Shopping in Istanbul: where to shop in Sultanahmet

by jennifer.hattam

Shopping for traditional Turkish crafts in the Grand Bazaar and the rest of Istanbul’s historical Old City

Its twisting streets and alleys piled high with colourful objects from around the world, Istanbul's historic Grand Bazaar (Kapalı Çarşışı), while increasingly catering to tourists, remains a fascinating -- and often intimidating -- place to shop. The bazaar is roughly divided into streets, sections, or hans selling similar-looking items, few with price tags, an organisational principle that makes it hard for the newbie to know where to start. The touts stationed in front of most shops, of course, are convinced their store should be your first and only destination. The Turkish phrase "Sadece bakıyorum" (I'm just looking) can be helpful, but probably won't dissuade many of them. Don't feel bad about just walking on by if you're not interested in what's on offer or if a shopkeeper's overly persistent approach puts you off.

Carpets, kilims, and other textiles

Haggling in a carpet store is a quintessential Istanbul shopping experience. While learning about carpets and their craftsmanship can take a lifetime, some basic tips are to check that the carpet lies flat, that the colours aren't bleeding into each other, and that the pattern seems balanced. For all but the most serious investors, the important thing is that the carpet will find a well-loved placed in your home, so think carefully about where you'll put it and if the colours and style suit the rest of your décor. Take your time, look at lots of carpets, drink lots of tea, and don't hesitate to say you'll think about it and come back later. Most carpet shops also sell kilims, a type of flat-woven mat with no pile, and many deal in the colourful Central Asian tapestries called suzanis as well.

Recommended carpet dealers in the Grand Bazaar include the Anatolian Carpet Shop (Ressam Basmacılar Sokak No. 62-64), Mümin Ticaret (Koltukçular Sokak No. 1-2), Adnan & Hasan (Halicilar Caddesi No. 89-92), and Sisko Osman (www.siskoosman.com, Zincirli Han No. 15), as well as Cocoon at Kuçuk Aya Sofya Sokak No. 13 and in the Arasta Bazaar, once the palace stables and now a smaller version of the Grand Bazaar itself.

Behind the Hippodrome, Tulu (www.tulutextiles.com, Üçler Sokak No. 9/1) sells bed sets, scarves, baby clothes, and other textile products with original designs from the store's own line. Near the Grand Bazaar amid rug-mending workshops, Ali Textile (Çorlulu Ali Paşa Medrese, Yeniçeriler Caddesi No. 36/15), sells bags and cushion covers made from old carpets and kilims.

Traditional Turkish bath products

Traditional hamam (Turkish bath) products are also popular purchases. Yılmazlar (Grand Bazaar, Yorgancılar Caddesi) and Jennifer's Hamam (www.jennifershamam.com, Arasta Bazaar No. 135) sell high-quality robes and towels; Abdulla (www.abdulla.com, Alibaba Türbe Sokak No. 25) specialises in natural soaps and handmade linens; Dervis (www.dervis.com, Grand Bazaar, Keseciler Caddesi No. 33) offers a full line of bath goods, including traditional wooden clogs and copper rinsing bowls; and Egin Tekstil (Grand Bazaar, Yağlıkçılar Caddesi No. 1 & 50) is full of peştamals -- the traditional bath wraps used to cover up in the communal hamams -- in many patterns and colours.

Jewellery and accessories

Gold dealers line Kalpakçılar Başı Caddesi, the wide street running along the south edge of the Grand Bazaar, selling jewellery by weight. (Silver pieces are generally priced the same way.) For something more unusual, try Ak Gümüş (www.ak-gumus.com, Gani Celebi Sokak No. 8 & 12 and Keseciler Caddesi No. 68-70, all in the bazaar), which specialises in imports from Central Asia, including chunky beaded necklaces with silver pendants and colourful felt jewellery, among other charming felt products. Outside the bazaar, Maya's Corner next to The Kybele Hotel has funky handmade jewellery, while Igüs Tekstil (Yağlıkçılar Caddesi No. 80) and Seda Tekstil (Cevahir Bedesten, Kapısı Sokak No. 28/30), both in the Grand Bazaar, carry a wide variety of scarves and pashminas.

Antiques

The oldest, most interior part of the Grand Bazaar, the İç Bedestan or Cevahir Bedesteni, is home to dealers of every kind of antique, from silver tableware (Kapris Silver House, No. 39-40) to diamond brooches (Helen Antik, Şerifağa Sokak No. 68), hand-carved pipes (Nick’s Calligraphy Corner, Şerifağa Sokak No. 24) to maritime instruments (Minyatür, No. 31-34). Be sure to note that antiques that are more than 100 years old cannot be taken out of the country without a certificate from a museum or the Culture Ministry in Ankara.

Other things to buy

Tarkan Özbudak (Yağlikçilar Caddesi, Çukur Han No. 4) and İznik Classics (İç Bedesten, Serifağa Sokak No. 188), both in the Grand Bazaar, specialise in the colourfully patterned tiles and ceramic goods for which Turkey -- and particularly its İznik region -- are well-known.

Handmade clothes, table linens, dolls and toys, and accessories such as wallets and key chains are the specialty at Deli Kızın Yeri (Grand Bazaar, Halıcılar Caddesi No. 82).

You'll find jewellery and housewares inspired by Ottoman-era motifs such as tulips and traditional mosaic tilework at Özlem Tuna's Design Zone (www.designzone.com.tr, Alibaba Türbe Sokak No. 21/4), and artisans practicing and selling their traditional wares -- including calligraphy, glassware, miniatures, and embroidery -- at the Istanbul Handicrafts Market (Sanatlar Çarşışı, Kabasakal Sokak No. 23).

Bargaining in the Grand Bazaar

Bargaining is typical -- and necessary -- in most of the Grand Bazaar and many shops around the Sultanahmet area. A standard rule of thumb is to start out by offering half the price initially stated; it's a bit of an art to discern whether the shopkeeper's subsequent outrage is real or faked. No matter how much free tea you drink or how many goods you look at, it's OK to walk away without buying anything, but once you've agreed on a price while bargaining, it would be very rude not to carry through with the purchase.

More expert advice on Istanbul

For suggestions on where to stay in Istanbul, see my Istanbul Hotels – Award winning expert hotel reviews, from cheap to luxury hotels in Istanbul page.

Read my shopping overview on my Shopping in Istanbul page.

jennifer.hattam

I work as a news editor at Turkey's leading English-language paper, the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review, which keeps me up-to-date on everything from political campaigns to coup plots to the latest cultural events in Istanbul. Writing freelance dispatches for publications such as the luxury lifestyle magazine Ayn, the Abu Dhabi-based daily The National, the online magazine Salon.com, and the popular U.S. technology magazine Wired meanwhile allows me to peek into new cultural, political, and historical corners of this ever-fascinating city in greater depth.

I was smitten with Turkey on my first visit to the country, in 2001, and have now been living in Istanbul for more than three years, regularly renewing my love affair with the city by gallery- and bar-hopping in Beyoğlu, clambering on the Byzantine city walls, and swimming in secluded coves on the Bosphorus. As an inveterate urban explorer, news junkie, avid photographer, and enjoyer of a good night out, I find Istanbul hits all my buttons -- excepting, alas, the yen for microbrews and Burmese food.

I write about my travels, linguistic misadventures, and daily observations about expat life at http://theturkishlife.blogspot.com.

My Istanbul

Where I always grab a coffee: With its funky-old-house interior, large patio, and artsy vibe, centrally located Kafe Ara (named for the famous Turkish photographer Ara Güler) is the perfect place to meet for a leisurely chat with friends or while away the afternoon with a book.

My favourite stroll: Every time I walk along the waterfront from, say, the Sakıp Sabancı Museum in Emirgan to Bebek for an ice cream, I ask myself why I don't do it more often. The Bosphorus views and sea breezes always give me new energy. For a more urban experience, I love crossing the Galata Bridge on foot, watching the passing boats, the crowds of fishermen, and the giddy tourists, before being swept up into the chaotic warren of streets in Eminönü, where everything from cheap pajamas to heating stoves to wooden spoons is on offer.

Books for inspiration: Nobel Prize-winning writer Orhan Pamuk's memoir Istanbul is a loving, if melancholy, ode to the city, while Elif Şafak's novel The Flea Palace has been described as a Turkish-style Tales of the City. Latife Tekin explores a darker side of Istanbul life with her Berji Kristen, a somewhat surreal story set in a community built on a garbage dump. For lighter fare, Jason Goodwin's Ottoman-era mystery The Janissary Tree is an atmospheric page-turner.

City on screen: Istanbul's twisting streets and dramatic backdrops seem made for action flicks, from the James Bond classic From Russia with Love and the 1960s French heist movie Topkapı to the 2009 global-banking thriller The International. Films by Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Distant), Semih Kaplanoğlu (Egg), and Fatih Akın (Head-On) give viewers a taste of modern Turkish cinema along with an intimate perspective on the city.

Where to be seen this summer: Life is lived outdoors during Istanbul's sticky, sweltering summers, whether on a rooftop bar or a sidewalk café. The Cihangir neighbourhood has a café culture to rival any in Europe, with the White Mill Café and nearby Limonlu Bahçe offering shade and socializing day and night in their "hidden gardens." Rooftop bars like Balkon in Asmalımescit and My House near Taksim have great views without too much pretence.

The most breathtaking view: A ramble up through the leafy hillside cemeteries of the Eyüp district is rewarded with a sweeping view down the Golden Horn from the Pierre Loti Café, while those who hike up to Yoros Castle above Anadolu Kavağı (the last stop on the Bosphorus Tour) can gaze out over the seemingly endless Black Sea and the undulating green hills leading back to the city.

The best spot for some peace and quiet: The car-free Büyükada - The Princes’ Islands is the classic Istanbullu getaway -- escape from the city for the price of a ferry ride. If you must go on a summer weekend, try the lesser-visited Heybeliada or Burgazada. Pure bliss, though, if you have enough people and/or money, is to charter a boat for a day trip up the Bosphorus, to sunbathe, grill fish, and swim in the secluded coves at the northernmost end of the strait.

Shopaholics beware: There's always something enticing to buy in this city of salesmen. The Grand Bazaar is a must-see on most visitors' itineraries for its sheer size and chaos, but to pick up evil eyes, prettily patterned ceramics, and other typical Turkish gifts for visits home, I prefer the much smaller Spice Bazaar in Eminönü or (to escape the "Hello, lady, I have very nice carpet. You like?" gauntlet altogether), the Avrupa Pasajı, a quiet arcade off the bustling Balık Pazarı in Beyoğlu. The new city's Cihangir, Çukurcuma, and Galata districts are increasingly good places to find boutiques offering clothing by up-and-coming designers and other out-of-the-ordinary items.

City soundtrack: Ship horns on the Bosphorus mixed with the cries of street vendors, the five-times-daily call to prayer, taxi horns honking, and whatever pop hit of the moment is pumping out of all the stores and bars on İstiklal Avenue.

Don't leave without… Joining the throngs on İstiklal on a weekend night and feasting on mezes while drinking rakı at a raucous street-side meyhane in Nevizade or Asmalımescit.