Story: Shopping the Bazaars of Istanbul

Mary-Austin Klein

By Mary-Austin Klein
Written on 16 January 2008
3 favorites, 3901 views

A sensory feast can be found in Istanbul's historic shopping districts. This is the ultimate city for souvenir shopping.

Grand Bazaar

Grand Bazaar

One of the passageways lined with small storefronts selling a variety of Turkish wares.

Walking downward on a sloping stone floor, vendor's voices echoing off the soaring arches overhead and through 15th century passageways lined with narrow, shallow storefronts filled with richly colored, intricately textured, patterned goods is a heady experience. Velvet robes, leather ottomans, inlaid wood chess sets or gold jewelry grab your eye every inch of the historic Grand Bazaar. The maze-like passages lead to exits where a large shopping district selling everyday items encompasses the streets surrounding the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar. Istanbul definitely lives up to it's reputation as a destination for shopping.

Istanbul is also a manufacturing center by small independent companies. For example, in the heart of the the Golden Horn’s leather manufacturing district, the morning light reveals heaps of animal hides sat stacked on street corners waiting to be hauled up flights of stairs on the backs of laborers to workshops 3 - 4 floors above. Here they are transformed into leather goods. By evening the finished products funneled down to the street and were quickly loaded into waiting VW Transporter vans that perpetually gridlocked the narrow streets. Some of these leather products are imported, while others are sold in Istanbul's boutiques and by street vendors. Unfortunately these are not traditional Turkish leather products. Instead, they are bland styles of shoes, messenger bags and belts, many stamped with the counterfeit designer logos of Dolce and Gabbana, Prada or Diesel.

Turkish rug dealers are numerous. Walking down a street lined with rugs on display in the sunlight is a visual treat. Enter a nice rug gallery to see the better quality items and be invited to have some apple tea while the proprietor will show you his rug collection. Rug dealers love to educate on the history of the patterns used by the different regions in Turkey, the types of dyes and weaving styles. Be in awe of the variety of natural dye colors, the intricate pattern designs and the pricing. The prices can be shocking. Bargains that existed 5 years ago seem to have evaporated with the dollar's demise.

Be sure to purchase a Nazar Boncuk, also known as an evil eye. These good luck charms are hand-blown glass made by Anatolian artisans. The eye of blue and white with a black pupil is said to look straight back at any evil coming your way. Does it really create a protective force field? Even our rental car came with one hanging from the rear view mirror. One was brought back home and hung in the same manner as a memento. It is fun to think that this have been what saved me from being impaled by a solid steel rod that was propelled from underneath the tire of the car I was following at 65 MPH. Amazingly, the rod veered low and left, impacting the windscreen like a bullet. Could it be that one of the traditions Turks hold dear has more to it than nicely catching light?

Outside of Istanbul, in the region of Cappadocia, it was easy to find women making dolls dressed in traditional costumes that they themselves were wearing. Embellished with colorful hand-drawn designs on the skirts, each one was unique. The women we stopped for sat roadside in Soganli Valley. Bargaining was done in French as they spoke it fluently. Along the coast you could purchase cotton tunics from India and beach towels depicting Manchester United for the Brit tourists lounging on the beach complaining about how expensive Turkey was. The bearers of the Pound Sterling complaining? Damn, Turkey really is expensive!

~ Start your Turkish shopping experience at the Grand Bazaar. Be prepared to be overwhelmed by the tight, crowded, maze-like passageways crammed with numerous aggressive vendors hawking exotic wares. With no marked prices vendors have to be asked for what seems to be arbitrary pricing. You’ll be surprised that even with haggling over prices, the American dollar's weakness makes everything expensive and bargains difficult to find. Also, don't come here to shop if you are tired and cranky, your head may explode.

~ For more unique items and a more relaxing shopping experience, there is the Turkish ministry of Culture and Tourism’s Prestige Silver Handicrafts Sale Center located on the outside wall of the Topkapi Palace Museum. The Jewelry and crafts sold in this boutique setting are made in Turkey, prices are marked, and cost much less than anything in the Grand Bazaar. The necklaces and earrings purchased here were not seen in any other locations, unlike many of the ubiquitous items sold in the Grand Bazaar.

~ A strange tip for souvenir shopping is Best Western's The President Hotel's gift shop in the Golden Horn section of Istanbul. Located in a quiet corner of the lobby, it has a small selection of the same items sold at the Grand Bazaar for much less. Items are clearly priced and you can leisurely pick out your "good luck" evil eye key chains, vintage belly dancing girl postcards, inlaid wood and mother of pearl boxes and handbags made from Turkish rugs without any pressure from a vendor.

~ Don't miss the Spice Market. The Spice Bazaar is a delight for the senses. Entering through the huge iron doors embellished with hanging strands of red and purple dried seedpods, the scent of saffron, ginger, and powdered peppers hits you. The colors of the ground spices and herbs piled high in open containers are rich and surprisingly varied. It takes some self control not to run your fingers through green mounds of powdery-soft ground pistachio nuts. Tasting fresh samples of "Turkish Delight", a honey infused pistachio confection offered by friendly vendors is the best way to be seduced into purchasing something. Olives, stuffed peppers and pickles sold here are great snacks to fortify you for your shopping excursion. Buy more than you think you are going to want, you won't find comparable quality and freshness elsewhere. The call to prayer reverberating through the main passage from the surrounding mosques completes the immersion of one of the finest Turkish shopping experience.

~ Step outside and wander the streets outside of the Grand and Spice Bazaars to find an array of everyday items locals purchase. This is where your dollar will go far. It is fascinating how vendors selling like items cluster along the same narrow streets. One street features plastic goods. Find the store that only sells melamine dish ware and serving trays in a myriad of patterns and colors or the one that sells groovy plastic beaded curtains that could be from the latest West Elm catalog. Other streets are predominately office supplies, branching off to clothing, to cookware, to cleaning products and prayer mats. This section is the Turkish version of shopping at Target. In a good way.

~ Head across the Galata Bridge spanning the Golden Horn estuary to the Asia side of Istanbul. This is the "new" city that is more European in flavor. Once across the bridge veer left and you will enter an industrial section. One could easily spend a day window-shopping in this hilly enclave of tiny storefronts selling items such as amber-colored cartoon-like resin gears that we could not decipher what they were used for, beautifully displayed polished custom brass nozzles of numerous sizes and styles, electronic control board panel light bezels and switches that would have looked at home on the spaceship Enterprise, and more mundane items like scrap lead and coils of copper wire. Istiklal Street, further up the hill, is a pedestrian promenade with a vintage trolley running down the center. This shopping district features chain stores mixed in with restaurants and just about every other block has a Starbucks. If you need to pick up the latest designer wear, head to the exclusive Nisantasi district. Istanbul's Rodeo Drive is a tree-lined boulevard that has the real Gucci and Prada boutiques. If all you can afford to do is window shop maybe you can spring for a Turkish flag with a superimposed portrait of Ataturk from a street vendors positioned among the expensive shops. This could be the perfect souvenir to take home from Istanbul.

~ From "Gardengal", a Flickr contact we made after crossing paths in Cappadocia: "Hop on the ferry to Kadiköy, on the Asian side of Istanbul. Kadiköy was a breath of fresh air: tourist-free and had a packed to the brim junk store with honest-to-goodness junk store prices. it was like we found Mecca."

Other photos in this article...

Turkish Rugs Soap Shopping Outside the Grand Bazaar Melamine Overload Spice Bazaar Spice Bazaar Textiles Pickled Treats at Spice Bazaar Resin Gears Switches for Sale Turkish Flag Vendor


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