Here’s what to eat, drink, do, and say in the “Second Rome”
If you’re looking to speak Turkish, start here. If you’re on your way to Turkey with an appetite, we’ve got you covered.
Istanbul has always been billed as a mysterious destination for travelers, a gateway of intrigue where East meets West. This European city, home to the largest bazaar in the world, is crowded with colorful carpets and handmade jewelry and rubs elbows with beautiful mosques and teeming fish markets. Istanbul’s complicated history has created a city vibrant with cultural influences from Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. The former seat of the Byzantine Empire, Istanbul was infamously Constantinople until the fall of the Ottoman Turks in the 1920s.
The same eclectic, rich heritage that shapes the city also crafts Istanbul’s cuisine. You’ll find a mesmerizing blend of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern influences, where nuts, honey, and vibrant spices take center stage. Turkey’s largest city also plays a central role in the Ramadan feast, nicknamed the “sugar feast,” where the three-day national holiday is celebrated with sweets and coffee given to neighbors, friends, and sometimes even strangers in the streets.
What to eat in Istanbul
Istanbul, nicknamed “the second Rome,” is a destination worthy of any foodie bucket list. When in the second Rome, here are a few things you should see, eat, drink, do, and say to get a taste for the flavor of this diverse city.
Turkish delight (lokum): Turkish confectioner Bekir Effendi is credited with inventing this dessert in the 18th century, but authentic Turkish delight is entirely different from the version you may have tried at home. Made with honey or molasses, this candy is often flavored with rosewater or citrus, then cut into squares and dusted with powdered sugar. Stumble into the humble storefront of Altan Şekerleme, nicknamed Candyland, to sample the best Turkish Delight in Istanbul.
Kofte: Various types of kebabs made from all kinds of meat are prevalent throughout the Middle East, where they are often available from street carts. In Istanbul, however, they’re all about kofte. Kofte are usually lamb meatballs, often served on an unleavened flatbread called lava and accompanied by fresh tomato slices and pickles.
What do drink in Istanbul
Turkish Coffee: Turkish coffee, honored with a UNESCO intangible heritage designation, is famous the world over not just for its particular flavor profile, but also for the way it’s served with a pour-over method and a tiny cup called a finca. Turkish coffee is quite strong and sometimes flavored with additional ground spices like cardamom or cinnamon. To get the perfect cup, stop by a coffeehouse near the Spice Bazaar and order it sade (black), orta şekerli (medium), or çok şekerli (very sweet).
Tea (Kay): While Turkish coffee may be renowned, Istanbul locals prefer tea, pronounced kay. It’s often served in a tall glass carafe with kaymak, or clotted cream, on the side. Having tea is a social event that can sometimes take hours, so expect your glass to get frequently refilled. If you’ve had enough tea for the moment, avoid the awkwardness by using the universal sign of putting your spoon on top of the glass to signal you’re done.
Raki: The debate about the national drink in Turkey is a pretty politically charged discussion. Istanbul favors raki, an unsweetened, clear colored, anise-flavored liquor. The government, however, has declared ayran (a nonalcoholic yogurt-based concoction) as the national drink. Istanbul remains loyal to consuming plenty of raki, but you may struggle to figure out which establishments serve it since advertising serving alcohol has been against the law since 2014. You’re likely to find it in one of the many terrace bars that line the banks of the Bosphorus Strait in the Beşiktaş district.
What to do in Istanbul
Sultanahmet stands for “Old City,” and it’s the home of the famous Hagia Sophia, one of the only places of worship in the world to have served as both a church and a mosque for both Pagan, Christian, and Muslim worshippers throughout the centuries. You’ll also find gorgeous sites like Topkapi Palace, a leftover from the Ottoman Empire, alongside other Byzantine beauties that line the streets of the old city.
Ferry across the Bosphorus
Istanbul straddles two seemingly different worlds, so it makes sense that here you can get from East to West in 20 minutes with a ferry across the impossibly blue Bosphorus Strait. It’s also a beautiful way to take in the coast and skyline of Istanbul, especially if your ferry ride is timed to correspond with the sunset.
Ne tavsiye edersiniz?At a loss looking at the menu? Here’s how to ask, “What is your recommendation?” in Turkish.
Where to stay in Istanbul
If Sultanahmet is the old city, Beşiktaş is the heart of modern Istanbul. A municipality just north of the city, Beşiktaş is clustered along the shore of the Bosphorus strait and is known for its trendy boutiques, nightlife, and bustling restaurant scene. Once surrounded by a forest, it’s now the home of Turkey’s celebrated football team and plenty of opportunities to eat your way through entire neighborhoods of trendy bistros.
Talk of the town
The Spice Bazaar
You’ve heard all about the Grand Bazaar, known as the world’s largest emporium or market, but that’s not where the locals shop. Head to the Spice Bazaar instead, a foodie paradise with surprises around every corner. In addition to barrels full of spices, tea, coffee, and herbs, it’s also a destination for Turkish delight, nuts, and even caviar. Be sure to pick up a blend of “Ottoman spices,” a concoction made by locals used for soups, spices, and even kofte. Be prepared that many stalls offer complimentary tea and you are expected to sample it, but don’t feel obligated to buy. It’s just a taste of Turkish hospitality.
Foodie like a local
The best bakery for baklava
When you think Turkey, you probably think baklava. And you’re not wrong. Regarded as one of the best bakeries in Istanbul, Karaköy Güllüoğlu is world famous for their baklava with stores around the city. However, not all bakeries are created equal or run by the same family. You should stick with buying baklava in the Güllüoğlu store in Gaziantep or Karaköy, because they’re the ones that still follow the traditional family recipe from 1871.
En lezettli baklavayı nerede bulabilirim?This is how to ask, “Excuse me, where could I find the best Baklava?” in Turkish.
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