all appeared to be in tip-top shape. Of course, you never know how food is stored, but even after eating 18 different foods in less than 40 hours, we didn’t have any stomach issues. The only thing we found was that at some of the juice stalls the juice presses didn’t always look clean. This doesn’t so much concern the traditional juice press as electric juicers (e.g. for carrot juice). However, all in all, yes, it is safe to eat street food in Turkey, and particularly in Istanbul.
Where to Find the Best Street Food in Istanbul?
In Turkey, life happens on the street which means street food is a very common sight. There are thousands of food stalls competing for your business, so it can be very worthwhile to shop around a bit. If you are short on time, some great food can actually be found relatively close to the main tourist sites. While some are tourist traps, several are popular even among locals. Apart from reading our insider tips below, you can also check out restaurants on zomato.com which is generally very reliable and mostly used by locals.
What to Expect from Street Food in Istanbul?
Street food in Istanbul is very informal. Generally, you sit down outside the establishment and the waiter will bring you a small menu which often consists of less than 10 items. You then place your order and wait for your food to arrive. It often comes with utensils, but most food can be eaten with your hands. That’s why you will often get wet wipes along with your utensils. Alcohol isn’t always served at these places, apart from maybe an Efes beer. It’s easier to stick to either ayran or coke (as it is what most locals seem to order anyway).
When you are done, you ask the waiter for the bill. If you don’t have change, the waiter will bring change back to your table. It is then customary to leave a small tip as you leave (either round up to the nearest round number or about 10%). Please note that most street food places in Istanbul do not have bathrooms.
Traveling with Dietary Restrictions
If you have dietary restrictions, you may find it difficult to explain this in Turkey. Although basic English is widely spoken, such subtleties can easily be lost in translation. It may be a good idea to carry a written Turkish translation of your dietary needs, e.g. ‘no nuts’, ‘no meat’, etc.). Alternatively, you can also fare your luck with Google Translate.
Vegetarian Food in Istanbul
Vegetarians have a wide range of dishes to choose from, starting with meze such as hummus or eggplant dip, to breakfast dishes such as menemen, to mains like cheese pide or cig köfte. Beware of soups or rice dishes which appear vegetarian, but may be made with beef stock. For a good overview of vegetarian dishes in Turkey, check out this article by Never Ending Voyage.
Vegan Food in Istanbul
Vegans may find it difficult to find appropriate dishes to eat in Istanbul, as Turkish cuisine is heavily based on meat and dairy products. Thankfully, many baked goods are prepared with olive oil rather than dairy which makes it easier to navigate Istanbul’s food scene as a vegan. Look out for traditional baklava, dolma (stuffed vegetables such as grape leaves or zucchini), or cig köfte. Most meze are also vegan as is the traditional simit.
20 Best Foods to Eat in Istanbul
Although Istanbul certainly has fabulous restaurants, most traditional Turkish food can be eaten by the side of the road. They are delicious and relatively affordable compared to proper restaurants. But enough with the introductions, let’s have a look at what those great foods in Istanbul are! For your convenience we have highlighted our favoritte food stalls in the map below.
1. Turkish Breakfast
Turkish breakfast in all its Mediterranean glory is the best way to start your day in Istanbul. Granted, this isn’t so much a street food as something you might get at your hotel, but we decided to include it anyway. Turkish breakfast generally consists of white bread, a variety of cheeses, and jams, For a special treat, look out for honey and clotted cream (bal kaymak). Alongside you will find olives, tomatoes, and cucumbers. The full experience includes a cup of strong, Turkish coffee.
2. Menemen (Turkish Scrambled Eggs)
Menemen is another dish commonly eaten for breakfast and may be compared to a soupy plate of scrambled eggs. Traditionally, it consists of eggs, green bell peppers, tomatoes, and a healthy helping of olive oil. It is spiced with ground black pepper and may occasionally also contain chopped onion. To make the dish more hearty, you can also order meat with your menemen. Mihir and I particularly enjoyed Turkish sausage (sucuklu yumurta) and fried meat inside our menemen. The dish is usually served with a generous helping of fresh Turkish bread. All in all, this is a hearty breakfast that could also serve as a light lunch.
For some of the best menemen in Istanbul, head to Lades Menemen just off Istiklal Avenue. A plate of the traditional menemen here costs 8 TL while the meat options range between 14 TL and 16 TL.
3. Cay (Turkish Tea)
If you ask any Turk what is quintessentially Turkish, most will answer ‘cay’. Cay is a strong black tea that is served in small glass cups. Wherever you go in Istanbul, you will see vendors selling tea or shopkeepers drinking tea by the side of the road. It’s a part of Turkish hospitality so you should expect a hot cup of tea when visiting somebody in Turkey. Even if you are not big on black tea, you should try at least one cup. Often, the tea is served with a small sugar cube on the side. Because the cups have no handles, you pick the cup up and hold it by its rim.
Cay is omnipresent and you really shouldn’t have a problem finding yourself a cup. It should cost no more than 1-2 TL. If you sit down in a cafe in the Grand Bazaar you may very well be charged 9 TL for a cup, which is why these places are best avoided.
4. Kahvesi (Turkish Coffee)
Did you know that it was actually the Ottomans who first introduced coffee in Europe? Coffee has been an integral part of Turkish culture for hundreds of years which is why you definitely can’t miss having a cup. For Turkish coffee, the coffee beans are ground very finely before bringing it to a boil in water. Sugar is added during the cooking process rather than after serving. Sometimes you may have the option to order unsweetened (sade kahve), semi-sweet (orta sekerli), or sweet coffee (tatli). Finally, the coffee is served black in a small cup with the coffee grounds remaining in the coffee.
Just like Turkish tea, Turkish coffee is served basically everywhere and a cup should cost you no more than 2 TL.
5. Simit (‘Turkish Bagel’)
Simit is a kind of Turkish bread, baked in the shape of a circle. Most commonly it’s encrusted with sesame seeds, although on occasion you may also come across poppy, flax, or sunflower seeds. In some ways, it’s reminiscent of a bagel. Simit is eaten plain, as a snack on-the-go, or with a cup of tea for breakfast.
You can find simit vendors throughout the city, but you can also check out Simit Sarayi, a Turkish bakery chain with outlets around every corner, including one at Istanbul airport. On the street, a simit costs 1.5 TL, but in the bakeries, it may cost up to 2 TL.
Meze is a set of appetizer dishes that are traditionally served before a meal or alongside it. There’s a large variety of them, but some of the most common ones include pickles, hummus, and ezme. Ezme is a kind of dip made from fresh tomatoes and chilis. Another option is patlican salatasi, a dip made from grilled eggplant. At most restaurants and even street food places, you will usually be served a plate of pickles and ezme as soon as you sit down. These are free of charge and up to you to enjoy. Other meze are ordered from the menu and shouldn’t cost more than 4-7 TL.
7. Lahmacun (‘Turkish Pizza’)
Lahmacun is a type of flatbread which is topped with minced meat, usually beef or lamb, as well as vegetables and herbs. It is often dubbed a ‘Turkish pizza’, although it significantly lighter and can be eaten as a snack rather than a full meal. It’s quite aromatic and really good value for money. A typical lahmacun costs around 8 TL on the street.
Pide actually resembles pizza more so than the lahmacun. It is essentially a flatbread that is folded over at the edges which turns it into a kind of ‘pizza boat’. Pide is traditionally filled with Turkish peynir cheese, a cheese made from goat milk. It melts very easily and will fill your mouth with heavenly goodness. Apart from cheese, pide can come with a variety of toppings. Vegetarian options include a cheese-spinach filling, while other traditional options include spiced lamb, or sujuk (Turkish beef sausage). They are quite filling and if you are going to order a few dishes, one is enough to share with another person.
Some of the best pide are to be had at Hoca Pasa Pidecisi, located within walking distance from Topkapi Palace. Here, a pide costs around 20-25 TL, depending on which filling you choose. Should this place be closed, the restaurant one over also serves decent pide for about the same price.
9. Cag Kebab
Opposed to a doner kebab, cag kebab is a horizontally stacked kebab of lamb. It is prepared and cooked on a rotating spit before the meat is shaved off the pit and served. The meat is usually marinated in Turkish spices which gives it more flavor than a regular kebab. When it is served, it’s often stacked on a smaller skewer, called ‘bico’. It comes with a side of flatbread and tastes fabulous dipped in some ezme.
One of the best cag kebabs can be found at Sehzade Cag Kebap, just a few meters away from Hoca Pasa Pidecisi and within walking distance of most tourist sites. A basic serving of 2 skewers here costs 24 TL, but you can order more skewers at 12 TL per piece.
10. Doner Kebab
Beloved by drunk people all over the world, Istanbul is the perfect place to pick up some authentic doner kebab. A doner kebab consists of a vertical stack of rotating meat off which meat is shaved once it’s crispy around the edges. It is then served in a kind of pita bread with fresh vegetables such as tomatoes and raw onion. The meat can either be chicken or beef. Prices for doner kebab vary drastically from stall to stall, where a chicken doner can cost you between 5-12 TL and a beef doner around 20 TL.
The most iconic doner kebab can be found just off the Grand Bazaar, at Donerci Sahin Usta. This is hands down the best kebab I’ve ever eaten in my life (and I’ve had… a lot). It is very pricey at 26 TL a piece, but definitely worth it. Alternatively, you can pick up a doner kebab pretty much anywhere in the city.
11. Icli Kofte
Icli kofte literally means ‘stuffed meatballs’ and consists of a bulgur shell stuffed with minced meat, spices, onions, and sometimes nuts. The meat used for the stuffing is usually beef or lamb. They are incredibly filling, so don’t make the same mistake as us and order 16 of them (no matter how hungry you are).
The best place to taste icli kofte is without a doubt Sabirtasi. Sabirtasi is probably one of the most iconic restaurants in Istanbul, selling icli kofte since 1987. The restaurant is located on Istiklal Street and can be a little bit difficult to spot. If you’re not up for a sit-down meal, look out for their little kofte stall in front of the restaurant. On the street, a single meatball costs 6 TL, and if you sit down in the restaurant, it’s approximately 7 TL per piece.
To be honest, I wasn’t very keen on trying kokorec, but Mihir was very insistent that we do. Kokorec is a dish mostly popular with locals and is a kind of kebab made of offal, such as sweetbreads, hearts, lungs, or kidneys. These are stuffed into intestines with plenty of spices and then slowly grilled. When it’s ready to be served, the meat is shaved off and chopped up very finely. It is often seasoned with chili flakes and served with a fresh piece of pita bread.
After all, I must say that it tasted much better than it sounded.
We found some of the best kokorec at Kral Kokorec, although there are a few more vendors in the same area. A kokorec sandwich costs about 12 TL while a plate of it is a little pricey at 30 TL.
13. Midye Dolma
Midye dolma was definitely my favorite snack in Istanbul Basically, midye dolma means ‘stuffed mussels’. Mind you, I’m not usually big on mussels, but these smelled so delicious, I simply had to try them. The mussels are stuffed with aromatic spiced rice, pine nuts, and currants and served with a lemon wedge on the side. You then sprinkle the lemon juice on top before eating the mussels.
We had our midye dolma from a random street vendor we found just off Istiklal Street, but you can find them pretty much anywhere. When in doubt, just go by smell and you’ll find one! A plate of 10 mussels cost us only 10 TL which is an incredible value for money.
14. Balik Ekmek
If you follow Rick Steves as religiously as us, you may have heard of balik ekmek, a Turkish fish sandwich. It consists of a big chunk of white bread, filled with a fillet of fried fish and vegetables such as lettuce and raw onion. Mackerel is the fish most commonly used in this Turkish street food.
You can find a slew of restaurants selling Balik ekmek at and around Galata Bridge. Grab this snack for only 12 TL before going on a cruise around the Bosphorus!
Chances are, you’ve had baklava once in your life before. But have you had it in Istanbul?! Baklava is a sweet dish consisting of filo pastry stuffed with nuts and dried fruits. The pastry is held together by either syrup or honey, which makes it a bit of a sticky affair. Baklava comes in dozens of varieties, and you should make sure to try at least one or two of them.
Although baklava can be found in any bakery and many neighborhood stores or even supermarkets, you should head to Hafiz Mustafa. Dating back to 1864, they sell some of the best baklavas in all of Turkey. Thankfully, they have outlets all over the city. You can buy your baklava by the kilo to-go, or sit down with a cup of cay. The price of baklava varies depending on its kind, but expect about 112 TL per kilo. PS: The chocolate-pistachio variety at Hafiz Mustafa is amazing!
Ayran is probably not something you’ll have on its own, but rather something you should have along with any of the savory dishes on our list. It is a kind of lightly salted yogurt drink and perhaps reminiscent of a non-sweet lassi. A glass usually costs around 3 TL.
17. Juice: Fresh and Pickled
One thing you can’t simply escape in Istanbul is the juice vendors. Honestly, they are everywhere. Walk around a little and find a vendor where the fruit presses look reasonably clean and which doesn’t smell too much of fermented fruit. Enjoy a cup of freshly squeezed orange juice and carry on with your sightseeing. A small cup is no more than 7 TL.
If you are up with something a little less conventional, why not try some pickle juice? Sometimes you can get it from pickle vendors for 1 TL or so. Be prepared, it is very salty and really packs a punch. Another option is to pick up a bottle of salgam suyu, commonly known as ‘turnip water’. It’s purple in color, kind of spicy, kind of sour, and kind of weird. But definitely worth a try!
18. Chestnuts & Corn
All around the main tourist sites, you will find vendors selling roasted chestnuts and grilled corn. I was so happy to try roasted chestnuts as they are a staple in Austrian autumn cuisine, but I was a bit let down. Beware that around the tourist sites, the chestnuts aren’t roasted particularly well so that they may be almost raw when you get them. Better to stray a little further and pick up some farther away. If you absolutely need a snack after marveling at the Blue Mosque, go with a nice cob of grilled corn!
19. Turkish Beer & Wine
Although alcohol isn’t very widely available at street food stalls, I still wanted to include Turkish beer and wine on this list. Sometimes you may get the chance to try Turkish Efes beer or, less commonly, a glass of Turkish red wine.
20. Dondurma (Turkish Ice Cream)
Possibly the most iconic item on this list, Turkish ice cream stands out less for its flavor than for its entertainment value. Sticky and almost ‘elastic’, this ice cream is perfect for fooling unsuspecting customers. The ice cream cone will be placed in your hand and swiftly taken away again, so many times that your head will spin. At least you’ll be rewarded with a sweet treat afterward 😉
Turkish ice cream can be a little bit pricey and if you’re not careful you’ll be roped into paying even more. Make sure to insist on a single flavor as opposed to agreeing to a ‘mix’ which will quickly triple the price. A scoop shouldn’t cost more than 3-5 TL, but it may certainly be more around the main tourist sights.
Now, what do you think? Which is your favorite street food in Istanbul? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below!