Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar is considered by many one of the great shopping experiences anywhere. And even for those not interested in buying, the place is a sensory treat with sights, sounds, smells, tastes and textures that will make for a memorable visit. You can think of it as an ancient shopping mall. It has over 4000 shops and 58 streets. Wikipedia states that there can be as many as one half million visitors a day, but I’m skeptical. Nonetheless, it’s huge. And old. The original bazaar was completed in 1461 during the reign of Mehmed the Conqueror and was greatly expanded about 100 years later during the rule of Suleiman the Magnificent. The streets or hallways are built under a series of domes many with interior mosaics.
The Grand Bazaar has been the commercial center for Turkey for centuries and continues to hold a central place in the economy. Inside is an area where currency exchange takes place. Because the Turkish lira has long been an unstable currency many Turks shore up their savings by converting it to gold or a more stable currency such as Euros or Dollars. And the Grand Bazaar and its surroundings are where this happens in Istanbul.
There are a massive variety of items for sale at the Bazaar for visitors, but there are some important categories (textiles, rugs, jewelry, spices and glass items) that are the most interesting. As in many countries there are usually no price tags, which means that prices are negotiable. In certain very touristy parts of the bazaar the hawkers are very persistent. My approach is to ignore the ones selling items that don’t interest me. This may feel a little rude, but ultimately it seems to be the best approach for everyone involved, since the hawker will not have to waste time attempting to win you over when you are not interested. In my experience the Turks in and around the bazaar are a very friendly lot who will enhance your experience during your visit. Maybe I’m naive, but I found this friendliness genuine for the most part.
The most common items for purchase in the bazaar are jewelry and textiles, including carpets. It is important to come informed if you hope to make a good purchase of a big ticket item. There are many excellent tradesmen in the Bazaar, but there are also those who will take advantage of you if you are naive. The gold and silver jewelry in the bazaar is commonly crafted nearby and if you negotiate well the prices can be excellent. The textiles are also mostly local. Many are decorative housewares such as pillow covers at hard to resist prices. We bought these just outside the bazaar and got even lower prices.
Silk rugs are a very popular item to purchase in Turkey, but if you are purchasing an expensive one it is important to be well-informed. That is one reason why you might be better off going to the cruise-line approved shops. Some cruise lines even offer guarantees at their approved shops. You will definitely pay more, but for many the price difference will be worth it, when it comes to rugs and carpets.
For me, the area around the bazaar was even more interesting. The prices are generally lower because the clientele is more local and the rents are much lower. Some shops have items whose purpose is a mystery, especially for the tourist. If you know what these little “prince” costumes are for let us know. I purchased some dress shirts for great prices. I looked for silk ties, but the designs didn’t suit the US. We also found a great little restaurant filled with locals. It was Turkish rural fare and very tasty. The waiter spoke enough English to tell us it was a cuisine from a province near Istanbul.
I’ve barely touched on the Grand Bazaar experience, but that should get you started. If you want a lot of detail, Rick Steves has a lot of great detail on his site.
Coming next – the incredible Topkapi Palace where the Ottoman Sultans lived.