Stylish Istanbul is a shopper’s paradise, but chic boutiques and glossy shopping malls are only half the story. Don’t miss the total sensory overload of the city’s most ancient bazaars
Through the jazzy red garlands of dried chillies and the dangling cowbells of hollowed aubergines, I spot a fluorescent sign reading ‘POMEGRANATE VIAGRA.’ Naturally, I shuffle closer, and meet a towering mound of what looks like hard caramel studded with hazelnuts. ‘SIX TIMES IN THE NIGHT’ it promises excitedly. The well-dressed middle-aged ladies inspecting it look unimpressed, and move on to the glistening piles of Turkish Delight.
I’m in Istanbul’s bustling Spice Bazaar, at the foot of the beautiful Yeni Camii mosque in the centre of the city. Fine foods and exotic spices have been sold in this indoor market since the 1660s, adding zest and colour to the city’s kitchens, if not necessarily its bedrooms. The love potions and alleged aphrodisiacs on sale today aren’t meant to be taken seriously, but those vivid heaps of spice still pack a punch, the coffee is powerful and the cheeses potent.
A great place to shop for edible souvenirs like nuts, honeycomb, figs and fruit tea, the Spice Bazaar provides the perfect first taste of the Turkish market experience. It’s the ideal venue to warm up your haggling muscles and build your browsing stamina for Istanbul’s most unmissable – and most challenging – shopping experience, the legendary Grand Bazaar.
Sited near Beyazit Square in the University area, the Grand Bazaar or Kapali Çarşi is the world’s largest covered market. Think of it as the world’s oldest shopping mall. From the late 1400s traders congregated here to flog their silks to the discerning shoppers of Istanbul – or Constantinople as it then was. Expanded in the 1500s to cope with the volume of trade, the Grand Bazaar is currently home to more than 4,000 shops spread over 66 indoor alleys making up several kilometres.
In addition to shops, there are banks, cafés, restaurants, a health centre, a police station and a post office all within the bazaar – making it a mini-city in the heart of sprawling Istanbul. The bazaar even has its own ‘city outskirts’ where its manufacturing industries are found – remote, charming back-alleys lined with workshops where you can glimpse craftsmen and artisans creating their wares or just taking a break over a glass of apple tea.
Few shopping experiences are as colourful as this. In the bazaar’s central parts, beautifully decorated vaulted ceilings arch overhead and repeat into the far distance. Beneath them, lavishly displayed in bright profusion, is every imaginable exotic trinket, tea set, curl-toed slipper, florid ceramic, coloured lantern, leather handbag, fine pashmina, Persian carpet, designer watch and golden necklace.
Every stall has its speciality, so the passing landscape shifts from a glowing cavern hung with a hundred coloured lamps to an icy white studio lined with elegant bowls to a wall of intricate rugs to a cascade of leather backpacks. As if absorbing this kaleidoscope wasn’t enough, you must simultaneously dodge the oncoming tide of shoppers and somehow resist the super-friendly onslaught of the traders.
The bazaar is enlivened – almost over-enlivened – by the relentlessly welcoming shopkeepers, who try to hook every passer-by with exhortations to come in, look at this, have tea, buy something. Their friendliness is sales-motivated, certainly, but it’s also genuine. They do want to chat, and they would like to share tea with you, no strings attached. That’s just their culture – hospitable even in the midst of a teeming marketplace.
If you’re a traditional Brit, for whom even a polite ‘may I help you?’ after 10 minutes’ undisturbed browsing causes you to stiffen with embarrassment, it can be exhausting to keep smiling and repeating ‘no thanks!’ and trying to elude a would-be conversation. The classic British desire for privacy is a major handicap in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar! Try to leave it at the door before you come in. Be ready to talk and smile and enjoy every encounter as much as possible.
Another tip: if you’re carrying a map of the bazaar, throw it away. The place is too hectic to stand still and plot a route. You won’t be able to keep your bearings anyway, because each time you try to find the name of the shopping lane you’re standing on, your eye will be distracted by some shiny new novelty for sale. Surrender to the serendipity of the place and simply explore. Drift with the tide of shoppers, follow your whims, see where you end up. And be sure to savour the side streets. Go down the narrowest ones you can find, to catch the craftsmen unawares. They’ll look up curiously, surprised to see a tourist who has drifted so far off course.
Crucially, visit the bazaar in an upbeat mood. Don’t shuffle in feeling tired or hungry – the place is too demanding for that. Drink coffee, have a snack, limber up, and dive in. If you really hate crowds, come mid-week when they’re thinnest. But if you want the thrill of being in the boisterous thick of it, jostle in here on a jam-packed Saturday. The bazaar is open 9am to7pm every day except Sunday.
Finally, a word on haggling. As you’d expect, haggling is the norm in the Grand Bazaar – although it’s nowhere near as florid, protracted or emotional as it might be in, say, the Moroccan souk. The sellers here won’t ask giant prices then expect you to offer a pittance before you each endlessly revise your numbers till you meet in the middle. Life’s too short for all that! Most vendors will expect you to haggle just a bit, and of course you’ll want to too, because it’s part of the fun of being here. Play the game, but don’t get carried away. Small, less expensive items are more likely to have a fixed price than big, costly goods. Keep some dignity, and don’t haggle over trifles!
You can’t visit Istanbul without visiting the Grand Bazaar. For good-quality souvenirs especially, the place is a gold mine. Honour the gods of shopping and make your pilgrimage. Pass it off as exploring a bit of Istanbul’s history if you must!
Where to stay
Swissôtel The Bosphorus
Set in historic parkland on a prime site beside the Bosphorus Strait, this sumptuous modern hotel offers supreme comfort and service. It’s a gigantic place, with 600 guest rooms, an extensive spa, various conference rooms, ballrooms, and several really mouth-wateringly good restaurants. The décor is plush-modern, and panoramic views unfurl from almost every window. Breathtaking.
Centrally located on busy Taksim Square, at the heart of Istanbul’s business district and glossy modern shopping area, the Marmara offers 377 spacious rooms in crisp colours plus extensive business and conference facilities. The best views are on the higher storeys.
Perfectly sited within walking distance of the Blue Mosque, Haghia Sophia, Topkapı Palace and the Grand Bazaar, this characterful little hotel makes a very memorable place to stay. A bright frenzy of traditional coloured lamps hangs from every ceiling. The large, atmospheric rooms are full of antiques, and breakfast is taken in a pretty courtyard full of candelabras and objets d’art. A charming place, run by friendly folk.
This excellent small hotel enjoys a great position in the heart of the historic Sultanahmet district. Its dining terrace gives jaw-dropping vistas of the Blue Mosque, Haghia Sophia and the Hippodrome. Staff are friendly and service is very good. Full Turkish bath facilities.
Where to eat
Loved by locals and by Istanbul-visitors for more than twenty years, Çiya now sprawls across three restaurants on the same narrow street in Istanbul’s Asian half. The wonderfully creative menu of Turkish, Arabian, Balkan, Armenian and Jewish fare includes many long-forgotten dishes and unusual ingredients. Extremely high quality. (Güneşlibahçe Sokak 43-48, Kadıkoy)
Situated just next to Yeni Camii mosque and the Spice Bazaar, this excellent eatery rambles through a five-storey building crowned with a roof terrace that gives glorious views of climbing minarets and the serene Bosphorus. Southeastern Turkish cuisine is the speciality, and it’s beautifully prepared and presented – bursting with colour, flavour, and freshness. Stimulating dishes, good service, and thoroughly genial surroundings. (Tahmis Caddesi, Kalçin Sokak 17, Eminönü)
With its large, elegant dining deck poised over the Bosphorus, this seafood-specialist restaurant has a yachting club ambience. The stylish and wealthy clientele drink in the gorgeous seaside vistas while tucking into the freshest fish. (Küçük Bebek, Cevdet Paşa Caddesi 58, Bebek)
Set high on a hillside overlooking the Bosphorus, this busy yet romantic eatery with gorgeous Eastern décor is a fashionable haunt for the beautiful and powerful. The food – French, Italian and Turkish – is excellent, but it’s the spectacular view and the atmosphere you really come for. (Kireçhane Sokak 1, Adnan Saygun Caddesi, Ulus Parkı, Ulus)
Turkish Airlines, British Airways and easyJet all fly from the UK to Istanbul.