Hands up who has always been dreaming about travelling to Istanbul? And hands up again who is now hesitant due to disturbances and political unrest? It’s probably one of the most frequently asked question I get: “Is it safe to visit Istanbul at the moment?” That’s the same question my dad kept on asking me since we moved to Istanbul, Turkey 1.5 years ago. Usually he is one of the first guests who hops on a plane to visit me, no matter where I live. In general I don’t like to convince people or talk them into something because it must be their decision only. I can only tell them stories of my life, show them photos and answer all questions truthfully. As for my dad, talking about the delicious Turkish food probably did the trick eventually.
So when he and his wife arrived in Istanbul last week I took them on a private food tour through old Istanbul. I have to admit at that point I’ve already gotten a little tired of Istanbul’s restaurant scene. It was only after a whole day of eating ourselves through Old Istanbul that I realised most of the good eats in Istanbul are hidden gems. Nowhere to be found on the web and sometimes not even on Google Maps. Definitely not located in any fancy or stylish restaurants but in old backyards and dark alleyways. Everything we ate was honest, handmade, traditional Turkish cuisines. In between we visited rough silver and copper workshops, busy shopping streets and stunning mosques.
This quick travel and food guide to old Istanbul is not your usual touristy Istanbul guide. Most of the places can’t be found in any Istanbul guide book. But believe me, if you are looking for authentic traditional Turkish food that locals enjoy and cherish, this list is for you. This travel and food guide to Istanbul is a culinary adventure – from sweet Turkish pastries to fragrant spices as well as old copper workshops, beautiful view points and worker’s lunch spots to Turkish street food.
And now just some technical information about this guide. It’s suitable for vegetarians but I’ve added one kebab shop which got approved by my dad. Vegan options are rare in this part of Istanbul city. But wandering the shopping street, exploring traditional handcrafts and eating a freshly baked simit (Turkish bagel) with a hot glas of Turkish tea in many of the small tea cafes in Istanbul is always a great option to spend the day.
I have also added the Google Maps links to all locations as some of the restaurants and shops are not listed online. This guide is a work in progress and I will add new gems regularly.
A Quick Travel & Food Guide to Old Istanbul
Every morning at 4 am the owner of Kismet Börekcisi bakes homemade börek in the cellar. The shop is open until it’s sold out so come before noon.
In Turkey, it’s not a problem to eat in one place and order from the neighboor shop next door. So have a freshly pressed pomegranate orange juice while waiting for your Börek to be cut and served.
Right next to Kismet Börekcisi
If you think Baklava is just some sweet pastries that doesn’t taste like much except sugar come to Safa Sweet Shop. It’s great for souvenir shopping though baklava is only lasts for a week. One of the highlights at Safa is its Katmer, a thin crispy pancake-like pastry filled with pistacchio and goat cheese, served warm. Heaven!
Traditional Coffee Shop at İhsan Kurukahvecioğlu Ticaret
Close to the Egyptian Bazaar/Spice market there are a few shops that sell delicious coffee beans. If you more feel like drinking one but don’t like to visit any of the chains, stop at this little coffeeshop. It’ located under the staircase of a very old han (literally translated as caravanserai) and order a Turkish coffee.
Soap Shop and Delicatessen at Spice Bazaar
I personally don’t like the Spice Bazaar a lot because you get low quality spices for a high price. Also, it’s very touristy but there are a few shops that sell lovely products (see photos above)
Spice Shop Serce Baharat
Just a stone-throw away from the Spice Bazaar are a few spice shops that do offer aromatic spices like the hidden one called Serce Baharat. Ask for their homemade pomegranate syrup which doesn’t taste very sweet and is perfect for salad dressing.
Rüstempasa Mahkeme Sk. Kücük Cukurhan No:8 Tahtakale – Eminönü/Istanbul
Baking and Kitchen Equipment on Hasircilar Street
The first week after I moved to Istanbul I went to Hasircilar Street to stepping up my baking game. From traditional Turkish pans and pots as well as colorful muffin cups and straws to wooden spoons and handmade knifes, this area is a foodies dream come true. Venture off the main road too.
Golden Handmade Pepper and Salt Grinder at Tarihi Değirmenci Sözen
Strolling through Old Istanbul you find many workshops that produce and create in the back of the shop and sell their products in the front. That way you know it’s not imported from China but actually handmade in Turkey.
Confectionery and Sweet Shop Altan Sekerleme
Yes I know, I also always thought that Turkish delight is one of the nastiest sweets ever. Until I had rose pedal and pistacchio delights at Altan Sekerleme. Now I think Turkish delight is out-of-this-world delicious.
Organic soap at Sabuncu Mustafa
Maybe it’s just me but I love soap and I always take organic soap home from my travels. If you feel as passionate about soap or know someone who appreciates soup made of purely olive oil, then Sebuncu Mustafa is the right shop for you.
Time-honered backyards of Kible Cesme Street
As mentioned in my introduction to this post, I’ve gotten a little tired of Istanbul. Discovering and exploring the rough nostalgic backyards of Old Istanbul has brought back my enthusiasm for this city again. Don’t be shy, Turkish people are generally very friendly and happy to see foreigner (and locals) peeking into their hidden shops.
Traditional Wooden Houses on Ayranci Street
This one is for all architecture lovers or people like me who appreciate a little bit of history. Houses in Istanbul were traditionally build with wood but are now more and more replaced with concrete versions. There are however a few streets in Istanbul that kept the old charm (I personally think wooden houses are more charming than modern concrete ones, right?).
Green Grounds of Suleymaniye Mosque
You might have noticed that I did not include the Blue Mosque or Hagia Sofia or any of the big sights in this guide. That’s because you’ll find these in any guide book. A mosque that’s probably not listed as one of Istanbul’s tourism attractions is the Suleymaniye Mosque. With its peaceful green grounds above the roofs of old Istanbul, it’s a place to sit and pause from all the hustle and bustle that’s happening outside the moque’s walls.
The Turkish term “lokanta” translates as restaurant but it’s much more than that…or better said, it’s actually simpler than that. Lokantas are the favorite lunch spot for the working people and what I think the essence of Turkish food culture. You see business men in their suits and construction workers sitting at one common table. Everything is cooked in the morning and lokantas typically close down when there is no food left anymore. You usually pick 1-2 dishes per person and very often the food is even vegan or vegetarian.
View Point (James Bond’s Skyfall movie location)
A beautiful viewpoint hidden in the very back of an old courtyard.
Silver and Copper Workshops around Buyuk Yeni Han
Venture off the Grand bazaar and get lost in this old han. It used to be an Ottoman inn that accommodated travellers from around the world. Today there are many traditional shops and craftspeople making and repairing Turkish handicraft in tiny dark workshops.
Also look for Soy’s Production Facilities at Çakmakçılar Yokuşu / Sandalyeciler Sok. Köşesi, they sell high quality copper pans and pots. They get mainly orders from chefs around the world but Soy also as a small workshop and shop in Eminönü.
Best Pide at Pak Pide Ve Pizza Salonu
If there is only one place you have time and/or energy to visit in old Istanbul, go for this pide shop. Both owners are pide experts, one is from the Black Sea and the other one from a city in the middle of Turkey. Both regions claim to have the best pide in Turkey but it’s those two who joined forces and make the best pide (Turkish pizza) I’ve ever had.
Kebab Platter at Dürümcü Mustafa
I can’t say much about this kebab shop other than that my dad loved it. And I liked the plating of the kebab platter, with the veggies and spices on the side and the meat and bread in the middle. Also, they have nice outdoor seating which is great for people watching