Things to Do in Istanbul: Go Shopping

June 27, 2008 by

Europe, Places to Go, Suggested Itineraries, Travel Advice & Inspiration

It’s wrong to buy designer ripoffs, right? But when they are being sold as ‘original copies’ do the same rules apply? Because that is the sales pitch of the guys in the markets of Istanbul. Sincerity abounds as they shake Dolce and Gabbana shirts and Prada boots and Versace jeans in front of you: ‘Original copies’.

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Istanbul’s Spice Bazaar

Istanbul has a couple of big, famous markets: the Spice Bazaar (Egyptian Market) and the Grand Bazaar (Kapali Carsi, Covered Market). Both of them are must visits on any trip to Istanbul. And they are definitely not just about the original copies. In fact, that’s about one percent of what’s on offer.

The Grand Bazaar is a mind-boggling adventure of carpets, shoes, lamps, tiles and pottery, belly dancing outfits, fez, water pipes, cotton and wool and leathergoods, and of course the ‘original copies’. There are thousands of shops; it’s like a little city – all the streets have names. Definitely take some sort of map with you. We had the Lonely Planet guide and that had a few keys shops marked so by twisting our heads a lot and guessing a bit, we managed to find our way back out of the place after our appetites for shopping were assuaged.

But that took a while to happen. We were in the Grand Bazaar for a good half day, wandering and being accosted and chatting and looking at things. Salesmen were continually trying to entice us into their shops. But it was done so politely: Excuse me, Sir, Lady, Where are you from? They even said ‘goodbye’ with a charming smile as I shook my head and wandered on. One man heard my accent and pulled out a New Zealand keyring. I told him I am actually Australian and he shrugged it off: ‘But you are neighbours’, with a big smile. I bought a scarf from him. I needed it to cover my head in the mosques anyway.

Bargaining? I got better

I got better at bargaining. It’s half the fun and the merchants expect it. That’s why their prices are overly high to begin with! And they quickly drop. Particularly in the off-tourist season. We were there in February and the weather was gorgeous, although we might have had some luck on our side there.

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Entrance to the Spice Bazaar in Istanbul

In the middle of the labyrinthine Grand Bazaar, there are some tea and cake stalls – godsend. We sat on low stools and were served wonderful mint tea by Turkey’s answer to Bryan Ferry – a very handsome man indeed. We asked him to recommend some cakes and there was lots of honey and pistachio nuts involved – yum!

Part of the joy of sitting there, apart from kicking my shoes off my very very tired feet, was to watch all the other shoppers. The locals strode through (because this is very much a real market and not a tourist trap although beware pickpockets). The tourists looked baffled, overwhelmed and joyful all at the same time. Although the couple that passed us for the fourth time on their hunt for an exit looked closer to tears than anything else. As I said: take some sort of a map. And a lot of faith because there are many exits onto lots of surrounding streets – then the trick is to find the one with the tram on it. Mind you, while you might get lost, you will never be bored.

Actually, we’d done our fair share of being baffled tourists trying to find the place. As usual, no street map in hand but a vague notion of where the market should be, was enough to head me confidently up a street. The smart money is on catching the tram, getting off at the recommended stop and hey presto! There is the Grand Bazaar. Not me. And, you know, the streets of Istanbul are not set out on a convenient grid system…

A helpful man standing outside a café holding a delicate cup of mint tea grinned and said: Grand Bazaar? I nodded a little shamefaced at having lost such a major landmark, and he gave us excellent directions in perfect English.

The beauty of heading through the back streets and getting a little lost, was that we saw a lot of normal life going on. Traffic and shops selling everything and anything and men standing outside cafés with delicate cups of mint tea!

Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar: A whole other city

Reaching the bazaar, we really felt like we were entering a whole other city. We took a deep breath and plunged inside. My overall impressions were of golden light and people and voices and haggling and laughing and wishing I didn’t have to travel light so I could buy rugs and lamps and stools and cushions. Sigh! The thing I did get was a copper Whirling Dervish (the Sufi mystics) which naturally whirls on it’s stand. I had seen some dervishes perform the night before at the train station (highly recommended) so this was the memory of Istanbul I wanted. Ironically, it is probably heavier than a rug, or 6 cushions, even a stool! But it is easier to pack.

My travel sidekick, Steve, found a must have bedspread and pillowcases. They came with their own bag and were easy to transport as carryon luggage and definitely worth the effort as he now lives with their beauty and quality every day.

Our visit to the Spice Bazaar was a little different. We did this one as part of a tour – a visit to the bazaar then a cruise along the Bosphorus but more of that later.

So, no issue with finding this market. Our driver dropped us off and we plunged straight through the main door. But regardless, although smaller than the Grand Bazaar, it is easy to find because it is located next to the New Mosque (Yeni Cami), which is of course, very old, and beautiful, covered in Dutch tiles and another must visit. Along one side of the exterior are taps and troughs and I watched men arrive, following the call to prayer, and wash their feet before entering the mosque.

Istanbul’s Egyptian Spice Bazaar: Smelly, heavenly

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The cats of Istanbul

The overwhelming sensation of the Spice Bazaar is the smell. It’s heavenly. All those spices and teas mingling. Long strands of flowers hang on the outsides of stalls, and there is stall after stall piled high with brightly coloured spices, Turkish delight (lokum) of many many flavours, other cakes and sweets and foods. There are also natural medicines – honeys and spices. I had a sore throat and the man immediately brought me a rich dark honey. Sadly, there was only one size: jumbo, and I was on a plane the next day. I did buy some throat lozenges though, full of ginger and mint and eucalyptus and they were excellent. I also bought some loose fruit teas, vacuum packed for easy transportation, and, of course, very light-weight. One was a rose petal tea, the other a mixture of fruits. Both delicious and long-lasting – I asked for 200 grams of each and my eyes widened at the size of the bags. But, hey, I am still enjoying that tea!

Outside the Spice Bazaar is a food market. Again, highly colourful and very tempting. We wandered amongst the locals and the cats. There are cats everywhere in Istanbul and they were lying all around the stalls. One empty fruit box had three cats sleeping in it! Wash fruit well!

Cruising along the Bosphorus

Our bus driver picked us up from the Spice Bazaar and drove us to a wharf across the Galata Bridge (which is always lined with fishermen). It was great to be driven around Istanbul a bit because it is such a huge city and when you only have a few days there, you can miss a lot. And the boat ride on the Bosphorus? Worth every second. In fact, I would do it again and even again.

Cruising up the Bosphorus, I was amazed by the history. Palaces (now mostly expensive hotels), and forts, old wooden residential districts and hip students districts. The variety of architectural styles was great: rococo, and art nouveau, a stone hillside fort and traditional wooden Ottoman houses, plus some modern buildings, and the massive suspension bridges. There are two bridges linking the European and Asian sides: the Bosphorus Bridge and the Fatih Bridge. Seeing the traffic at a standstill on these two bridges made me realise the sheer scale of the city. And why people catch the ferries. Even so, it’s a city where you leave plenty of time to make your journey across town.

There was a commentary on our boat, and my head was swinging from side to side trying to take in everything. It was impossible. Istanbul is a place you could go back to a hundred times, seriously, and still have things left to discover. In fact, you could visit the Grand Bazaar that many times and still find new things. Like that fake Hermes Birkin bag! Right in front of me! The godhead of designer accessories, singing its siren song. A waiting list of years for a genuine one. And this was, after all, an Original Copy! Not to mention being a lot, lot cheaper. They almost had me persuaded. Almost.

Philippa Burne

Planning a trip? Browse Viator’s tours and things to do in Istanbul and tours in Turkey. Also check out other Viator blog posts about Istanbul: Hammams in Istanbul, Ode to Istanbul and Istanbul Rules. If you need a place to stay, check out Istanbul Hotels on Planetware.com.



4 Responses to “Things to Do in Istanbul: Go Shopping”

  1. Milk Gallery & Design Store Says:

    Hello from Istanbul.
    We are a new street art gallery located at tünel.
    Please stop by & say hi !

    Milk Gallery & Design Store

  2. charisma Says:

    HI, i plan to visit Istanbul and Antalya in mid february…. is it a good time to go? do the rains spell havoc or are there things to do even then.

  3. Scott Mc Says:

    Hi Charisma.

    Mid-February is definitely a bit wet and cold in Istanbul, a little less so in Antalya. You’ll have plenty to do and see at that time, just be ready for a little chilly weather (especially evenings) and the occasional rain shower.