Istanbul is an enchanting, complicated crossroads of a city. It is in the middle of two continents (Europe and Asia), has been led by three legendary empires (Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman), and is still occasionally referred to by its former name, Constantinople. But did you know it also has a rich history…as a shopper’s paradise?
Dating back to the 15th century, Istanbul’s famed Grand Bazaar is one of the world’s oldest indoor shopping malls, and its 4,000 shops truly have something for everyone. While visiting is an absolute whirlwind–peppered with a bit of sensory overload and over-the-top sales tactics–follow these tips to make sure you have the best buying experience possible!
Shopping At The Grand Bazaar
Stores selling gold and silver jewelry, some studded with a variety of glittering gemstones, can be found all throughout the bazaar complex. There are high-end designers here–a piece from the famed Boybeyi jewelry house can set you back tens of thousands–however, simple gold and silver pieces can be found at a relative bargain compared to prices back home. Most of these will be sold by weight, with extra gemstones adding to the cost. Insist on seeing the metal’s mark to ensure it’s the real deal, and keep in mind that gold is marked differently in Istanbul. You’ll want to see a 375 (10k), 585 (14k), or 750 (18k). Many jewelers will size rings or adjust necklaces while you wait.
Another interesting note: You’ll also likely see rack after rack of nearly pure (22k) and quite plain bangles for sale. We were told by our guide that these bracelets are still often used for a bride’s dowry.
Strolling through the bazaar, you’ll see carpets of all sizes, shapes, colors, and textures. Carpet weaving has been an art in Turkey for centuries. Many villages have their own patterns that still exist to this day. The process is painstaking as the silk or wool is cleaned, colored, and spun, then hand-knotted, cut, and woven row by row. A Turkish weaver almost appears to be playing a harp while working at the loom. It is truly a labor of love.
That’s why a handmade piece can cost anywhere between several hundred and tens of thousands of dollars. Commercially woven options are also available, but they are nowhere near the quality of an heirloom piece. Reputable sellers will be able to answer questions about where the rug was made, its materials, and its pattern. They will also handle shipping your purchase home.
Tilework is another traditional handicraft in Turkey. Much like weaving, the art of ceramics has been passed down in families for generations. Many of the colorful tiles you’ll see adorning mosques in the city were made in Iznik, a Turkish town that’s about two hours away. However, you can find pieces that are handmade in Istanbul as well.
The pigments used in high-quality tilework are made of crushed gemstones including lapis, malachite, and carnelian. The clay is blended with quartz powder to ensure shine and durability. Tiles may be used as trivets or decorations back home. You’ll also see vases, platters, and other items made in the colorful Iznik style.
Turkey is also well-known for its plush towels, home linens including tablecloths and runners, and, of course, beautiful shawls and scarves made from wool and silk. While towels can be thick, linens and scarfs are light and easy to stash away as gifts and can be purchased at a decent price point. You might even end up needing to use your scarf during your vacation, as women who visit the city’s famed mosques are required to cover their heads.
Bulky but beautiful, lamps fashioned from bronze and colorful bits of mosaic glass grace many stores in the Grand Bazaar. Pieces range from a single pendant light to beautiful hanging chandeliers. These will light up any space in Turkish style.
Want something older to take back with you, perhaps from the time Istanbul was still called Constantinople? Check out the antique stores tucked deep inside the Grand Bazaar. You’ll find a dizzying array of treasures, including fine jewelry, ceramics, artwork, and trinkets of every type…some dating back to the Ottoman Empire.
Last but not least, grab a handful of nazars, or evil eyes, as quick gifts. You will see these blue glass eyes staring back at you from every corner in Istanbul. They hang from rearview mirrors and keychains and are even crafted into jewelry. Nazars are thought to keep negative energy away from whoever carries or wears them, and they are a quintessential, inexpensive Turkish souvenir.
Eating At The Grand Bazaar
If you went shopping at one of the many dry goods stands in the Bazaar, you might already be pretty full. Purveyors will offer customers samples of dried fruit, nuts, Turkish delight, and baklava to entice them to buy.
Cafes And Food Stalls
That said, if you’re still hungry, check out one of the cafes inside the Bazaar. Most serve traditional Turkish fare: vegetable dips–or mezes–including hummus and tabbouleh, olives, and white cheese. Also look out for doner kebaps, seasoned meat carved from a circling spit, and pickles of all sorts. Just outside, if you want a grab-and-go snack, stands sell simit–a thin bagel-type bread–and bozek, flaky patties filled with cheese or meat.
Several bazaar stands sell Turkish delight or lokum, a jellied candy made with fruits, nuts, and nougat. You’ll also find flaky baklava, traditionally made with crushed pistachios and fresh honey. Both are cut much like sushi rolls and make nice gifts. Be sure to get your box vacuum sealed and stash it in your checked luggage on the way home.
Drinking At The Grand Bazaar
Turkish hospitality is warm and welcoming, especially if a seller thinks he’s about to close on a deal. That’s why you will see tea caddies–men delivering tiny glass cups nestled in gorgeous, colorful saucers–to stalls all over the bazaar. Shop owners will order tea, whether black served with milk and sugar or apple, for their customers, inviting them to sip and shop.
You’ll also see strong Turkish coffee served black, meant to be nursed until you hit the grounds. If you visit Istanbul in the winter months, make sure you sample sahlep. This thick, warm drink is made with crushed orchid root, milk, and vanilla, then sprinkled with cinnamon. It tastes just as wonderful as it sounds.
Know Before You Go
The Grand Bazaar is a magical place, bustling with thousands of people, tourists and locals alike. As you can imagine, competition among the stores is fierce! Be prepared for some heavy-handed tactics. Salesmen will smile, shout, ask where you are from, and maybe even claim they have a cousin living there–anything to start a conversation that might get you into their store.
By all means, browse if you’re interested in an item. Bargain and haggle when you see something you like, but don’t feel forced into a store or a sale. A firm “no thank you” will usually send the message. If not, just walk away. It might seem rude, but it’s the only way to stay moving in this market!
Another thing to consider: Go to the market with a guide if you’ve already hired one for the day or the duration of your trip. They’ll know where authentic and handcrafted pieces are sold. Yes, this will likely involve a kick-back, however, at least you can be assured you are purchasing quality merchandise.
One more word to the wise: If you see a shoeshine man “accidentally” drop a brush, keep walking! We saw this scam several times around the city and near the Grand Bazaar. When a well-meaning tourist chases the man down to return the brush, he is thanked profusely and offered a free shine. When it’s over, the unsuspecting traveler is told they owe $20. Just keep walking, and save your money for souvenirs!
Photo Credit: foursummers / Pixabay