Shopping in Istanbul can be overwhelming, whether you are wandering on your own or being herded on group tours. If you’re wandering, you can spend more time and simply immerse yourself in the experiences. Many of us, though, are in Istanbul for short periods of time and are hustled through on a time schedule. Central to any Istanbul visit, though, is some time in three major bazaars in the old neighborhoods of Istanbul. Two are covered bazaars; one is a shop-lined street bazaar.
Join me as I try to give you a taste of each of these.
The Grand Bazaar
In June this year, though, I had even less time. I was on a day-tour, and when we stopped at the Grand Bazaar area, we were hustled into a “shopping mall” first — and spent far too much time in the main carpet area being instructed on carpets. It was interesting, but we were also being targeted as potential buyers. I’ve been in carpet stores before and while this one was interesting, it meant that by the time I walked three or four blocks to the Grand Bazaar itself, all I really had time for was a quick entry into the main gate, a glance around, and a quick exit. Clearly, I need much more time.
How much time, you might wonder? Well, consider the facts about this bazaar. It’s not known as The Grand Bazaar without reason. Construction began in 1455. It is one of the largest — and oldest– covered markets in the world. In its 60 or 61 covered streets lie over 3000 shops (some sources peg the number at 5000). Once this was also home to master craftsmen who demonstrated their various trades — metalworking, jewelry-making, weaving, and the like. That’s no longer really there, sadly. And many of the shops are filled with tourist tacky items, often made in China. There are some good recommendations from various guidebooks, but with a limited amount of time, you really don’t have time to spend searching these out. Only tonight I found that The Grand Bazaar has its own website: grand bazaar.org/Grand_Bazaar_Istanbul.html
So my true adventure in this most famous of Istanbul’s bazaars lies in the future. Possibly next trip to Athens, I hope; I’m tentatively planning on flying there through Istanbul, with a stopover.
The Spice Bazaar/Egyptian Spice Bazaar
The second largest covered bazaar (after The Grand Bazaar), the Spice Market is in Fatih in the Eimonu neighborhood. It’s a 17th century structure, with 88 vaulted rooms (with upper and lower storeys). Unlike The Grand Bazaar, it’s open 7 days a week.
The Spice Bazaar was on my must-see list, and I did get to spend 45 minutes there — far too short a time, once more. But that was because I found one lovely shop (Aladdin’s) near the main entrance and blew much money there, buying perfume oils, spices (particularly saffron), and teas (oh my, the variety). Happily, I paid my small fortune, left the store, wandered a bit, and then exited to sit on the step right outside the bazaar. Be aware that buying saffron can be tricky. Be sure you’re getting the real thing. Any number of travel websites about spice shopping here warn that often, if the price seems really too good to be true for saffron, it’s probably not really saffron, but another spice such as turmeric. Spend some time searching online for advice and warnings about shopping for saffron in Istanbul.
Near the main entrance is the Yeni Mosque is a great place for observing everyday life. Besides the tourists shopping there, you’ll see locals as well, wandering with traditional clothing as well as modern adaptations. The Spice Bazaar is on a large street and across from the entrance is the Bosphorus. You can get a bite to eat from any of a number of street vendors, sit, and spend lots of time people-watching.
Arasta Bazaar — near the Blue Mosque
The third bazaar is much smaller and easier to navigate. Situated two blocks behind the Blue Mosque (also known as the Sultan Ahmed Mosque or the Sultanahmet Mosque, built between 1609-1616), this bazaar also has its own website:
It even has a map with the shops named. Having spent time online and with guidebooks, I knew there were a couple of particular shops I wanted to spend time in. Another couple were lagniappe (Cajun for “extra), serendipitous finds that I am glad I wandered in. One interest of mine is traditional Turkish weaving and fabrics, especially the pestamels, the kind of towels you get in many Turkish hammams (or baths). Jennifer’s Hamam was one of my targeted stops, and well worth the time. The store is one of two (there’s one in The Grand Bazaar) owned by a Canadian who sources her work from traditional weavers. I bought several pestamels, a beautiful blue silk scarf, and some other cotton items. Jennifer was there and happily spent a lot of time with me, showing me different types of towels, different sizes and qualities of pestamels and matching hand towels, huge towels, bedspreads, and even bathrobes. She also told me how she has built her business, finding traditional weavers and helping to re-build the dwindling numbers of trained weavers. Her dream, she told me, is to create a handicraft collective, complete with a school so that the various associated crafts will not die out. Jennifer does have a website, if you’re interested: http://www.jennifershamam.com
When I mentioned that I was also interested in buying a rug, she led my friend Seth and me through the bazaar, out of it, and to a nearby street to a very nice store (the 5K store), where I bought an old camel bag/camel rug. Folded up, it functioned as a kind of saddle bag, specifically for using on a camel. Though it looks like a patchwork of different rugs, it is actually a single rug, woven on a single loom, switching techniques. For now, it’s living on the sleeper couch in my apartment in Athens.
Besides Jennifer’s Hamam, I also shopped for scarves and hand-woven fabric. I ended up with a beautiful shawl, several scarves, and an early 20th century textile that can be a wall hanging or a bracelet.
The store that surprised me, though, was one that sold illuminated manuscripts. How could you not be drawn in by the window display?
This bazaar was also walking distance from the small hotel where I stayed, in Sultanamet district, perhaps two or three blocks away. Since it was so close, I actually visited here a couple of times. It’s also on my “must-return” list.
Though I didn’t go beyond these bazaars, there are apparently daily markets that are worth exploring. I have already bookmarked a website about these (and the three bazaars I’ve talked about):
Yes, Istanbul is a fascinating city. I will go back, and back yet more times. Other posts will explore different places and experiences, but since Istanbul (formerly Constantinople, or as my Greek friends still refer to it, Constantinoupoli) has been a port city where many trade routes crossed, it has long been known for its handicrafts and shopping.
I’d still like to find actual fabrics, traditionally woven cottons and silks that can be bought by the meter. And I didn’t even look at jewelry this time. Lord, watch out when that happens!