Would you believe me if I told you that the Grand Bazaar is only the tip of Istanbul’s bazaar iceberg?
We made our way to three of the city’s oldest and most well known Bazaars during our time in Istanbul – The Grand Bazaar, Egyptian (Spice) Bazaar, and Arasta Bazaar. Although our foray into shopping didn’t go exactly as planned, we thoroughly enjoyed exploring Istanbul’s culture of bazaars and markets.
As I read reviews of these Bazaars prior to our visit, it became apparent that more and more people are hesitant about visiting. Harrowing tales of scams, schemes, and ripoffs by pushy salesmen are enough to leave even the most hardcore of shoppers feeling apprehensive. I too felt apprehensive at the thought of hordes of salesmen yelling to get my attention. After desperately luring me into their store, awkward haggling would take place, and they would unfairly pull out photos of their family, using guilt to make me pay more for the item I wanted. The shopping accounts online read like fiction.
Fortunately this is not at all what we experienced. While a few sellers in the Bazaars did call out to us from the doorways of their little shops, many seemed preoccupied with reading the paper or drinking tea. In fact, we were bothered far more by salesmen in the street, offering to take us to their brother’s/cousin’s/friend’s store, who has a place in/has been to/wants to visit Canada.
The Grand Bazaar
The Grand Bazaar is one of Istanbul’s most recognizable landmarks, alongside sites like the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. It is also enormous – a common theme in Istanbul. Dating back to the 15th century, today’s Grand Bazaar has 21 gates, 56 streets, over 4,000 shops, 1 mosque, numerous cafes and restaurants, covers 76 acres, and employs nearly 30,000 people. Maybe enormous is an understatement.
Whether they’ve come to haggle or simply browse, anywhere from 250,000 to 400,000 daily visitors check out this Bazaar before leaving Istanbul, even if it’s only “for the experience”. Prior to our visit I was keen to shop at the Grand Bazaar, hoping to find some great deals and one-of-a-kind keepsakes to remember our visit. Reports of other visitors read like a shopping fantasy land; However, as we strolled through its maze of stalls and shops, we quickly realized that finding something special to take home wouldn’t be so easy. Silk scarves, fake designer bags, sparkly costume jewelry, tea sets, kilims and carpets…everything you can imagine can be found in and around the Grand Bazaar – and it stretches on forever! We even saw a store selling wedding dresses. Many stores appear to stock just one thing, like belt cording and buckles or kitchen staples like whisks and spatulas. It’s truly incredible to see.
Once Turkey’s primary commercial hub for both local and international traders, the Grand Bazaar has refocused it’s attentions on Istanbul’s growing tourism trade. Unfortunately, it seems like nowadays the vast majority of the items for sale in the Grand Bazaar are cheaply made and mass-produced in places like China. Although they are still offered at rock bottom prices, shopping in the Grand Bazaar loses much of its luster when you realize that you can buy these same goods in souvenir shops around the world. How can a souvenir remind us of Turkey if it isn’t even made there?
Lost in a maze of identical looking shops hawking the same standard products I felt beaten. Visiting the Grand Bazaar was a huge letdown. However there is hope for the intrepid shopper. After much exploration, back tracking, and a much needed lunch break, we managed to find a few quality shops scattered amongst the maze of stores that is the Grand Bazaar.
For handmade and unique items, the Antique Bazaar (a section of the Grand Bazaar) is the place to go and was easily our favorite section of the Bazaar. The Antiques Bazaar was relatively quiet with an incredible selection of jewelry, watches, copper-wares and memorabilia for sale. I was primarily interested in buying a piece of jewelry (silver and natural stone – not the gold for sale in other areas of the bazaar) to commemorate our trip, and we found plenty of pieces to drool over here.
Unfortunately, the bartering process didn’t go as well as planned. Although we’d read that final prices in the Bazaar normally end up being 50-60% of the initial quoted price once the bartering is done, a different set of rules seem to be used in the Antique Bazaar. After finding a particularly lovely pendant of turquoise and coral, I was quoted a price of 175 Lira ($88 CAD). A fair starting price for a piece of this size, and comparable to what I could find online, however this is Turkey, where access to materials and labour costs work in the merchants favour. The owner didn’t seem overly motivated to barter and after twenty minutes, he was still only willing to drop the price five to ten lira (the equivalent of $2.50 – 5.00 CAD). Alas, the prices were too rich for our blood and in the end we walked away empty handed.
For a quality statement piece of jewelry, the Antique Bazaar is your best bet. The Brothers has a great selection of silver jewelry featuring natural stones (turquoise, lapis, coral, and amber being the most prominent). Of note were the beautiful cuff bracelets with stone inlay and large stone rings, as well as intricate enamel earrings that reminded me of ornate Turkish tiles.
The Egyptian Bazaar
The Egyptian Bazaar, also known as the Spice Bazaar is located in Sultanahmet at the bottom of the Yeni Mosque. Completed in 1660, the Bazaar was the centre for the spice trade in Istanbul. While the bazaar still predominately sells spices, tea blends, dried fruits, candies, and Turkish Delight, a few tourist shops have started to move in. Although we saw many locals attending prayer in the nearby mosques and boarding water taxis in the area, this bazaar does not seem to be where they shop. Instead it appears to cater to tourists. Therefore, we quickly deduced that 1) Prices here are likely inflated and 2) The quality is likely better elsewhere.
While the spice bazaar is still fun to walk through, we actually found that the sellers here were much more aggressive than at the Grand Bazaar. However they still weren’t as pushy as many people would lead you to believe. Perhaps our visit was well timed during the off season and away from peak tourism (and therefore “money earning” times)?
If you are looking to bring home spices from Istanbul, the Spice Bazaar is likely still a fine place to buy them. However I’d recommend first reading up on some reputable stores, as well as how to tell that the spices are fresh and authentic. Also, it’s always a good idea to look into what can and can’t be brought through customs. For example, the dried flowers in tea blends may be confiscated by customs officials.
If you are looking to save a few dollars, or simply want a more authentic shopping experience, we found a great selection of the same spices and dried fruits at the market in Kadikoy, on the Asian side of Istanbul.
The Arasta Bazaar
The Arasta Bazaar is a small market close to the Blue Mosque known for it’s jewelry, pottery textiles, and carpet shops. It was our favorite of Istanbul’s bazaars for it’s quiet, calm atmosphere and the absence of droves of tourists.
In addition to window shopping uninterrupted, we found some truly beautiful shops at the Arasta Bazaar, all with beautiful displays in their windows and in the space outside the front of the store. Many of these stores carry beautiful jewelry, comparable to only the higher end shops in the Grand Bazaar. While many of the prices we saw or were quoted were comparable to those at the Grand Bazaar, we liked the lack of a hard sell/pressure to buy, and were less suspicious of the quality and origin of the products.
Although the Arasta Bazaar had many beautiful shops, we only made one purchase – at Jennifer’s Hamam. Originally from Canada, Jennifer has created a mini-empire of three beautiful stores (all in the Arasta Bazaar) that offer beautiful hand woven bath linens. We especially love that all her products are made using traditional old loom methods, by local craftsmen, and using natural materials grown and produced in Turkey under sustainable conditions. These are the types of products we love to take home as souvenirs and gifts!
While the plush woven towels were incredible – as big as a blanket with a lifespan of 20 years – they unfortunately wouldn’t fit in our backpacks. However, we have not given up the idea of having a couple shipped home in the near future. Instead of plush towels, we opted to bring home a woven pestamel, or traditional hamam (Turkish Bath) towel. Flat woven by hand, using fibers like organic cotton and bamboo, the pestamel more closely resembles a North American scarf than a towel. And with so many beautiful colours to choose from it was hard not to walk away with the full spectrum. With prices starting at only 25 Lira ($12.50 CAD) there is no reason to return home from Istanbul with anything less authentic.
Although our shopping adventure in Turkey wasn’t as productive as we initially thought it would be, our bank accounts are grateful. After sifting through an array of mass-produced, poor quality, and fake/counterfeit goods, we were able to find some truly unique items worthy of taking home. Unfortunately many people are likely unaware that these handcrafted and authentic items are still available, or don’t care, as the market for the cheap, poor quality, tourist junk continues to grow. Some traditional sites like the Grand Bazaar are being swallowed up and are slowly turning into a giant souvenir shop. At least we can move on and explore other parts of Turkey knowing we didn’t contribute – but rather opted to support local craftsmen and local economies.
This post is part of #SundayTraveler – a great place to link up with other amazing travel blogs and get your fill of travel inspiration. Check out the hosts – Pack Me To, A Southern Gypsy, The Fairytale Traveler, Ice Cream and Permafrost, and Chasing the Donkey.