How Bazaar! A First-Timer’s Guide to Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar

Istanbul has rapidly become one of the most visited cities in the world, thanks to its compelling “East meets West” culture, stunning architecture and fascinating history and museums.

It’s also a major shopping destination, thanks in no small part to the Grand Bazaar, a covered market complex that puts even the largest shopping malls and arcades to shame.

Construction on the market began in the fifteenth century, when the Sultan Mehmet called for the building of a centre for the trade of textiles. Over the centuries, the complex has grown to include more than 61 streets and 3,000 shops and restaurants. By some estimates, nearly a quarter of a million people visit the Bazaar every day, in search of everything from household goods and clothing to food and souvenirs.

To a first-time visitor to the Bazaar, the sheer number of shops — never mind the labyrinth-like streets and alleys — could be overwhelming. However, if you know what to expect, you can navigate the market like a local (and put a serious dent in your spending cash).

Navigating the Grand Bazaar

In the early days of Istanbul’s largest market, the shops and stalls were primarily organised by the type of goods they sold; textiles were sold in one area, for example, while jewellery and precious metals were in another area. Over time, the market became more muddled, but today there are signs that the same grouping of items is returning.

Some of the more common goods that you might shop for in the market include:

* Jewellery and gold along Kalpakcilar Caddesi and Kuyumcular Carsisi
* Leather goods along Perdahçılar Caddesi and Bit Pazarı
* Clothing along Bit Pazari
* Carpets along Sahaflar Caddesi

Still, part of the pleasure of shopping in the Grand Bazaar is the notion of discovering something new around every corner. With thousands of shops and stalls, it’s not so much a matter of finding what you’re looking for, but determining what you want to buy the most.

Of course, it’s possible to visit the Bazaar simply to take in the stunning architecture and the details of the buildings themselves. Some have compared walking the Bazaar to walking around a palace; if nothing else, head to the large domed hall of the Cevahir Bedesten, the closest thing to Main Street within the Bazaar and where you’ll find the most valuable items in the market.

The intricate mosaics and soaring columns of this hall are prime examples of Turkish architecture and among some of the most beautiful in Istanbul.

Ready to Buy?

One of the most important things to remember about shopping at the Grand Bazaar is to remain patient and open to the experience. Bargaining is the name of the game here, and shopkeepers will stop at nothing to get you into their shops and part you from your money. Don’t be afraid to talk to the proprietors and other shoppers; with more places to stay in Istanbul opening every year, you’ll encounter other travellers from around the world in the Bazaar, making it a truly international experience.

Bargaining is also important in the market, and shop around to compare prices before you decide to buy. Few shopkeepers expect you to pay the advertised price for their wares, and they welcome a fair bargain. Do not make an offer on an item unless you are prepared to purchase it, as once a shopkeeper accepts an offer, you’re obligated to buy the item.

However, since shopping in Istanbul is a social custom, and shopkeepers will often offer customers refreshments and spend a great deal of time with them, do not feel obligated to buy just because you got a cup of tea. A purchase is only guaranteed when you and the shopkeeper agree on a price.

A Few Tips to Remember

As with any large shopping complex, the Grand Bazaar can attract pickpockets or bag slashers. Keep a close eye on your money and purchases at all times, and avoid getting distracted by the shops or intense bargaining. Also, remember that the Grand Bazaar is not open every day. It’s closed on Sundays and on the first day of major Islamic holidays.

The Grand Bazaar is one of the world’s greatest tourist attractions and is a vital part of any trip to Istanbul. Take some time to explore the market, and you might return home with an unexpected treasure.

About the Author: Travel writer Shannon Duffany has visited six of the seven continents and lists Istanbul as her favourite city in the world. She writes about her adventures in exotic locales for several magazines and blogs.