On this Istanbul Old City food tour we discovered hidden gems, small restaurants and food carts, a stones throw away from the main tourist areas.
I love taking a food tour on my first full day in any city as it allows me to learn about the history of the area visited as well as becoming acquainted with the eateries loved by locals. This Istanbul Old City street food tour was the first that I went on with my brother and Simone, during a family trip to Istanbul. Neither had ever been on a food tour and I wanted them to experience the amazing food as well as the often overlooked areas of the Old City.
I had been on the Backstreets of the Bazaar Quarter and the Born on the Bosphorus food tours as well as the Shop, Cook, Feast cooking class with Cookistan on my previous solo trip to Istanbul. The two remaining available and alcohol free tours were the Culinary Secrets of the Old City and Hidden Beyoğlu tours, with one in the Old City and the other in Cihangir and the streets behind Istiklal Street in Beyoğlu.
Since we would be staying in both areas during the trip it seemed like a good idea to know where to find the best foods in those areas.
I booked and paid for the Culinary Secrets of the Old City Istanbul food tour on the Culinary Backstreets website. The tour lasts for approximately 5-5.5 hours and cost US$ 125 per person at the time of booking. I received a 10 percent “Welcome Back! Discount” since I had booked food tours with them previously.
The meeting place for the Culinary Secrets of the Old City food tour was in front of the Hamdi restaurant in the trading area adjacent to the Spice Bazaar. We were staying in Sirkeci at the Doubletree by Hilton and took the tram from Gülhane Park to Eminönü.
This Istanbul walking tour would be covering an area between the Spice Bazaar and a Kurdish neighborhood near the Valens aqueduct. It was slightly overcast but pleasantly warm for September and we looked forward to seeing the Old City from a new perspective.
To get an idea of the area or to check rates and availability for accommodation in the Old City, you may use the map below.
Our friendly tour leader Gonça, was also a knowledgeable and engaging Istanbul food guide and promised to share the culinary secrets of the Old City. She showed us the best non-touristy places to eat and shop at on our walk. These were all places that sold authentic products that Istanbulites came from all across the city to buy.
We started by visiting a Simit and Açma cart near the entrance to the underpass for the Eminönü tram station. The same man has operated the cart for more than thirty years and he had a quiet dignity about him.
After buying simit from him we proceeded to the market stalls in the lanes around the Spice Bazaar. Gonça pointed out a few of the stores where tour participants could purchase Turkish coffee beans and coffee equipment later. She also gave us some pointers about what to look for when buying the Turkish coffee pot called cezve.
Turkish breakfast at the Tea shop
We stopped at a deli cart in front of the Han where we were having breakfast and Gonça picked up a few items for the breakfast. In addition to simit, the breakfast included kaymak (Turkish buffalo milk clotted cream), honey, olives, cheese, pastrami, chili paste and a salad made from greens from her garden. The kaymak from the cart was creamy and a delight with lashings of honey and hunks of simit. There were also copious amounts of tea throughout the meal and it was finished with Turkish coffee.
I watched my brother put some kaymak and honey on a piece of simit and then for the next bite he also added a dash of the chili paste. I had done exactly the same thing on my first tour two years previously, and the walk leader on that tour nearly had an apoplectic fit. Apparently I was ruining the perfect combination of kaymak and honey, but for me it was actually enhanced by the savoriness of the chili paste.
We walked through the Traders Hans passing shops and stalls selling fragrant spices, dried fruits and nuts as well as textiles. I could not help but capture the gloriously vibrant colors of the dried summer vegetables and the fresh ripe figs.
Lezzet i Sark – Rüstem Paşa Mahallesi, Hasırcılar Cd. No:38, 34116 Fatih
Our next stop was at a corner cafe that was renowned for Ezo Gelin Çorba a warming lentil and bulgur soup from Gaziantep. Gaziantep is an Anatolian city fondly referred to by locals as the food capital of the world. The cuisine is varied and the main driving force behind their local economy.
Although it sounds strange to eat soup early in the morning it was quite welcome and also nourishing and delicious.
Osmanlı Kebapçısı – Rüstem Paşa Mahallesi, 34116 Fatih/Istanbul, Turkey
After the soup we walked through the Hans and the backstreets to reach a kebab house where the speciality was Cağ kebabı, horizontally spit roasted meat that is thinly sliced and served with herbs wrap style in an almost translucent flatbread.
The lamb was perfectly cooked and seasoned and every mouthful was a delight under the ancient tree.
Osmanli Balikcisi – Rüstem Paşa Mahallesi, Uzun Çarşı No:232, 34116 Fatih
The next stop is renowned for their fish and seafood and we had the house speciality, fried anchovies with pickled chili peppers and salad leaves. We also had a taste of Turkish kibbeh, their take on the popular Levantine dish of minced meat stuffed inside a shell of finely ground bulgur wheat. I quite enjoyed the flavor of the kibbeh which was a bit more tomatoey and spicy than the Levantine original.
Mavi Haliç Pide Salonu – Sarıdemir Mahallesi, Kutucular Cd. No:28, 34134 Fatih
We walked further along the backstreets to reach a pide shop that we returned to later that week on our final shopping trip. The verdict was unanimous: great service and the best pide we had tasted thus far. We washed down the egg and meat pide with a tall glass of cold ayran.
The pide was so good that we went back there a few days later on our final shopping trip.
Altan Şekerleme – Demirtaş Mh.kıble Çeşme Cad./no.68 Kantarcılar, 34134 Fatih
Our next stop was a bit of walk from the pide shop and located past the area where they sold safes. Altan Confectionery is a family sweet shop that has been trading since 1865, selling traditional Turkish hard sweets and lokum (Turkish Delight). The owner Mustafa recommended his favorites and let us taste a variety. The lokum was fragrant and freshly made, chewy and not overly sweet, and we ended up purchasing a few types to snack on during the rest of our trip.
Bereket Döner – Rüstem Paşa Mahallesi, Mahkeme Sk. No:240, 34116 Fatih
On the way to our next stop we dropped by a Han where the older gents were taking tea and watching younger metalsmiths at work. The doner was cheap, flavorful but not too filling.
Vefa Bozacisi –
On the walk to the next stop our tour leader warned us that the drink we were going to taste was much beloved by Turks but an acquired taste for many. The beverage called Boza, is made of millet semolina fermented with water and sugar. The light beige color liquid is specific to this brand of Boza and results from their specific technique. This shop is still owned by the same family whose ancestor founded the business in 1870 after immigrating from Albania.
I must confess that it will take a while for me to acquire a taste for boza. The mouth feel was viscous and thick and I found it difficult to sip or savor. After the first taste I gulped it down, trying to not let it touch my taste buds and then cleansed my palate with a homemade lemonade.
We had quite a walk to the final stop and stopped by the Süleymaniye mosque on the way. It was after the time for the congregational prayer time so we had it all to ourselves.
Siirt Şeref Büryan Kebap Salonu – Zeyrek Mh., İtfaiye Cd. No:4, 34083 Fatih
This restaurant is located in the Kurdish precinct next to the Valens Aqueduct. It is another Istanbul business that has been operational for more than a hundred years. The first branch was established in 1892 and it has now expanded to four branches.
They specialize in traditional food from the area of Siirt, in the Kurdish region of Southeastern Turkey.
Our lunch consisted of roasted lamb with salad and dessert and because it is so sought after had to be ordered two days in advance. This lamb is the speciality of the house and is cooked underground in a special copper cooker.
We were so full by the end of the tour that we decided to walk down to the Aksaray tram station and get back to the hotel from there.
This food walk made me realize how important it is to keep small family owned businesses operating. They are the keepers of the traditions and preservers of the food culture and have been perfecting their trade for generations. We tasted well known Turkish favorites like simit, pide and doner as well as lesser known specialities like the Cağ kebabı, boza and the underground roasted lamb. We loved this tour and were excited about the next one.
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