Whenever Dave and I travel, our days revolve around where we are going to eat. Immediately after finishing breakfast, we discuss where to have lunch. After lunch, we set our sights on dinner. When it comes to travel, our stomachs lead the way.

Eating out in an exotic city such as Istanbul, in Turkey, can be confusing. But if you have an idea of what foods to eat before you go, your trip can be an exciting dining experience, offering a variety of flavors for you to sample. We’re here to help you figure out what foods to order when you visit Istanbul for the first time.

Small Dishes

On many menus you will notice an array of small dishes known as mezze (sometimes it’s spelled, meze). Typically, these are appetizers to be eaten slowly while enjoying the company of those around you. You can order an assortment of items to share. Start with a few dips and sauces to eat with pita bread, such as hummus, and cacik, (a yogurt based sauce mixed with cucumber and mint similar to tzatziki). Enjoy a savory tabbouleh salad made of parsley and herbs, and be sure to sample hot dishes such as fried calamari, grilled goat cheese, or börek, which is fried filo pastry filled with feta cheese and spinach. Another great choice is sarma; this dish of grape leaves stuffed with rice, tomato, parsley, mint and paprika is like tasting a little bit of heaven.


You already might have heard of Turkish Delight, and this delicious dessert can be found in specialty shops all around Istanbul. The sweet treat has a hard, gel-like consistency and is mixed with everything from pistachios to mint. Sometimes it even can be infused with flavors such as rosewater and lemon. Go into a shop and pick out an array of these squares to sample and let the sweetness melt in your mouth. Another one of our favorite treats in Istanbul was rich yogurt smothered in honey. We took a boat over to the Asian side of the city and stopped at Kanlica, which is famous for this thick yogurt. Here, be sure to be generous when adding the honey and icing sugar (it’s like powdered sugar), both of which are served on the side. Yogurt is a staple for most meals in Istanbul. It is often the base of many sauces and a dollop is added to many meat and vegetable dishes. But our favorite way to eat this was all by itself.

Viewfinder Tip: Look for restaurants that are filled with locals instead of tourists. You can be sure that the food will be fresh and authentic.


When in doubt, a kebab is a good choice for a main dish in Istanbul. The word, “kebab,” describes a dish with pieces of meat, fish, or vegetables roasted or grilled on a skewer or spit. Lamb is the most popular choice. You also can order a doner kebab, which features meat that is sliced off a vertical rotisserie and wrapped in flatbread, kind of like a sandwich.


Pizza is popular in Istanbul, and local versions all have a Middle East flair. Lahmacun is a thin crust flatbread topped with minced meat and vegetables mixed with herbs and spices. If you like it hot, sprinkle some chili flakes on top just as the locals do. Pide is another pizza-like dish in which fluffy dough is folded over in the shape of a boat, stuffed with meats and cheese, and topped with melted butter. Doesn’t that sound heavenly?


Finally, when going to Istanbul, be prepared to drink a lot of tea, as people will offer it to you everywhere. Most of the time, tea is served in tulip-shaped glasses instead of mugs. People will offer it to you in the market, at shops, and whenever you enter a private house. Another popular choice is Turkish coffee. This strong coffee is served in small espresso-type cups, and drinking it surely will give you quite a jolt. Make sure you stop short of drinking before you reach the bottom of the cup or else you’ll get a mouthful of grounds.

There are many different types of food and drink in Istanbul. Once you have the basics covered, make sure to branch out and try new stuff. This list is just the beginning.

What’s your favorite Middle East cuisine?