Ali’s Guide To Istanbul
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All of my best travel tips for where to eat, stay and visit in Istanbul, Turkey.
Is Istanbul on your travel bucket list yet? If not — ohhh friends — it needs to be. ♡
We booked our trip there this past fall on a whim, thanks to some crazy-cheap plane tickets that we happened to spot online. But while Istanbul had always been on our “someday” travel bucket list, neither Barclay or I admittedly knew all that much about the city or its culture or its food beforehand. We happen to have some good friends here in Barcelona who are from Istanbul, though, who loaded us up with lots of great recommendations for places to see and things to do before we set off. We also thankfully made the decision to pre-book more tours than usual, especially since we didn’t speak the language and knew so little about Istanbul’s history. (Also because Barclay and I couldn’t agree on which food tour to pick — whiiiich meant that we ended up booking two, which ended up being one of the most delicious decisions of our lives.)
And wow, you guys, this city literally blew us away at every level.
We loved Istanbul! ♡♡♡
History-wise, the city was endlessly fascinating, with so much to study and so many great places to see. Accessibility-wise, the neighborhoods that we wanted to visit all ended up being super-walkable and easy to navigate with trams and ferries, and we loved the cute, centrally-located little neighborhood (Karaköy) where we stayed. Relaxation-wise, we splurged on a bucket list fancy hammam during our last morning there, and loved every single minute of the experience. And food-wise, ohhhhh my goodness, it’s no exaggeration to say that our five days in Istanbul were some of the most delicious days of my life. Thanks to the two food tours and to Istanbul’s meze (small plates) style of eating, we got to sample a record number of local dishes on this trip. And I was in Turkish food heaven.
Anyway, tons of you messaged on Instagram asking for our trip recs and for my thoughts on traveling to the city. And I would just say — if Istanbul also happens to be on your travel bucket list, bump it up to the top and make your way there as soon as you can. The city seems to be poised in that sweet spot right now where tourism is quickly developing, but it hasn’t yet reached that saturation point where everything is overdeveloped and overpriced and overrun with visitors. So this felt like a really special window of time to be there and see the city. And if you are looking for some great recommendations, here are all of my faves for:
Where To Eat In Istanbul:
As I mentioned above, we went on — not our usual one, but — two food tours during our time in Istanbul. And while I worried that might be a bit excessive, double-food-touring actually ended up being one of the best decisions of our trip! Each food tour provided an awesome overview of different neighborhoods around Istanbul, and introduced us to a record-number of new-to-us Turkish foods. (Both food tours were notably longer and included more dishes than others we have taken over the years, so come extra-hungry if you decide to book one!)
Some other things not to miss in Istanbul — alllll the meze (try as many small plates as you can!), Turkish breakfast (which is served with approximately 1 million delicious things to try, we esp loved this one), menemen (my favorite breakfast egg dish that I ordered nearly every day), Turkish coffee (fun to order from a street vendor so that you can see how it’s made), a visit to Ciya (which was featured on Chef’s Table and is surprisingly affordable, just go before peak times to get a table), a magical grilled mackerel wrap (see below, some of the best street food of my life), Turkish delight (the higher-quality kind is made with honey, and was much less sweet and more pleasant than I expected), Turkish baklava (also makes for a great souvenir, we filled a to-go box here), and if you want to drink like the locals, an evening with rake (the traditional anis-flavored liqueur).
Big thanks to our two tour guides, Esin and Latif, as well as our friends Ece, Serkan and Herman for all of the other great restaurant recommendations listed below. They didn’t steer us wrong!
Brew Coffeeworks: Barclay loved frequenting the Turkish coffee food carts around the city each day. But while I gave one a try the first day, the dark roast coffee and brewing method admittedly wasn’t really my style. So I ended up popping by this cute spot in our neighborhood for a (very affordable) pour-over each morning, and really loved it. Awesome coffee, cute shop, and really friendly baristas.
Ciya: This restaurant was at the top of our list of places to visit, after having watched an episode featuring it on Chef’s Table. But as it turns out, our food tour during our very first day in Istanbul actually included Ciya as a stop, and gave us the chance to sample at least a dozen or so of their dishes with our group. And it we absolutely loved it. Whether you go on the tour or on your own, this no-frills, homestyle, cozy spot is a must. The food is delicious, and I have so much respect for the chef, Musa Dağdeviren, whose heart for traditional Turkish cuisine comes through so clearly in his food. Loved this spot.
- I lost track and forgot to write down all of the dishes, but I do remember that we tried asude, keskek, patlican dolma, lahmacun, humus, kisir tabbouli, zahter (thyme salad), sarma, puff lavash bread, and a sumac drink.
- Website | TripAdvisor | Google Maps
Culinary Backstreets “Hidden Beyoğlu” Food Tour: Our second food tour of the trip was led by Esin, our charming and incredibly knowledgable guide who had been born and raised in Istanbul and took great pride in showing us around her city. We booked this tour because we were really interested in a deep dive into the neighborhood of Beyoğlu, which proved fascinating and also beautiful at sunset. And the food stops were 100% amazing. Highly recommend.
Fish Sandwich Stand: We kept passing by this tiny little fish wrap stand each day while walking by our hotel, and decided to finally stop for one on our last afternoon in Istanbul before heading to the airport. And then pretty much instantly regretted not having ordered one each day — this grilled mackerel wrap was the absolute best!! It was similar to balik ekmek, an iconic street food sandwich sold around the city. But instead of sandwiching the freshly-grilled fish between a baguette, this version was more like a burrito with a wrap that was rubbed with pomegranate molasses, lemon juice and a 25-spice blend, then grilled to crispy perfection. Seriously one of the most delicious foods I’ve had in my life. And also…just $3.
- We ordered one grilled mackerel wrap…but wished we could have ordered a dozen. :D
- The food stand isn’t listed on Google maps, but if you are crossing the Galata Bridge in the direction of Karaköy, take a right immediately after the bridge to the path down along by the water. And the stand is the first or second on your right that you will see (still kind of on the ramp leading down, look for the wraps).
Food Tour with AirBnB Experiences: This was our first food tour in Istanbul — a 6-hour adventure through Istanbul’s city center plus a ferry ride over to explore the Asian side. Highlights included a traditional Turkish breakfast (which was where we first fell in love with the honey, clotted cream and hazelnut butter combo), sampling our way around the Spice Bazaar, a visit to Çiya Sofrasi, traditional Turkish kebaps and pide, pink pickle juice, stuffed mussels, amazing baklava and so much more. It’s a long tour with sooo much food, so come hungry!
Hamdi Restaurant Eminönü: Our Turkish friends said that this traditional restaurant, located right next to the spice market with views overlooking the Bosphorus, is a must for first-time visitors to Istanbul. So we went early one evening in time to catch the sunset, and actually lucked out and got seated on the second floor right by the window, and the views were incredible. I also tried their famous pistachio kebab, which was easily my favorite kebab of the trip.
- We ordered the pistachio kebab (their specialty), lots of meze and lentil soup, plus their signature baklava. All were delicious.
- We would definitely recommend making a reservation there, as the place was absolutely packed by the time we left.
- Be sure to check out the bakery on their ground floor when you enter, where you can see all of the various kinds of baklava that they offer.
- Website | TripAdvisor | Google Maps
Karaköy Güillüoglu: If you love baklava, be sure to swing by this traditional sweets shop at some point during your trip! It’s fun just to browse around and see all of the beautiful types of baklava that they offer. And if you happen to be looking for a trip souvenir, they will box and wrap up whatever selections you choose in cute little tins that travel well. We brought some baklava home to our moms as gifts, and they were total fans.
- We made gift boxes that included about a dozen different kinds of baklava.
- Website | TripAdvisor | Google Maps
Karaköy Gümrük: We actually happened upon this charming little gem near our hotel when looking for a place for dinner one night, and loved our meal there. They offer Turkish cuisine with a modern twist (including some amazing salads), and an impressive selection of local beers, and really great bread with garlicky oil for dipping.
- We ordered a grilled halloumi salad, vegetable soup, hummus and beers.
- Facebook | TripAdvisor | Google Maps
Karaköy Lokantası: Our Turkish friend from Barcelona, Serkan, actually ended up being in Istanbul during our first night there. So he recommended we meet for dinner at this hip, cute spot in Karakoy that was right near our hotel. He ordered a variety of traditional Turkish meze for us to try, as well as a bottle of rake, and it was pretty much the perfect way to begin our time in town. Loved this place.
- We ordered lots and lots of meze (various dips, veggies, salads, dolmas, grilled fish, and more) and enjoyed a round of rake together.
- Facebook | TripAdvisor | Google Maps
Namli Gurme: We couldn’t resist the temptation to sneak in one last Turkish breakfast before our flight, so we headed down the road from our hotel to a place that’s popular with both tourists and locals. If you’re lucky enough to find a table (we nearly didn’t), just set your things down at your table and walk up to the front display cases to select the items you would like to order. Thanks to our food tours, we had a pretty good idea what we were looking for, and it ended up being a perfect last breakfast in Istanbul.
- We ordered a variety of our favorite Turkish breakfast dishes, including grilled olives, veggies, various cheeses, clotted cream and honey, hazelnut butter, menemen, bread and hot tea.
- Website | Facebook | TripAdvisor
Sensus Wine Boutique Galata: A cute little wine bar near the Galata tower, with live music happening most nights. We shared a couple of small plates and sampled some reds from Turkey’s wine producing regions, while listening to the jazz pianist who happened to be playing that evening, and it made for a lovely evening.
Van Kahvalti Evi: Hands-down our favorite Turkish breakfast in Istanbul. (Also, one of the most affordable — the basic breakfast with tea was just $5!) We arrived early in the morning and snagged a seat on the front porch overlooking the street. Then stayed there for hours as an endless stream of small plates, menemen, Turkish coffee and teas just kept on coming. It was such a fun way to start the day — highly recommend!
What To Do In Istanbul:
Ferry to Büyükada: If you are interested in a day trip out of town, there are three islands nearby that are popular destinations — Büyükada, Heybeliada and Burgazada. We chose to take the ferry to Büyükada, which is the closest and largest island, and also the busiest. Cars aren’t allowed on the roads, but the speedy horse-drawn carriages and motorized bikes whizzing by will definitely keep you on your toes! We ate a light lunch, then rented bikes for a few hours and took a long walk by the water, and headed back before sunset. I can’t say that I would 100% recommend this island — we enjoyed the energy of the city much more, and nearly got run over by a carriage half a dozen times — but if you are looking for a break from the city, it’s a nice escape.
Food Tours: As mentioned above, we did two different food tours — one with AirBnB and one with Culinary Backstreets — both of which we would recommend.
Hayasofya Hammam: You probably know by now that I have a total obsession with trying out traditional bath experiences when they are available in countries that we visit, and a Turkish hammam has always been on my list. Many people had recommended the Kilic Ali Pasa Hamam that was located near our hotel, but women and men are allowed in at different times of the day, and Barclay and I only had one specific morning free to book a hammam. So we ended up splurging on the 16th-century Hayasofya Hammam, which was downright dreamy and unlike anything I’ve ever experienced, and ended up being an absolute highlight of the trip. Loved it.
- We splurged on the “Ab-i Hayat” package, which included traditional body scrubbing, a bubble bath massage ritual on warm stone, full body clay mask, aromatherapy massage, face mask, plus a personal fruit platter and Turkish delight. D-r-e-a-m-y.
- At this hammam, women and men are separated in different quarters of the building, but you can book your experiences at the same time.
- Website | TripAdvisor | Google Maps
Walking Tour of Sultanahmet (including the Hagia Sofia, Blue Mosque, Hippodrome and Basilica Cistern): We started our trip with a 3-hr walking tour of some of Istanbul’s most famous sites around the city center. And while I unfortunately can’t recommend the specific tour that we took (it was a bit of a dud), I would highly recommend doing a walking tour early in your trip to get a general overview of the city. You also get to skip the notoriously long lines at the Hagia Sofia, Blue Mosque, Hippodrome and Basilica Cistern when you are with a registered guide.
Where We Stayed In Istanbul:
Unfortunately, I can’t wholeheartedly recommend the specific hotel where we stayed at in Istanbul. (It wasn’t terrible, just underwhelming on multiple levels and definitely did not match their pictures online.) But we did really love the neighborhood where we stayed in Istanbul — Karaköy.
It’s just a 10-minute walk across the bridge from Sultanahmet, which gave us easy access to the city center without having to stay directly in it, and it was also conveniently located near some of the other neighborhoods that were on our list to visit (Galata, Beyoğlu, Taksim, etc). It also had lots of cute little restaurants, good coffee, and an awesome waterfront path that we walked often.
Would highly recommend looking into a place in Karaköy if you decide to visit!
Thanks for a great trip, Istanbul!
Plus an extra big thanks to Serkan, Ece, Herman, Esin, Latif, and everyone else we met during the trip who made our time there extra-special. ♡ If any of you have any additional Istanbul recommendations, please leave them in the comments below. Would love to hear your faves!