Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, or Kapalı Çarşı in Turkish, at Beyazit, near Sultanahmet, is undoubtedly touristy, so it’s going to have to be my guilty pleasure on this ‘living like locals’ grand tour of ours. Because as much as I love the brilliant shops at Beyoğlu, nothing beats shopping the Grand Bazaar.
Why Go to the Grand Bazaar
The Bazaar boasts some 4,000 shops and stalls crammed with everything Oriental: colourful lamps and lanterns; fine quality carpets and rough-hewn tribal kilims; ceramic tiles, plates, bowls, and baubles; tiny boxes bearing miniature Ottoman miniature paintings; antique jewellery and coloured beads; embroidered and woven textiles; pretty glass Turkish tea glasses and tea pots; beaten brass and copper trays, jugs and urns; and some beautiful antiques and collectibles.
The Best Shops in the Grand Bazaar
Quality varies greatly, from the finest, handmade crafts created by artisans to mass-produced machine-made junk from China so look around and look closely. These are just a few of my favourite shops from the Grand Bazaar:
Abdulla This atmospheric Aladdin’s cave of a store specializes in sensuous bath products and luxe essentials for the home. Everything on its shelves has a story, whether it’s a product the owners have carefully selected or something that’s been made especially for the store. The goat hair hammam wash mits – 60 metres long and cut by hand! – are made by an old man in Anatolia, using his ancestors’ Ottoman-era techniques. Some of the aromatic soap bars are produced by a family of soap-makers, scented with cinnamon, rose, sesame, lavender, and apricot, while other more rustic olive oil soaps are hand-carved by local artisans in Istanbul. The handmade long baton-shaped soaps on a rope can be hung for years; when the bathroom steams up they give off a pungent aroma. The 40-year old bowls, pictured above, are made from recycled copper with designs beaten out by hand. Other finds include 30-100 year old antique textiles, woven on traditional handlooms, and coloured with natural vegetable dyes; 100% wool tribal aprons from the Pomah tribe of Western Turkey; woollen throw rugs from Troy; camel hair Ozbek dresses; and anti-allergic hemp carpets from the Black SeaThrow rugs. But if you only leave with one thing, make it their famous 100% cotton hammam bath towels with an Ottoman-era design on them. Oh, and a bottle of delicious pomegranate syrup, and…
EthniCon Turkish carpets are what most travellers are shopping for in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, with colourful rustic tribal kilims being the souvenir of choice for younger travellers, while more mature shoppers lean toward the finer silky Iranian carpets which are a better longterm investment). Funky EthniCon manages to please everyone with their contemporary rough-hewn, flat-weave rugs that work that can work well in conservative as well as cool spaces. The kilims are eco-friendly, made from recycled old kilims which Ethnicon’s artisans scour the countryside for, then wash and craft them into a striking patchwork carpet, so each piece is unique. Idiosyncratic touches like fringes, buttons, and knots are also worked into the rugs, adding to their distinctive style. Ethnicon use fixed prices, so you don’t have to worry about bargaining and can focus on selecting your perfect rug.
Tombak There are countless shops selling lamps I like Tombak on Koloncular lane. They have an incredible collection of fabulous coloured Turkish and Moroccan-style hanging lamps, lanterns, and chandeliers. While they have the traditional tarnished brass or copper, single coloured glass lamps (in red, blue, orange, and so on), trimmed with Arabesque cut-outs, and hanging neatly from chains – the kind that look stunning hanging in a row on your terrace or balcony – some of the newer designs are even more fabulous and extravagant. One tarnished brass chandelier has a dozen lamps of different sizes and colours hanging from a large round arabesque circle, each a different colour and style, some multi-coloured, others made up of a mosaic of colours – they’re all wild! Tombak also has enchanting candlesticks, big brass trays on tiny wooden legs, beautiful ceramic water jugs and copper coffee pots, and gorgeous coloured glass sheesha pipes.
Yun Art I love the ubiquitous Turkish ‘carpet bags’ and Yun Art does some of the most beautiful ones in the Bazaar. They have handbags, shoulder bags, wallets, purses, overnight bags, and backpacks which are all made from tribal carpets and high quality leather. The kilims used to make the bags come in colourful, geometric patterns from Anatolia, Iran and the Balkans, and are hand-woven by local women in traditional designs, so each pattern is unique.
Bargaining in the Grand Bazaar
Bargaining is a ritual that’s acceptable and even expected everywhere except proper shops such as Abdulla and EthniCon and some of the antique stores – wherever there are price tags generally. Just ask if you’re unsure – you won’t offend anyone. So how does it work? Ask the price of the thing you’re interested in and the sales guy will often start at double the value of the thing, so begin by offering him half. He’ll typically laugh or pretend to be insulted, and will offer you a slightly lower price. Just offer him a slightly higher figure than your original offer. When you’re getting bored with the whole thing, just ask his best price. When it goes well, you should end up meeting each other half way and reach the price he originally expected you’d pay. Don’t begin to bargain unless you’re serious about the thing you want and know your limits, and once you’ve agreed on a price, pay up! It’s too late to back out now. Don’t plan on returning to the Bazaar if you do!
Where to Refuel
Fes Café is our favourite stop for a pick-me-up in the Grand Bazaar. I remember when it first opened – I think I cried because at last there was a café in the Bazaar that served decent Italian espresso. Now, there are quite a few, but Fez is funky, full of character, they have plenty of magazines if you need to clear your head, the waiters are friendly, and they do delicious wraps, sandwiches, and cakes, as well as a wide range of infused teas.
How to Get There
Taxis are cheap in Istanbul, but they’re not the best way to reach the Grand Bazaar as many streets are one way. Instead, take the Zeytinburnu tram up the hill and get off at Carsikapi, and save the taxi for the return trip.