Buy One Get Him Free: Navigating Istanbul’s Many Markets
It’s hot, it’s crowded and like most of Istanbul, it’s ancient. I hold tight to my handbag whilst trying to navigate the narrow winding streets, crammed with tourists, touts and busy Turkish housewives.
Shopkeepers holler from outside their overcrowded stores – “Hello pretty lady!”, “Can I help you spend your money?” Unfortunately I’m not in the market for carpet, rugs or leather bags.“Jeans, jeans! Buy one get him free” says a young man dressed like an extra from Jersey Shore and pointing at what looks like his five year old brother. Neil and I burst out laughing before denying his offer and heading deeper into the maze that is Istanbul’s markets.
It’s estimated that as many as 200 markets are underway each week in Istanbul, some covered, some open-air. Some, like the Egyptian Spice Market and the Grand Bazaar, have been in operation since the 15th and 17th centuries when traders from all over Europe and the Orient would come to sell their wares. Nowadays you’ll find everything from back-street book sellers to glittering gem-encrusted jewelry merchants and my personal favourite – stacks and stacks of Baklava.
Dating back to 1461, the Grand Bazaar is one of the oldest and largest covered markets in the world (and Istanbul). Originally built of wood it has grown over the centuries to sprawl some 31,000 square metres over 61 streets. Somewhat of a tourist trap the market is said to contain 4,000 plus shops full of Turkish trinkets – carpets and rugs, pottery, leather goods, lanterns, shisha pipes and spices. Most of the shops are grouped by the goods they sell so if you’re looking for something specific (gold perhaps) once you’ve found one the others will be close by.
Open 9AM – 7PM. Closed Sundays. Divanyolu Caddesi 42, Sultanahmet
Nestled between the Beyazid Mosque and the Grand Bazaar, the second-hand book bazaar is the perfect place to pick up a couple of holiday reads. Built on the same site as the book and paper market of the Byzantines, it used to be the main point for book sale and distribution within the Ottoman Empire.
Open Mon – Sat. Çadırcılar Caddesi Beyazıt btwn Grand Bazaar & Beyazit Mosque
Originally the market was built to fund the upkeep of the nearby Blue Mosque. Smaller in size than those markets already mentioned it’s a bit more modern and low-key, which provided the perfect atmosphere for a spot of hassle-free window-shopping. It’s also home to a 24hour tea garden and a nightly whirling Dervishes Show.
Open daily, 9AM-7PM. Arasta Carsisi 143, Sultanahmet
Egyptian Spice Market
The 17th century Egyptian Spice Market is a foodies dream come true. The tiny streets are crammed with all kinds of mouth-watering delicacies (including my beloved baklava). You’ll find olives, cheeses, dried fruit and nuts, essential oils, tiers of Turkish delight and stacks of spices, including Iranian saffron.
Open daily. Marpuccular Caddesi No.7, Eminönü.
Other honourable market mentions include the Fatih Carsamba or Wednesday Market and the Inebolu Sunday Market.
Lessons We Learned
- Cover up. It’s not a mosque, but if you don’t want to be hassled (any more than usual) make sure you’re not inviting any unwanted attention. I made the mistake of wearing a singlet top and attracted a few whistles and many offers of marriage, whilst it wasn’t anything serious it became it bit overwhelming and was soon solved by covering up with a long sleeved sweatshirt.
- Crowd control. If you don’t like crowds try and go as early as possible, many of the narrow streets become crowded and claustrophobic as the day progresses.
- Dollars and sense. Always pay in Turkish Lira (TL), it’s not that you can’t pay in other currencies it’ll likely cost you more though.
- Haggle. If you’re after a bargain there’s no harm in haggling. Sometimes you’ll be told no and sometimes you’ll save some substantial coin. Worth the risk I think.
- Learn to say no. The entrances to the markets are often inundated by children selling everything from bracelets to tissues. Unless you want to be followed for the remainder of the afternoon a simple no thankyou works wonders.
- No photos. With so many amazing sights to snap it’s hard not to go photo crazy. Some shopkeepers have signs saying “no pictures please” so keep this mind whilst you’re busy clicking away.
- Watch your wallet. Pickpockets operate in most large cities but overcrowded market places full of tourists provide the perfect hunting ground.