Culinary adventures in Istanbul

Culinary adventures in Istanbul

Looking to explore Turkish cuisine beyond the döner kebab and Turkish delight? Turkish cuisine is among some of the most diverse in the world. Traditional staples like meat (lamb in particular), cheeses and yoghurt have provided the foundation for Turkish cuisine since the Turkish migration from Central Asia centuries ago. When Istanbul became a Silk Road junction where the food and dishes of the East and West intersected, these foods became infused with spices and other ingredients.

Today, Turkey’s vibrant food culture continues to boast a rich variety of tastes, marked by reliance on the freshest ingredients and the quality of oils. With nearly a restaurant at every turn, you’ll definitely be spoiled for choice. Prepare for your taste buds to be tantalised.


Unsure of where to start? Everyone should visit the Asmali Mescit district. Complete with nice eateries, small bars and good music, this district has a very relaxed and cosmopolitan atmosphere. To get there from the conference venue, walk to the end of Istiklal Caddesi in the direction of Tünel Square. Should you choose to stay on Istiklal Caddesi, continue down toward the Gatala tower and go to Kiva. They serve some of the best yaprak sarma (stuffed grape leaves) in the world. Ask for the assorted platter and yoghurt to go with it.

Stay close to the conference venue by turning right after the Marmara Hotel towards the Cihangir district, a great neighbourhood filled with curiosity shops and small wine bars.

If you have time to cross the Bosphorus from the European side to the Asian side – a must, as this ferry-crossing is an essential part of the Istanbul experience – spend some time wandering through the Kadiköy district. Nestled in the local fish market is a restaurant called Çiya, offering sofra (home cooking) fused with the tastes of south-eastern Turkey. Try the meat with sour cherries, zucchini flowers stuffed with mincemeat or one of their aubergine dishes.


Surrounded by the sea on three sides, Turkey has an abundance of dishes made with some of the freshest fish you’ll ever have. Fish (balik) lovers should go to the Kuruçesme-Arnavutköy-Bebek strip right on the seashore of the Bosphorus Strait to find restaurants. Other suggestions include Arnavutköy Balikçisi, Mavi Balik and Kuruçesme Balik. Consider trying one of Istanbul’s delicacies: ‘Fish in salt’, a slow-baked sea bass encrusted in a salt mould that is ritually broken open when served, or Bluefish, a small bass so extraordinary that it inspired poetry during the Ottoman empire.


Fish houses are where you’ll also be able to enjoy perhaps one of the best things about Turkish cuisine: mezes, or appetizers. Choose from a never-ending selection of mouth-watering mezes, brought to your table on a large tray, each little plate showcasing a variety of colour and flavour. Be sure to separately order some of the ara sicak, warm appetizers that come between mezes and the main meal. What comes as a starter can easily turn into a memorable feast all on its own, as ordering the ara sicak often leads to an evening in which the main meal is passed over in favour of savouring mezes and ara sicak while enjoying drinks and good conversation.


Istanbul has a wide variety of local drinks that you should be sure to try. Especially delicious when served with meze is Turkey’s national drink, raki. An aniseed-flavoured liquor made from the razaki grape, raki is also known as “lion’s milk” because it assumes a milky colour when diluted with water. Enjoyed in homes, restaurants and bars throughout the country, it is typically served with kavun (melons) and beyaz peynir (white cheese), and is something you definitely do not want to miss. Toast your tablemates by saying “Serefe” (sheh-rehf-ee), meaning ‘in your honour’ or ‘cheers’.

Additionally, Turkey takes pride in its growing wine industry. Bogazkere, Öküzgözü and Kalecikkarasi are just a few grape varieties worth mentioning that produce excellent vintages and should be on your list of things to try. If you have the time, visit one of the vineyards in western Anatolia.

The most common beverage in Turkey though is of course tea or çay. It’s consumed all throughout the day and is often offered in shops and bazaars in beautiful, tulip-shaped glasses. Another favourite, ayran, is a salty, yoghurt-flavoured drink that is healthy and refreshing.


Finish off your daily eating adventure with something sweet. You won’t have to look very far though because there’s a pastane, or sweet-shop on nearly every corner with endless amounts of baklava, pastries, milk-based treats and sweetened nuts and spreads. Try kazan dibi, or ‘bottom of the pot’, a rich custard-like dessert with a burned crust. Of course, everything goes well with a cup of tea or Turkish coffee – just remember not to drink the grounds at the bottom of the cup!

Given the vast quantities of amazing dishes that are available, we’ve barely scratched the surface. Do you have any other tips for enjoying delicious, authentic Turkish food in Istanbul? Please share them!
As you say in Turkish, ‘Afiyet olsun’ or ‘Bon appetit’.

This blog post was created with assistance from Anjariitta Rantanen and the Istanbul Convention and Visitors Bureau.