The colorful and chaotic Grand Bazaar is the heart of İstanbul’s Old City and has been so for centuries. Starting as a small vaulted bedesten (warehouse) built by order of Mehmet the Conqueror in 1461, it grew to cover a vast area as lanes between the bedesten, neighboring shops and hans (caravanserais) were roofed and the market assumed the sprawling, labyrinthine form that it retains today. Often referred to as the world’s oldest mall, the Grand Bazaar sprawls over 61 covered and maze-like streets. The best exploring is in the crumbling hans (caravanserais) along its fringes where a few artisans still ply their long-practiced trades. When here, be sure to peep through doorways to discover hidden hans, veer down narrow lanes to watch artisans at work and wander the main thoroughfares to differentiate treasures from tourist tack. It’s obligatory to drink lots of tea, compare price after price and try your hand at the art of bargaining. Allow at least three hours for your visit; some travelers spend three days!
The goods for sale in the main streets are geared towards tourists – kitsch souvenirs such as Nazar amulets, colorful piles of Turkish delight, Anatolian carpets, or a fragrant selection of spices can make crowd-pleasing gifts. Visit Iznik Works or Iznik Gift Shop to buy exquisite pottery originally created in the Northwest Anatolian town of Iznik in the 15th century; the craft has recently been revived thanks to a strong artisan tradition. Likewise, the rose or pistachio-flavored Turkish delights from Haci Bekir – Turkey’s oldest producer – will satisfy any sweet tooth.
The Grand Bazaar will be my focal point when i arrive in Istanbul. My sole mission is to find the best Turkish Delight. You may recall I found the Turkish Delight on my trip here in 2019. I intend to find the same vendor and buy the same Delight. But I will have to navigate the Gand Bazaar by myself this time. I had the benefit of a local guide, who knew all the best places on my last trip here.
Best estimates are 4,000 shops in 61 covered streets here. Anywhere from 250,000 to 400,000 people visit each day, while employing about 26,000 people. It was often referred to as the world’s first shopping mall. “Where are you from?” is the most familiar line to begin a purchasing dialogue. It can be overwhelming to most people, and certainly a bit intimidating, particularly for first time visitors. Often times, the vendor will offer some tea before or after a purchase. I would prefer Turkish coffee. But the shopkeepers may be from almost any part of the world near Turkey.
Though many tourists feel like the Grand Bazaar is a tourist trap, I do not. I enjoy the markets all over the world, whether in SE Asia, Europe, Africa, or back home. Many of the online reviews are negative. Perhaps my experience was better since I had a native Turkish guide?
Turkish lamps and lanterns are beautiful and quite ubiquitous in the bazaar and most retail shops in Istanbul. We first encountered the lanterns in, of all places, Bigfork, Montana, at an Italian restaurant. The owners said we would never be able to find them here in the US. A few years later, we found a Turkish store in downtown Carmel. They not only had out lanterns, but many other Turkish products. We bought a set for our kitchen, then returned some months later for a second set, and some gifts. I am sure we paid about three to four times as much, but we did find them.
During my last visit, I saw the identical lanterns to ours. In fact, I have seen them in places like Boulder, CO, and Montenegro. I may bring home a set if I have room to safely carry them back, since Istanbul is my last stop before SFO.
Bargaining is expected. Always remember the seller starts with the upper hand. Timing is important, as you may be dealing with an employee rather than the owner or manager. Never look too interested unless you want to pay the full price. And never name your best price, though you may be prodded to do so. Make the clerk name his price first, so that you can act totally shocked or surprised. Generally, if you place the product down, and start to leave, the dialogue will improve to your benefit. Never rush the bargaining process. There is no strict rule for the discount you are seeking, but somewhere between 35 to 50% is a good rule of thumb.
Interestingly, the basic structure of the Bazaar has not changed or developed since its founding. Through the centuries, the bazaar has withstood many natural disasters, with fixable damage, thanks to the unique architecture that was ahead of its time. The bazaar was the focal point for trade among three continents, and certainly for the entire Mediterranean region. During the ottoman Empire, merchants were placed in guilds with other merchants of similar rank, or role in society and the economy. This excluded anyone from joining a guild unless a merchant died or retired (and accept a considerable amount of money).
Today, the bazaar has high security for theft, fire, and natural disasters. Numerous options exist for food and drink. Before the westernization of the Ottomans, the concept of restaurants was unfamiliar. This was due to the lack of women in social situations, jobs, and conventional beliefs of the region. Merchants brought lunches to work with simple, traditional meals in a box similar to a lunch pail and served them at one of two stands in the bazaar.
I would definitely rank the Grand Bazaar in the top 20 of my travel experiences. Other similar shopping experiences would be the Chatuchak Market in Bangkok, the Aloha Stadium Flea Market in Honolulu, and Mercado in Mexico City. But the Grand Bazaar is definitely the best!!