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Istanbul in 24 Hours: European Side

How to get the most out of the European side of Istanbul in one day, food-wise.

Istanbul has been the jewel of the world for centuries. Napoleon called it the capital of the world. It has seen civilizations be built among its walls and many more pass through its gates. Yet sometimes the modern traveller cannot stay more than a day in this 3000-year-old city.

With the abundance of different regions and categories of Turkish cuisine, it’s hard to encapsulate a country or even a city’s food culture to 3-4 meals (at best). Alas, here is a mini-guide for the layover explorer.

This guide gives the following: a breakfast place, a coffee shop, a lunch place, a dessert grab, an afternoon tea shop, a restaurant for dinner and a place for drinks afterwards. I’ve tried to keep things close to the more “central” areas. While Istanbul does not have a centre per se, for one-day visitors the most usual hoods are the Old Town or just across the Golden Horn, around Beyoğlu.

1. Turkish Breakfast: Café Privato

Start the day in Galata, a historic neighborhood bursting with as many tourists as it has cobble stones on its narrow streets. A bit up the hill from the iconic and phallic Galata Tower, in an unassuming alley is Café Privato. A quirky café with an international staff and decorations that remind one’s backpacker days, Privato provides the most well-curated Turkish breakfast on this side of the town. The breakfast arrives at the table in about three acts. 

As with all full Turkish breakfast menus Privato’s spread consists largely of cheeses, jams, different egg dishes, spicy grilled Turkish sucuk (sudjuk), pastries, crudités and all the maroon hued Turkish tea you can drink. What makes it unique is that the owner is extremely talented in sourcing its cheeses and jams from nearby villages, and the pastries (the savory pancakes for instance) are crisp but fluffy, oily but not greasy. The hazelnut butter from Trabzon is out of this world. 

Go hungry, the tea is indeed limitless, no mimosas. 

2. Coffee: Mandabatmaz

After a belly full of breakfast a little walk will be good for you. 10 minutes away from Privato, after a small uphill walk through music instument stores and paraphernelia shops one can find the best Turkish coffee shop in Istanbul. Mandabatmaz is an old coffee shop that serves viscous, well-roasted Turkish coffee. It has recently expanded to a proper café-looking shop on the same street, but sitting on the small stools next to the church wall feels more “I’m here only for a day”-proper. Get the no-sugar Turkish coffee, water will be provided.

Some context: Turkish coffee is meant for every occasion, in the morning, after dinner, in the afternoon and in every context: at work, when visiting, alone. Still, the word for breakfast in Turkish is kahvaltı which translates to before-coffee. So you could say that Turkish coffee is made to soothe the stomach after a strong breakfast and make one ready for the day.

3. Lunch: Yirmibir Kebap

After loitering around İstiklal Street and deciding enough time has passed since breakfast to have lunch with a clear conscience, head to Hazzopulo Passage. An old passage of shops named after a wealthy and influential Greek living in Beyoğlu. 

Once the beacon of ethnic diversity, this passage is now mostly occupied by coffee shops run by Kurdish owners. One exception is Yirmibir Kebap, one of the best kebap places in Istanbul. Although Yirmibir is mostly a dinner-forward restaurant, it’s usually open for lunch and there is some ember coals on the open grill.

Get the Adana kebap, a spicy minced meat shish, other good options are the çöp şiş (diced lamb shish), ciğer (liver shish). As a side, you could get a meze or two, but beware the kebap plates already come with a lot of garniture and salady stuff. Yet among the mezzes Girit ezmesi (Cretan cheese spread) and the yoğurtlu patlıcan (grilled aubergine, Turkish yogurt and spicy oil) accompany the kebap perfectly. If you are open to local tastes, drink the purple carrot juice called şalgam, a salty, savory and refreshing drink often consumed in East Turkey. Their katmer dessert is also brilliant, but save some space for your next stop.

4. Baklava for Dessert: Karaköy Güllüoğlu

Coming to Istanbul and not having baklava is a tough sell to people back home when you are telling them what you ate. So head toward the Karaköy pier. A street away from the actual waterfront is Istanbul’s best baklava maker. This guy is as good a baklava maker as a brand creator and storyteller.

Karaköy Güllüoğlu has fed everyone from Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler to the picky legend that is my grandma. Get the pistachio, carrot slice baklava (no carrots in it, the slice is just a long triangle) and ask for a dollop of kaymak (thick clotted cream) at the self-service counter. If you enjoy it get a box of it and ask them to wrap it for travel. Caution: Baklava is a dessert high in sugar, do not forget to hydrate after consumption.

5. Tea time: Mustafa Amca Jeans

This is going to be a bit funny, but if you want to get the true Turkish tea experience, go back to the Hazzopulo Passage. When you enter from the İstiklal Street side and go up the narrow corridor, on your left is Mustafa Amca Jeans’. The name confuses us as well, but Mustafa has become a local legend and his tea shop is the spot to sit on stools and chat with friends while waiters bring small Turkish tea glasses until you start refusing.

6. Dinner: Demeti

There are definitely better meyhanes than Demeti in Istanbul when it comes to strictly food. But Demeti is the perfect mix of cosiness, good taste and a banging view of the Bosphorus and the islands. If you can book ahead, try to score a balcony seat and catch the sunset. This place will look like a trattoria with its checkered table clothes and overall grandma’s living room vibes. The service is quite respectful but laid-back. 

The food to get here is any of the mezes really. My favorite hot appetizer would the Albanian liver, soft and spicy cubes of clean liver and some house fries. While many meyhanes don’t excel in desserts, this one does. Get whatever they have that night, before they run out. 

7. Drinks: Geyik

Luckily Beyoğlu’s best cocktail bar is right around the corner. Geyik is not only a spot for a good, well-crafted drink but it is also the neighborhood’s prime meeting spot. Expect to see people on the street in front of the small bar, with staff rushing around circles of friend groups to take orders and deliver them. Order any classic cocktail or ask the staff for advice, they are helpful, speak English and fun to meet. This is also a great place to meet people for a foreigner.
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