Shopping Nirvana at Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar

If you’re recovering from a shopping addiction, Istanbul – particularly the older, tourist-packed areas like Sultanahmet and Eminönü – is probably not the place for you. From every shop window, golden and silver jewelry winks, rich carpets beg to be touched, and vibrant piles of spices and teas tickle your nose with their pungent scents. I’d love to meet the person who makes it out of Istanbul without having lightened their wallet at least a little bit; they’d have to have a miserly will as unyielding as the strongest iron.

One of the main corridors of the bazaar.
One of the main corridors of the bazaar.

Of all the places to spend your lira in Istanbul, the most famous is probably the Grand Bazaar, a covered market that collects some four thousand stalls that peddle everything from jewelry to lamps to knock-off designer clothing to belly dancing outfits. Ceramics, embroidery, spices, Turkish delight, carpets…they’re all in the Kapalıçarşı (in Turkish, “covered market). Whatever souvenir you’re looking for, you’ll likely find it in droves, in every color and price range imaginable, at the Grand Bazaar. Located in the Beyazit neighborhood, it’s an overwhelmingly complicated maze of shops where you can haggle to your heart’s content, and no trip to Istanbul is complete without a few hours spent winding down its corridors.

Though the Grand Bazaar is technically separated into sections according to the wares sold – silver jewelry, leather goods, and carpets, for example – those only seem to be the slightest of guidelines. You’ll find Turkish lamps, their glass mosaic designs glittering in the light, butting up against piles of silver rings, which just happen to be right next to the long-handled coppered cups used to make Turkish coffee.

Going into the Grand Bazaar looking for one specific shop is sort of like trying to find a hay-colored needle in a haystack. It’s far better to wend your way through the corridors without any specific direction in mind. If you see something you’d like, just go ahead and buy it, because the chances of finding that specific shop again are pretty slim.

Though the original structure still stands, plenty of modern touches have been added.
Though the original structure still stands, plenty of modern touches have been added.

Nowadays, the Grand Bazaar resembles a very large, confusing shopping mall more than the traditional market it was when it opened in the mid-15th century. If you go to the bazaar expecting to step back several centuries of time, you’ll be sorely disappointed. Though the brickwork and shell of the bazaar bear the wear and tear of the years, the bells and whistles that have been added on are thoroughly modern. A good portion of the vendors accept credit cards, and TV screens bearing advertisements hang on some of the arches in the main thoroughfare.

The number one thing I wanted from the Grand Bazaar: a good quality mosaic lamp. (And I ended up with two.)
The number one thing I wanted from the Grand Bazaar: a good quality mosaic lamp. (And I ended up with two.)
Seriously, I was all about the lamps.
Seriously, I was all about the lamps.

If there’s one thing to remember in the Grand Bazaar, it’s to barter like your life depends on it. Haggling is not only accepted, but expected. Paying the asking price on any major purchase is a rookie’s mistake. The general rule of thumb for bargaining is to start at somewhere between a third and a half of the original price and work from there. Spend enough time in a shop with more expensive wares – like high quality lamps, carpets, or jewelry – and you’ll likely be offered a tulip-shaped glass full of tea to sip while you peruse the shelves and the salesperson tries to talk you into parting with a good portion of your cash. Just remember: don’t rush, and if the vendor isn’t lowering the price like you want them to, walk away. You’ll probably find a similar product at the stall around the corner.

Case in point: I really wanted a pair of the above copper mugs, which are used to drink ayran, a salty yogurt drink. When I found some in the bazaar, the original price for one was 65 lira (about 32 USD). In the end, I ended up getting two for 40 lira (20 USD) total. Was the price probably still high? Most likely, but I ended up saving forty dollars on the pair, which I count as a victory.
Case in point: I really wanted a pair of the above copper mugs, which are used to drink ayran, a salty yogurt drink. When I found some in the bazaar, the original price for one was 65 lira (about 32 USD). In the end, I ended up getting two for 40 lira (20 USD) total. Was the price probably still high? Most likely, but I ended up saving forty dollars on the pair, which I count as a victory.

All that being said, if you’re looking to make a big purchase, bargaining can only get you so far. For something like a handmade carpet, you’ll likely still end up shelling out at least a few hundred dollars (and probably upwards of a thousand) for an authentic piece. And whatever the final price ends up being, know that, as a tourist, you’ll almost certainly end up paying more than a native Turkish person would. But when you emerge back out into the sunlight, laden down with plenty of newly purchased presents, at least you’ll have plenty of cool stuff to stuff into your suitcase when you return home.

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