Reasons to go
We stayed in Beyoglu so most of our breakfasts and dinners were in this area. I encourage you to explore other parts of Istanbul but you also cannot go wrong with the quality of restaurants in this young and lively area. Here are my favorites!
Van Kahvalti Evi - Breakfast in Beyoglu - You cannot go to Turkey without having a true Turkish breakfast and Van Kahvalti Evi is the place to go. One piece of advice, come hungry! This breakfast includes delicious bread, butter, homemade jams, honey, peanut butter and nutella, olives, tomatoes, cucumbers, close to five types of cheeses, hard boiled eggs and bottomless Turkish tea. Oh and don’t forget to order some Shakshuka as well -- it is amazing. Did I say come hungry??
Dai Pera Istanbul Cuisine - Dinner in Beyoglu - Come here for the cocktails, stay for the dinner. I started my dinner with the best cocktail I had in Turkey. I couldn’t tell you what it was called but it involved 30 different spices and I highly recommend trying it. The octopus, turkish meatballs and dumplings a yogurt sauce were all to die for. Casual environment, great service and good prices.
Peymane Ocakbasi - Dinner in Beyoglu - Outdoor beautiful courtyard seating with wonderful service and even better food. It is a very romantic spot that is still reasonably priced. The mezes were all incredible and the lamb dishes were the best of our trip. Make sure to make a reservation in the courtyard as it can get very busy.
Varka Antakya Lezzetleri - Dinner in Beyoglu - It is hard to pick a favorite restaurant in Istanbul but Varka very well might be it. We sat outside on the second floor balcony, had an amazing server and drank the best wine and ate some of the best food of our trip. I highly recommend getting the walnut and pepper meze, the lentil soup and their huge and delicious gyro meat plate served in a spicy tomato sauce with the best pita around. Order the house red wine too!
In search of the best kebab
Going to Turkey means getting to eat at least one Doner Kebab per day, one of my favorite things that I don’t get to eat nearly enough of in California. But let me tell you, when you arrive in Istanbul you will see them on every corner and a lot of them just aren’t very good. I spent hours researching and then trying many many different places. Let me save you some time -- go to these two spots and avoid all of the ones by the Grand Bazaar (they are terrible!).
Dürümzade - Beyoglu - A small restaurant on the outskirts of Beyoglu. We sat outside and both ordered the lamb doner kebab with spicy sauce and it was delicious. Very simple but fresh and flavorful. If you are hungry order double meat as the original is on the smaller side.
Tekin kebap - Beyoglu - This small restaurant was directly across from our Airbnb and we walked by it every day before finally stopping in on our last afternoon. The owner and his young son were so friendly and prepared us an amazing kebab. This one wasn’t a true doner kebab but more of a true kebab wrap. Their sauces were amazing and the wrap tasted like it fresh from the oven minutes prior.
Where to stay
Neighborhood - Beyoglu, on the European side of Istanbul. This is a young, lively area with great restaurants and nightlife and is only a short taxi or long walk across the river to the Grand Bazaar and Blue Mosque.
Where we stayed - Airbnb - $70/night. Beautifully remodeled apartment in a great location on a quiet street just minutes by foot to our favorite restaurants and bars. It did not have A/C which made for a very hot apartment in August though. If we did it again, we would pick a place that had it.
Recommended hotel - Marmara Pera - Also located in Beyoglu, this hotel has an amazing rooftop bar (Mikla) and a beautiful rooftop pool looking over all of Istanbul. We did not the rooms ourselves but have heard wonderful things.
Turkish Airlines - If you have the option, I would highly recommend flying them. They recently opened a direct flight from SFO which we took and had a amazing experience. Delicious food, individual packs for ever passenger (ear plugs, eye mask, slippers, tooth brush etc) and very friendly employees. They also have an incredible lounge in the Istanbul airport if you can get access.
Things to do
Shop at the Grand Bazaar - One of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world with over 3,000 shops and more than 250,000 visitors daily. It is absolutely massive and very overwhelming. It is also something you should not miss because it is that incredible. Take your time and come back on multiple days. It is a great place to buy rugs, turkish towels, silver and diamonds. If you are in the market for diamonds do not miss the opportunity to buy some here. They are extremely high quality and you can bargan for them -- they will go very low. We loved Coskun Kuyumculuk and purchased a beautiful diamond wedding band here.
Visit the many beautiful mosques - You can’t visit Istanbul without visiting the beautiful mosques. There are over 3000 mosques in Istanbul alone. The Blue Mosque is the most popular and not to be missed but I also recommend exploring some of the smaller mosques. One of our favorites was Rustem Pasha Mosque which is in the spice market.
Go sailing around the Prince Islands - You can take a ferry to the Prince Islands and roam around one of them for the day OR you can take a ferry to the Prince Islands and then hop on a sailboat and sail around all the islands all day long. We picked option two and had an incredible day. We found our sailboat on Airbnb and for $180 we got to sail on a private 35 ft sailboat for 8 hours -- it was incredible. We stocked up with food and drinks at one of the many wonderful markets on the island and boarded our boat for a day of adventure.
Enjoy the view at one of the many rooftop bars - I love a good rooftop bar and Istanbul is filled with them. Be prepared for expensive drinks and crowds around sunset but the views are all worth it. People all recommend 360 which was nice but our favorite by far was Mikla at the Marmara Hotel. It is very swanky with a beautiful outdoor bar and a fantastic wine and whisky selection.