You Can Eat Perfectly in Istanbul—Even on a Student Budget


Why Istanbul?

I invite you to a unique city, the only one in the world located on two continents simultaneously: Europe and Asia. The Bosphorus Strait passes through the heart of the city, splits continents, and connects the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara.

The former capital of the Ottoman Empire, Istanbul has a brilliant and brutal history. It survived the rise and decline of several empires, but remained young at heart; life rages here day and night!

Istanbul at night, Turkey.

But you do not have to sell your last shirt to see this miracle. Istanbul, perhaps, is the best place for a budget trip in which you will touch Byzantine and Ottoman antiquities, and taste excellent dishes for “funny” money.

What are the aromas of Istanbul? These are the sea, fresh pastries, roasted chestnuts, fish, apple tea, and fragrant lamb in winding alleys.

What are the sounds of Istanbul? These are the cry of gulls, the muezzin singing, and the purring of cats.

What are the colors of Istanbul? Blue, blue sea, bright green trees, gray-blue mosque, and the iridescence of all colors at night.

So, if you are at that age when you have a lot of energy and little money, but the desire to see the world is enormous, a better start than Istanbul is difficult to recommend.

However, if you’re a bit of a foodie, the lack of money need not stop your enjoying the local cuisine. It will not break the bank, and it’s a great way to explore the area. Here’s how to avoid the dreaded backpacker curse of “soup of the day” (one bowl of soup for the whole day, if you don’t know the backpacker lingo).

Where in Istanbul can you eat? Almost anywhere! Numerous hotels rent small outdoor cafes which exude aromas of Turkish coffee and apple tea. They are located in squares, embankments, and narrow streets, so the question should be put differently: in which of the forty cafes in this alley shall we have lunch? Or, what we have not tried yet? 🙂

Remember the word “büfe”

If you could learn only one word of the Turkish language, it should be the “büfe.” A büfe is a type of corner shop that you’ll find all over Istanbul, and they’re the perfect place to get cheap food. Try local delicacies such as doner (like the kebab but nicer!), tost (a Panini-like sandwich), and kurufasulye (white beans in tomato sauce).

Doner Kebab in Istanbul, Turkey.

Kurufasulye in Istanbul, Turkey.

Tiny “büfe” seemingly small, narrow, and tight, but it is always very clean and has incredibly tasty food. We took Yarim Doner (chicken). They put it in a soft bun, and it costs only 3TL. Here they drink fresh pomegranate juice for 4TL. In Istanbul, you can drink plenty of this juice — a natural storehouse of vitamins!

Pomegranate juice. Istanbul, Turkey.

You can enjoy all kinds of kebabs in a büfe. Order lahmacun, a thin pancake with finely chopped lamb (Turkish pizza with spicy minced lamb and salad topping) grilled over charcoal. It will seem like pizza, and will be served with a vegetable salad and thick pomegranate sauce. Wash down this food with Ayran—a yogurt drink that is very popular among the Turks.

Our first day in Istanbul showed that you should fear not for the lack of money, but for the temptations against our health guidelines: a delicious cup of Marash Dondurma “jumped” into our hands again. The Turks call ice cream for tourists “ice cream,” but for themselves “dondurma.” Baklava of this street vendor is so glistening with honey — we could not resist. Caldarroste on the grill smells like baked potatoes: large, sweet, and just for 3TL. Then our legs, of their own will, brought us to the next tray with shawarma… 🙂

Baklava in Istanbul, Turkey.

Shawarma. Istanbul, Turkey.

Black Sea means budget friendly!

If you’re staying in the Black Sea area, then you’re in luck. The area is famous for its pide (Turkish pizzas) that are delicious, satisfying, and definitely won’t have you panicking about the bill. The Black Sea also offers a slightly more luxurious (and slightly more expensive) version of kurufasulye, so if you’ve got a few extra coins at the end of your trip, treat yourself to this buttery bean dish.

Pide in Istanbul, Turkey.

I strongly recommend trying balik ekmek (fish and bread). Look for it in the blue carts near Galata Bridge or Eminonu Quay. The freshest flattened small carcass sizzles on the hot pan, is deftly picked up and thrown into the softest Turkish bun with salad leaves. If desired, sprinkle it with lemon sauce.

I’ll tell you a great secret–you should not spend money in numerous cafes on the Galata Bridge. Better to go over the bridge to the fish market which will be on the left of the bridge. There you’ll find some wonderful cafes with unpretentious decor. Order a plate of crispy hamsi known in English as the European anchovy and pilaf.

Hamsi in Istanbul, Turkey.

Try an “Islak burger”

An islak burger or “wet burger” is a culinary work of art. The garlic beef patty is encased in a white bun that was dipped in an oily tomato-based sauce. Cheap, simple, and memorable. We guarantee the memory of it will stay with you after you leave Istanbul and you’ll be saving your pennies for a speedy return.

Su borek is a layer-cake a bit like cheese lasagna. It is huge, round, and a golden color. Portions are sold in cafes or small street shops. Do not pass them by. It is delicious with all this cheese on the very soft dough. Translated as “water pie” due to the fact that all the layers are immersed in boiling water for a few minutes and then abundantly spread with cheese and baked in the oven.

Su Borek in Istanbul, Turkey.

The real discovery for me was kokorech. Remarkably good food from chopped lamb offal. When cooking, it resembles the familiar shawarma, but horizontal.

The street fast food in Istanbul is not even a ritual, but perhaps a cult. I love another kind of cafe. They prepare gozleme, a savoury traditional Turkish handmade and hand-rolled pastry. Such a cafe has no door. In the depth of an open niche in the wall of the house sit usually two colorful Turkish women in headscarves, and before your eyes gracefully make the dough, roll it, and bake in a circular plate, gozleme with various stuffings.

Gozleme. Istanbul, Turkey.

Hopefully this story has tickled your taste buds and convinced you that the tasting of gorgeous eastern tidbits doesn’t cost a lot of money.

Go to Istanbul for three days or a week–it’s up to you–but you cannot miss this visit. Even if you have been in Turkey ten times, remember: Istanbul and Turkey are completely different things. You will see the eternally living ancient city, its stupefying fragrances, oriental market with a scattering of sweets, foam disco until the morning, and of course the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. You name it! Use your holidays wisely, and you’ll definitely want to come back.

The Hagia Sophia. Istanbul, Turkey.

More about Turkey:
Sailors’ Superstitions Couldn’t Stop Us from Visiting Ancient Ephesus
Undeground cities of Cappadocia

52 thoughts on “You Can Eat Perfectly in Istanbul—Even on a Student Budget

  1. Drool… inexpensive, but still delish! Love the food in Istanbul – could live on gozleme. We’ve missed so much of these when we’ve visited – I’m going to bookmark this page as my menu for our next visit! Thanks! -Veronica


  2. Hi ,great post!Actually I am going to Istanbul on 5th, I want to surprise my husband for his birthday, he works so hard in oil field but his salary didn’t afford us to go for a vacation for a long time, so I did save some money for a while to surprise him . so this very important for me . hotel and tickets are covered up, but for the eating budget the money is very tight. I was googling to find places or cheap and nice food for lunch and dinner, I found your Post . I am talking about one week and just 1180 TL. Is it to tight? I feel like I need the double for a week, but I have no experience. My husband and I , love street fast food that average people in turkey eat, we don’t really like fancy food we’re more like sandwich or pie or pizza on the go . can you help me please with some advice? Thank you.


      1. Thank you I feel better now 🙂 and I we will definitely follow your advices about the places in your post . I will update you about our trip when we come back. Thanks again


  3. I really loved our short visit to Istanbul, and look forward to a longer return trip. One thing on your menu — you forgot to mention those great fish restaurants built beneath the Galata Bridge. What a great place for lunch and a beer.


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