This post was originally posted by theHipmunk on the Hipmunk’s Tailwind Blog on November 1, 2015.
Ever a city of cultural convergence and commerce, modern Istanbul’s 11 to 12 million annual international visitors can find themselves beckoned into shops and restaurants in their native tongues. There are a great many things to see in Turkey, but for the traveler looking for a truly unique experience, the Grand Bazaar is a feast for the senses. Constructed in the 1450s following the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople, the Grand Bazaar is alive with color, smells, and sounds. With over 5000 shops, the market is open from 9:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., Monday through Saturday, with closures on Sundays and bank holidays. Here are some tips having an optimal shopping experience in the Grand Bazaar, so grab some Turkish Lira (currently 0.36 to the US dollar) and hit the market where the wandering visitor can find everything from fortune telling rabbits, to vibrant textiles, rich spices, and much more.
Where to Stay
If you’re looking for a place to stay in the middle of it all, at Niles Hotel Istanbul – Special Class, the rooms have Ottoman style décor, and air conditioning or the DoubleTree by Hilton Istanbul Old Town for modern chic with affordable prices.
Hitting the Grand Bazaar
Upon first entering the Grand Bazaar, expect to immediately see a dozen things you want to buy. It is a rookie mistake to commit to the first eye catching object, so try to refrain from buying the first thing you see. Instead, spend some time walking around and observing many shops (with a smartphone, it’s easy to pin the location to return later) to get an idea of price range and item selection. With some 5,000 shops stretching 60 streets, there is a lot to see. The high domed Cevâhir Bedesten at the market’s center was originally constructed by Sultan Mehmet II as a dedicated area for the trade of textiles. The building still stands, and continues to house some of the market’s most precious objects and antiques. There’s much to see, so consider staying at the Barcelo Saray Hotel for easy return trips.
Many shopkeepers will offer çay, or tea, to browsing patrons. To refuse is rude, though acceptance at some 16 shops might very well be a bit much. To avoid coming out of an afternoon feeling like a water balloon, politely accept and sip, accepting does not commit the shopper to making a purchase.
Haggling like a Pro
Many Americans are inexperienced with haggling or bargaining, but it is typical in a great many countries around the world. It is common to feel uncomfortable or embarrassed when starting out, but trust us, it can be quite fun and exhilarating once you’ve had some practice and walk out of a transaction with a great price! Vendors will often intentionally inflate prices because they 1) expect patrons to bargain, and 2) generally charge more to tourists. To get a feel for fair prices and how to bargain, it can help to try to inconspicuously observe locals haggling. If the price is wrong, one might try thanking the vendor and moving to leave the shop, at which point, the vendor may counter by asking what price you want. Alternatively, the vendor may walk away, but if you refuse to cave, and the last price was not too far off from reasonable, they may return to resume haggling. It can also be helpful to find two vendors with the same item and play them off one another. While you should be confident and firm while bargaining, keep your tone light and friendly. The business owners often have families to support, so don’t be rude.
When a particular item catches your eye, avoid showing too much interest or enthusiasm, especially if that item is rare as the shop owner will know they have the upper hand as they know you cannot find another vendor with a potentially better price and will stay firm.
If haggling still feels uncomfortable, there will be shops with fixed sticker prices, but expect to pay much more at such establishments.
No trip to the Grand Bazaar would be complete without shopping for a Turkish carpet. However, this can be quite an expensive process, and it is very difficult to know the value of the prospects. If you want to be safe, try a trusted shop, as many carpets are now manufactured in China and it can be difficult to tell—there is a list of trusted shops here (though it is certainly worth while to visit small shops in the Bazaar). There is a range of materials, like silk or wool; designs, which are specific to the different cultures who hand-make the rugs (the more intricate the pattern, the more expensive); dyes, natural and chemical (natural dyes are less subject to fading, and do so more gracefully than chemical dyes); number of knots per square meter (the more knots, the better made, the more expensive); sizes (prayer rug sized to large).
Visit several carpet shops, where the vendors will treat you to a show of their wares (this can take hours). Do not buy on the first day, but rather, return to your favorite shop after having visited several, getting a sense for colors, patterns, and prices. Always buy handmade rugs. Again, definitely haggle for the price, but do so respectfully and with some humor.
Consider how to get a purchase home—a canvas duffel bag lined with plastic can help protect the textiles, though some shops offer shipping services.
Dressing to Local Customs
While foreign visitors are not expected to dress according to local customs, when visiting any of the mosques, one must dress appropriately for admittance.
At the Aya Sofya or Blue Mosque, which are very close to the Grand Bazaar, men must wear long pants, and women must wear cover to mid shins. Women must also don a wrap or pashmina covering their heads. Wraps are supplied at the entrance of the Blue Mosque, free of charge or more stylish choices can be purchased easily in the Grand Bazaar.
A day of haggling can work up an appetite. There are incredible options available to the traveler, but we recommend heading over to the Galata Bridge for an Istanbul fish sandwich. Fishermen catch, grill, and serve their catches fresh on their boats so you can enjoy a delicious, fresh dinner while watching the sunset over the Golden Horn!