My Top 15 Must-Eats in Istanbul | Lady & her Sweet Escapes

Mar 22, 2016

My Top 15 Must-Eats in Istanbul

Turkish food is diverse and divine. Every meal that we had in Turkey was distinct, balance, and delicious. My foodie heart happily succumbed to it from the very first day until the last! During our last four days in Istanbul, we explored, ate, and looooved Turkish food like crazy! We dived into the unfamiliar, searched for the "bests", and ate like there's no tomorrow.

Without further ado, here are 15 Turkish treats that, I have to say, you ought to try when you're in Istanbul:

where and what to eat in Istanbul

1. Simit (in the airport, in the hotel, in the street)

I have loved simit before even I tasted it. I drooled over the photos of sesame-crusted Turkish pretzel for years! When I had it for the first time in Cappadocia, I realized that all the dreaming and drooling didn't go to nothing. Simit is crisp, chewy and savory. The kind of food I could have for breakfast or for snack everyday.

Minutes after our arrival, I had a special simit in Simit Sayari at Sabiha Gokcen Airport. After a long bus ride and several train interchange, I bought a classic one from the famous red trolley along the street. Then, I had a bite-size piece for breakfast in the hotel the next day. All three simits from three different places are equally the same to me, but I have to say, if you only have one chance to eat simit, grab it from the streets just like what you see in your fave Istanbul travel documentary! :)

simit red cart Istanbul
Simit: 1 TL - 1.50 TL each in red street trolleys in Sultanahmet District and Taksim Square

2. Kunefe / 3. Turkish Delights at Hafiz Mustafa 1864

Hafiz Mustafa 1864 is a popular Turkish sweets shop I always stumble across whenever I search for "best baklava", "best lokum" and "best kunefe" in Istanbul. I was planning to visit the flagship store in Sirkeci, but unexpectedly passed by the branch near Sultanahmet train station on our first night. The familiar logo in the cake display made me so giddy that I urged my husband to follow me inside. Ahhh! Hafiz Mustafa is a sweet tooth's heaven!

The cafe was crowded, but luckily we found a table for two. The kunefe that I ordered the moment we were seated was served in a classic aluminum pan on top of a very regal Hafiz Mustafa 1864 wooden plate. The Turkish cheese pastry has layers of mouth-watering goodness which starts from the nutty flavor of ground pistachio, to the golden and crisp kadayif, down to the gooey cheese soaked in sweet syrup!

Hafiz Mustafa kunefe
Hafiz Mustafa kunefe: 12.5 TL

On our last day in Istanbul, Ed and I went back to Hafiz Mustafa to purchase boxes of Turkish Delights for our friends and for ourselves to indulge. From the dazzling array of lokum, our favorite is the one with hazelnuts! It is firm but not tough, sweet but not sugary sweet. It is so addictive.

Hafiz Mustafa Turkish Delights: special variety with nuts ranges from 60 TL to 80 TL per kilo

4. Kofte at Tarihi Sultanahmet Koftecesi

Tarihi Sultanahmet Koftecesi, a humble restaurant along the main street of the Old City, serves the best izgara kofte (grilled Turkish meatballs) in Istanbul. Ed and I went there for lunch during our Old City DIY walking tour. True enough, the kofte are selling like hotcakes! It looks simple (doesn't really look appealing to me), but with a mildly spiced aroma that tells me it's something special. The taste? Meaty. Savory. Juicy. No wonder why it is well-loved by the locals and famous personalities since 1920!

Tip: It's easy to get confused when searching for this restaurant as there are copycats with almost the same name. The real deal is along Divanyulo Caddesi 12A. Carefully look for the name: Tarihi Sultanahmet Koftecesi Selim Usta since 1920.      

Sultanahmet Koftecesi
Izgara Kofte: 17 TL / portion (six meatballs) 

5. Turk Kahvesi

Turkish Coffee is pure perfection. It is so good that it puts my favorite blend to shame! It is served in a small cup, but gives me exactly what I wanted... a strong wake up punch to my senses and a warm comforting hug to my shivering body!

I had it a couple of times in Istanbul. The most special was in Old City. It's not about the cafe, but rather it's the presence of the Blue Mosque over the horizon! There, I ticked off #12 in my 20 before 2020 list!

Turkish Coffee near Blue Mosque
Turk Kahvesi with one tiny lokum: 7 TL

6. Balik Ekmek / 7. Pickle Juice in Eminonu Fish Boat

Our food budget in Istanbul went a long way as there are so many cheap yet seriously good street food... like Balik Ekmek or Fish Sandwich. One evening, we went to Eminonu to have a tasteful yet inexpensive dinner along the Golden Horn! We order Balik Ekmek, fresh-off-the-grill, from a fish boat next to Galata Bridge. We love it! The chewy bread was oozing with flavors from the warm fish fillet, onion, green salad, and lemon juice!

Fish Sandwich is best paired with Pickle Juice. The drink looks weird and tastes weird at first. But in my next few gulps, I began to love the rich pickle flavor that washes out Balik Ekmek's fishy aftertaste.

balik ekmek and pickle juice
cheap eats - Balik Ekmek: 8 TL and Pickle Juice: 2 TL 

8. Lokma 

Right next to the Balik Ekmek boats, we found a street stall selling freshly-made Lokma which looks like mini doughnuts. Lokma is a Turkish fried dough covered in honey syrup. I bought a cup with around six pieces of bite-size lokma and shared it with Ed. I have to say, it is so good, it is not made for sharing! So when you buy, better keep it for yourself! Hahah! 

Lokma in Eminonu
Lokma: 3 TL per cup

9. Kesme (traditional Turkish ice cream) in Mado

When it comes to Turkish Ice Cream, Mado is an institution. It is a famous name you can find in almost every district of Istanbul. It is not just an ice cream parlour, but also a restaurant serving a variety of food and drinks. We visited the branch in Sultanahmet, near Hagia Sophia, solely for dessert and ordered the Classical Kesme Ice Cream Platter from the thick menu.

The platter has exquisite slabs of chocolate, plain, and pistachio Kesme or traditional Turkish ice creams, with walnut Baklava on the side. Ed is not into ice cream, but Mado's kesme easily found a place in his heart as it not so sweet, doesn't melt fast, and has a pleasantly smooth texture.

Mado has gone international. I recently found out that there is already a branch in Dubai. Must visit soon!

Mado Classical Kesme Ice Cream
Mado Classical Kesme Ice Cream Platter: 13 TL

10. Midye Dolma at Karakoy Lokantasi

The only time Ed and I splurged for a meal in Istanbul was in Karakoy Lokantasi. Well, not the kind of splurge that leaves a hole in the pocket. It's a fancy dinner that equaled to twenty meals in a fish sandwich boat, but twice lesser than our date night bill in Dubai.

We walked-in without reservation in Karakoy Lokantasi for early dinner. Most tables were empty, but already taken by guests who called ahead. Thankfully, a table for two was available for an hour. Ed and I immediately grabbed it, though it meant we wouldn't have the long intimate dinner that we wanted.

Karakoy Lokantasi looks sophisticated. The Midye Dolma (stuffed mussels) that we ordered as an appetizer smells and tastes sublime! I love seafood and I have been longing to taste this Turkish specialty! Midye Dolma is actually a street food which can be bought at a dirt-cheap price. But as they say, if you have a weak stomach, better have it in a restaurant.

Midye Dolma Karakoy
Midye Dolma: 3 TL per piece in Karakoy Lokantasi

11. Baklava in Karakoy Gulluoglu

Turkish Baklava is synonymous to Karakoy Gulluoglu! This sweets shop sells a wide variety of Baklava since 1947. We intentionally skipped dessert at Karakoy Lokantasi knowing that the famous baklava shop is merely a few steps away. Thinking that per order means per piece, I ordered three kinds and received three plates of Baklava enough for a family of six to consume! Oh no! We only had a slice of each variety and had the rest for take away.

Our favorite at Karakoy Gulluoglu is the best-selling Sultani with layers of whole pistachios and thin pastry drenched in rich saccharine flavor!

Baklava at Karakoy Gulluogllu
Baklava at Karakoy Gulluogllu: 10 TL to 12 TL per portion (plate)

12. Islak Burger in Taksim Square

Islak Burger or Wet Burger is a Turkish street food that I wasn't really keen to try, but curiosity got me one day in Taksim Square! It looks unappetizing and wet literally. The bun is soggy, thoroughly soaked in some kind of sauce. The patty is moist and greasy. Every bite is messy, but honesty tasty and bizarrely indulging! Hahah!  

Islak Burger in Taksim Square
Islak Burger in Taksim Square: 3 TL each

13. Ali Nazik Kebab in Sultanahmet Gulhane Kebab House

Sultanahmet Gulhane Kebab House is just a few blocks away from where we stayed, but it was tricky to find as we don't have GPS and there are many kebab houses in the area. After a couple of wrong turns, we finally found a restaurant with fairy lights and a small Kebab House sign board which can easily be missed.

We went there for one reason - the Ali Nazik Kebab which I have heard so much of in a food review site. It is not the usual kebab. Ali Nazik Kebab is made of hand-chopped beef and lamb meat, specially marinated in olive oil, yogurt and spices. It is served on top of charcoal-roasted aubergine with a mild buttery sauce.

Service was as excellent as the meal. Right after our table was cleared, before I could recheck the menu for desserts, a staff offered us complimentary apple tea and baklava. This kebab house is a hidden restaurant worth searching for!  

Ali Nazik Kebab
Ali Nazik Kebab: 35 TL

14. Hamsi Sandwich under Galata Bridge

I was surprised when Ed said that the hamsi (Black Sea anchovy) sandwich he was having is way better than the balik ekmek that we had from the fish sandwich boat. He offered a portion and I instantly got what he meant. It was Fall when we were in Istanbul - the best time of the year to have Hamsi! The minuscule fishes were seasoned and deep fried, and served in a crusty Turkish baguette. It is a humble, yet full-flavored fish sandwich!
Hamsi Sandwich
Hamsi Sandwich from a restaurant under Galata bridge: 10 TL

15. Turkish Ice Cream

Last but definitely something you should NEVER EVER miss is Dondurma or Turkish ice cream. You can easily find it along the streets as the stall is manned by a Turkish guy dressed in traditional costume.

Dondurma is not your ordinary ice cream from the tub. It is thick and chewy, doesn't melt and drip in your hand. Having it didn't just satisfy my sweet tooth, but also stretched out my facial muscles because of all the laughing and giggling when the ice cream man started to perform entertaining tricks and made me work for my cone! Check out the video below:

Turkish Ice Cream: price ranges from 7 TL to 10 TL

Prices in this blog post are as of November 2015. None of these foodie escapades are sponsored.
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