How to navigate your way through Istanbul’s shopping mecca
By: Urmila Ramakrishnan
Stained glass lanterns twinkle as shop owners make every attempt to beckon you into their stores. Rows and rows of water pipes stand on shelves, carpets are piled high and cloth-woven purses hang from hooks. It’s a real Turkish delight at the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. How to navigate the historic covered shopping maze that spans more than 60 streets is another story all together. It’s the one place where you can find all Turkey has to offer, from traditional rugs and pashmina scarves to some of the most mouthwatering kebobs and sweets. Built from the former palace of Sultan Mehmed II, the Bazaar was later renovated and expanded in 1894 after an earthquake. If walking around and gazing at each of the more than 5,000 shops isn’t your forte, here are some stops for a successful shopping experience.
Lale Sterling: Shop for jewelry and the iconic “evil eye” pendant at this store, known for its silver pieces. An elderly man manages the storefront, located in the southeastern corner of the bazaar. If he gets you to walk into the store, be prepared to start a conversation with the shop owner. Prices start high, but with some strategic bargaining, you can walk out with a one-of-a-kind piece for a fraction of the asking cost.
Kara Mehmet Kebap Salonu’s kebabs: If you have an insatiable hunger for the best kebobs in the city, Kara Mehmet is the best contender. Tucked away in the Cebeci Han corner of the bazaar, it’s worth the trek for a taste of the lamb kebob and tabouli salad. We recommend getting a variety of side dishes to eat with your main plate. The restaurant also has a traditional falafel and an adana kebab for vegetarians. The little hole-in-the-wall is a delicious way to take a break from walking, bargaining and the bustle of the market.
Cevahir Bedesten: Head over to this high dome for some of the most valuable antiques, from furniture to water pipes and amber prayer beads. Keep an eye out for vibrant blue cobalt ceramic plates. The art of this handicraft dates back to the eighth and ninth centuries. Expect to play a few bargaining games to get the price you want, about 40 to 50 percent of the asking price. Walking out of the store once or twice before you get buy your prize is normal and expected. Aside from shopping, it’s also a great place to experience culture. There are two mosques and two hamams in the complex.
Fes Café: Stop in for an apple tea, Turkish coffee or a Turkish delight—a gelatinous sweet treat. This cozy nook has local artwork and a relaxed ambience. Listen to music as you watch people walk by. Embrace the multiple colors and trinkets without being harassed by merchants. It’s a wonderful way to enjoy the chaos of the Bazaar.
Abdulla: This store sits right next to Fes Café. As you sip your tea, lavender and rose fragrances waft over from next door. Abdulla is famous for its luxurious all-natural soaps, infused with authentic Turkish essential oils from rose to olive. It’s the most affordable way to bring the hamam home.
Nick’s Calligraphy Corner: Nick Merdenyan has been at the grand bazaar since 1968. He uses fallen Dieffenbachia and Caladium leaves to create his calligraphy masterpieces. The storefront is a treeless museum of artistry, with calligraphy for Islam, Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism. His work has been recognized around the world, and is one of the most authentic in the city.
L’orient: One of the most authentic places to find Turkish handicrafts and antiques is at L’orient. Owner Murat Bilir has more than 46 years of experience in the market and has a reputation for metalwork. Here, you can find intricately engraved copper lanterns, metal inkwells and woodprints. The shop resembles the same metal work that goes back to the seventh or eighth millennium B.C. Find it in the northeastern side of the market.
ŞİŞKO OSMAN HALICILIK: As you enter the cobblestone courtyard of Zincirli Han, you can spot Şişko Osman. Turkey is well known for its woven carpets, and this shop is possibly one of the better places to find authentic kilims and rugs. The family-owned business is four-generations in the making. They still have the custom of having young women hand weave every rug with natural virgin lamb wool and root dye. If you’re looking for an antique rug collection, the shop also carries unique pieces, as well as silk palace rugs that resemble those used in the Ottoman Empire.
Istanbul Personal Shopper: If it’s still too much to wander around on your own, $250 (about 503 Turkish Lira) can get you a personal shopper to find what you’re looking for. The shopper will pinpoint your exact needs and wants for souvenirs and do the bargaining for you. Take the shopper beyond the Grand Bazaar and into the Spice Bazaar for a full day excursion. You can tailor your shopping experience to specific trips, from textiles to a foodie adventure.
If you find yourself lost in the midst of all the shopping, take this map with you. The plus side about the bazaar is that most shops are grouped by what they sell. Find leather works in the brown area, gold and silver in the yellow, antiques in the orange-brown, handbags and other suitcases in the pink, clothing in the purple and ceramics and souvenirs in pink and green. Admission is free, but wear your walking shoes and bring cash. Want to learn more about the Grand Bazaar? Check out the official or merchant’s website. Open Monday to Saturday 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Closed Sundays and bank holidays.
Urmila Ramakrishnan bleeds Minnesota nice. Residing from the suburbs of the Minneapple (aka Minneapolis), she’s a true Midwesterner, with a hint of spice. The Indian-American caught the travel bug as a baby and has been feeding it since. In her 23 years, she’s been to more then 23 countries. And that’s not her only hobby. Like most twenty-somethings, she has way too many interests and wants to do them all at the same time. In trying to find that one full-time job as a journalist, she started her own food blog and YouTube channel. The unconventional foodie loves to nosh on everything from sushi and laksa to grilled cheese and pizza. Between applying for jobs, attempting food adventures on a budget and managing her social media, Urmila harbors a secret love for kickboxing and mixed martial arts. She started training after a women’s self-defense class, and it’s the one thing that keeps her body as active as her mind (not to mention totally legit). Her one piece of advice is to do what you love. It’s that philosophy that got her into writing, and she loves every adventure that’s come with it.
All photos in slideshow are also shot by Urmila. Top image by Jano Silva