Because tasting and learning about foods from around the world is one of my favorite parts of traveling, on my most recent trip to Istanbul, Turkey I knew that I had to sign up for an Istanbul food tour.
However, as a vegetarian, I knew that I had to do my research to find an Istanbul food tour that would offer me vegetarian options and still be a great value. Although Turkey is great for vegetarian food, I know that food tours often like to focus on the more… unusual… elements of local cuisine, which tend to involve strange parts of strange animals cooked in strange ways. Count me out.
An hour or two of scrolling through reviews and websites led me to Istanbul on Food, a culinary tour operator in Istanbul whose FAQ section said that I could contact them for more details. A quick WhatsApp conversation later and I was booked in for their “The Taste of Two Continents” tour which would last more than six hours and span both Europe and Asia. Here’s where we went and what I ate (oh, and what I didn’t eat too!).
Meeting Spot: Brew Coffee Works, Sirkeci
Our tour started at 9:30 at Brew Coffee Works, just a few blocks from the Sirkeci tram station. This is just the meeting point, and you don’t have a coffee stop scheduled here, so arrive at least thirty minutes early if you want to relax with a cappuccino (or come ten minutes early and grab a coffee to go).
I was the only person from my tour who actually arrived on time (I came at 8:45 and savored a latte at one of their tables on the sidewalk) so hey, people who read my blog, it would be awesome if you could just generally be on time. Thanks.
I met my guide, Ayse, and we had a few minutes to chat before everyone else arrived. Ayse spoke perfect English and jumped right in to sharing elements of Turkish culture and local travel tips with me as we waited for the other four people to arrive. In a few minutes we were joined by two Americans and two travelers from France.
First Stop: The Spice Market
The Istanbul Spice Market in Eminonu definitely caters to tourists, as was evident from the fact that things were just getting started as we rolled in right before 10:00 am. Ayse let us know that we would be visiting more authentic, local markets later in the day, but as we zoomed through the different stalls she pointed out several different local ingredients, and stopped so that we could smell the local spices.
While at the market I learned something completely new. Ayse was pointing out the different dried fruits, and mentioned to us that we should always buy dried apricots that look dark brown, like the ones on the right, rather than those that look bright orange. This is a sign that they were grown and dried naturally, without chemicals or preservatives. (Personal note: This also means you need to check the fruit more closely for bugs before you bite in!)
As we walked through the market and along the neighboring streets, Ayse made quick purchases from several local vendors in preparation for our group breakfast.
Second Stop: A Traditional Turkish Breakfast
At our second stop, we gathered around a low table to share a traditional Turkish breakfast using ingredients that Ayse had purchased at the market, along with a hot dish of scrambed eggs cooked in tomato sauce (menemen). There were different kinds of breads, two types of cheese, olives, hazelnut spread and even water buffalo clotted cream soaked in honey. The only dish I didn’t sample was the pastrami (dried and cured beef). We also had Turkish tea and water.
Third Stop: The Soup Stall
Of course, one breakfast is never enough, so we then wandered back into the streets around the market and stopped at a soup shop. The main attraction here was some kind of hangover-relieving soup made from intestines or something, but there was a great vegetarian alternative available: red lentil soup with fresh arugula and lemon.
You may be thinking, “Okay, you’ve already eaten as much food as I would eat in a day!” Yes, it’s totally true that you will consume a lot of food on an Istanbul food tour. However, most travelers will never eat a full portion of anything, as you’re really just nibbling and sharing dishes along the way. Because I was the only vegetarian on my Istanbul food tour I often had a full-sized dish to myself, but I rarely eat the whole thing. And if you were a group of two vegetarian travelers, you’d share the bowl of soup shown above.
Fourth Stop: The Ferry From Eminonu to Kadikoy
After breakfast it was time to leave Europe, so we walked through the fish market towards the ferry terminal and caught a boat over to Kadikoy, in Asia. The Bosphorus Strait divides Istanbul into the European and Asian sides, and we would spend the next four hours or so exploring the trendier neighborhoods of Kadikoy and Moda (including the fish market, where we looked but didn’t stop for long).
Fifth Stop: Iskender Kebab Shop
Our next stop was Kebapci Iskender, a family-run kebap shop right on the waterfront in Kadikoy. The family here believe that they invented the entire idea of roasting a kebab vertically, and over the years they’ve taken out dozens of trademarks to protect their name from imitators (though they can’t do much to protect their invention, apparently). Most of the group chowed down on meat and bread, but I was given a plate of grilled eggplant with tomato sauce and yogurt… and it was delicious. We also sipped on the family’s secret-recipe sherbert (which, in Turkey, is the word for a fruit-based drink).
Sixth Shop: The Pickle Store
I always say, “If it’s vegetarian, I’ll try it.” Even if it sounds unpleasant or weird or just totally crazy, if it’s not meat(y) then I’m willing to try anything once. And that’s how I found myself sipping on a glass of bright-pink pickle juice in a shop in Kadikoy.
The sixth stop on our Istanbul food tour was a traditional pickle shop that sold pickled foods (including eggs, vegetables and even nuts) and pickle juice (or, brine) for drinking in the summer heat. I’ve never been a fan of pickles, but I sucked it up and tried a few different pickled veggies and the pickle juice. Two thumbs down from me, but I didn’t join this tour to eat the same old things I already know I like, right?
(The pickle juice even earned a shout-out in my “Worst of the Month” trip report for August!)
Seventh Stop: Ciya Sofrasi Restaurant
Confession: The photo of my plate from Ciya Sofrasi is from my second visit, a few days after my Istanbul food tour. I returned to this iconic restaurant for lunch after previously visiting in 2010 and on the food tour. However, the plate shown above is almost exactly the same as the plate we shared on the tour.
Post pickle-juice we sat down again for a “proper” meal at Ciya Sofrasi, a restaurant with a long history of serving traditional, village-style Turkish dishes that had once fallen from popularity, but were revived by the enthusiasm of Ciya’s chef (who is now something of a celebrity in his own rite). Ayse loaded up a plate of vegetarian mezze from the self-serve salad bar, and placed an order for hot foods like falafel and beef stew with the kitchen staff. Once again, we shared the many different dishes family-style, scooping up the spreads and dips with brown bread and puffy lavash.
Ciya has a great selection of compote (a drink made from boiling dried fruits with sugar, then straining the mixture and serving it cold) – we had one with berries on our food tour, and I had a glass of sumac compote on my return visit.
Eighth Stop – Street Mussels
This was the only stop on my Istanbul food tour that didn’t have at least something I could try, and that was perfectly understandable as this was a street food stall focusing on Turkish-style mussels. Two guys stood behind a big case of cold mussels that were filled with grains (like rice and bulgur) and different seasonings. Ayse bought two different flavors for our group to try – most of the guys seemed to like them while the girls were a bit put off by the grains inside the shells. Personally, I was still stuffed from lunch at Ciya Sofrasi and was happy to sit this one out.
Ninth Stop – A Kokorecs Restaurant
The vegetarian options at this stop were slim as well, since kokorecs is roasted suckling lamb intestines, which are usually chopped up and served inside, or on top of, bread. Hard pass.
That being said, the little restaurant where everyone else was sampling their kokorecs did serve ayran, a drink made from mixing plain yogurt with water (still or sparkling) and sometimes salt or other seasonings. It’s known for being refreshing and for helping with digestion, and also for the current Turkish president’s attempts to designate it as the country’s national drink, so I had a glass while I waited for the rest of the group to finish their intestines.
Tenth Stop: The Pide Parlor
Italy has its pizza parlors, and Turkey has its pide parlors. Our second sit-down lunch (!) was at a pide shop, where the cooks rolled the dough out thin and flat, then topped it with a multitude of different ingredients. Our group shared two pide: one with meat and cheese, and one with just cheese. Ayse recommended that we put fresh herbs on top then roll up each slice with the herbs inside. Delish!
Eleventh Stop: Baklava Time!
And now, the moment we’d all been waiting for… dessert!
Actually, by this point in the afternoon we were moving with all the vigor of a bear preparing to hibernate for the winter, and the thought of eating any more food seemed like a physical impossibility. But still, we had to persevere through one final course.
We stopped at a little bakery to order plates of baklava with pistachios, along with Turkish ice cream and some Turkish coffee (hopefully it would perk us back up again and keep us from slipping into a food coma!). Ayse taught us the right way to drink Turkish coffee: specify your sugar level before you order, don’t stir it, and stop right before you hit the sludge at the bottom of the cup.
Our tour ended at the bakery, where we paid any remaining balances (the tour cost $100 USD – most of us paid half online as a deposit when booking, and the other half in cash at the end of the tour… and just to clarify, I paid full price and didn’t mention that I was a blogger!). From here, Asye offered to walk us back to the ferry terminal so that we could return to the European side, but most of us decided to spent the rest of the afternoon exploring more of Kadikoy and Moda… slowly…
My Istanbul Food Tour in a (Vegetarian) Nutshell
Overall, I felt that my Istanbul Food Tour was excellent value. I learned a lot about Turkish culture and Turkish cuisine, and had the chance to sample many dishes without having to order an entire plate for myself (and thereby let food go to waste). There’s no way I could have done something like this on my own, even as an experienced vegetarian traveler, so having a professional, English-speaking guide was essential. The vegetarian options were plentiful and I never felt like the food I was served was an afterthought or a lesser dish.
For more information about the tour that I took, you can read about it, or make a reservation, on the Istanbul on Food website. If you’re a vegetarian or have other dietary restrictions, you should send them a WhatsApp message before you make the reservation.