Walking into the Istanbul Grand Bazaar on a crowded Saturday afternoon can give even the bravest of shoppers a meltdown.
With its nearly 5,000 shops, hundreds of thousands of visitors a day and come-hither merchants, even an expert shopper would be forgiven a moment’s hesitation at what is believed to be the world’s most visited attraction. (estimates are between 250,000 – 400,000 visitors a day!)
It doesn’t have to be this way.
“Rather than plunge straight into the heart of the bazaar I’d start with the wholesale section, a little before the main entrance, on Sultanahmet Street,” said Kathy Hamilton, an American journalist who married a Turk and made Istanbul her home. “Just walk in through the archway called Çorlulu Alipaşa on the tramway street…
Kathy should know: she owns Istanbul Personal Shopper, a service that helps take the frenzy and uncertainty out of shopping in this most opulent of cities.
“Many merchants come here to buy their own scarves and carpets so prices are lower,” she said. “There is a lot less hardsell, so it’s a great way to ease into the bazaar.”
It’s all about the money
Once you’re in the bazaar, you should bargain – right?
“Of course you should bargain – and expect to pay about 50-60% of the original asking price, at least for leather goods,” said Kathy. “My advice? Remember your sense of humor, don’t take things personally, and walk out if things don’t feel right. Too many people just don’t do that.”
Bargaining will be harder for other goods, and these days some merchants have set prices and won’t bargain at all. Still, it’s worth a try and all part of the fun, especially if you know what you’re doing.
“Merchants will actually adjust their approach based on how you dress, how you walk, and what you look like. They can usually guess where you’re from and just change their approach,” explained Kathy. That’s smart. And scary…
Kathy loves to guide visitors through the Grand Bazaar, but she’s equally happy to help them with their other shopping needs, from Turkish designer clothes to antiques and handicrafts.
She’s shopped with royalty and celebrities: one singer dropped $50,000 in a day and Kathy had to help her negotiate her excess baggage with the airline! But mostly, she shops with travelers like you and I.
Originally from Texas, Kathy left an environmental fundraising job in Washington DC to move to Turkey because “it just felt right.” The six-foot tall redhead met and married a Turkish carpet salesman, had a son, got divorced, and in the process fell in love with her adopted country and stayed.
She still visits the US regularly but for now, Istanbul is home. She sounds like a local when she opens her mouth, pitching greetings left and right, asking about children and sounding absolutely at ease.
The Grand Bazaar: older than old
The Grand Bazaar looks as if it’s been around forever, and with some reason: merchants were trading in the original wood structure (the brick and stonework came later) in 1461.
The bazaar, initially commissioned by Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror, began life as two separate markets which over time grew and joined. At its height, during the 17th-18th centuries, the bazaar was bigger, better and more important than any market in Europe. Like a phoenix, it rose from the ashes of repeated fires and earthquakes until merchants began to be driven out of business by mass-produced Western goods.
The bazaar has found its footing again, thanks in great part to the waves of tourists that started with the hippie trail to Asia in the sixties and the expansion of mass tourism after that.
These days the Grand Bazaar has eleven gates, 60 streets, four fountains, two hammams and at least one delicious place to eat, Pedaliza.
It is a sensual adventure of colors and smells and textures, a mirage of burgundies and crimsons and turquoises that threaten to hypnotize and draw you into a tale of mysterious Eastern nights. I’m getting carried away but these alleys have done a good job of transporting me straight to another world.
Not that it’s perfect, mind you, because it’s not right for all kinds of shopping.
“Leather is fine, and so are jewelry and antiques,” Kathy said, “but don’t even think of buying shoes here.”
Getting around this giant marketplace is not as hard as it looks and similar trades are often grouped. The central part for example is dedicated to jewelry. In Ottoman times this area was a vault with locking gates at each end. It was used as a safe of sorts and was the bazaar’s most fireproof area.
Most people go to the bazaar to pick up a few souvenirs, a bag or a silk scarf and that’s fine except that the bazaar’s soul is really hidden in tiny shops around dark corners which I never would have found on my own.
Take Murat Bilir of L’Orient, whose shop windows are so crowded with brass coffee makers, ink and quill sets, hammam clogs and gunpowder weights you don’t know where to look. He knows the exact provenance of every single item and has people who scour the country for cultural objects, things that were actually used by people long ago (not antiquities though – they’re banned from export).
“I always try to find the right match for a customer,” he said. “I have an emotional relationship with every item and want to make sure they have a good home and don’t end up in a garage sale somewhere. They are the silent witnesses of their time.”
Artists and their artistry
Down the alley and around another corner is Nick Merdenyan, whose unique calligraphy on Dieffenbachia and Caladium leaves sets him apart not just from other merchants but from artists as well.
A lover of all things green, he broke off dying leaves of a houseplant received as a gift for his son’s baptism and pressed them between the pages of a book. He eventually rediscovered them and their dried, transparent, silky beauty inspired him instantly. He sought the advice of expert calligraphers in the bazaar and when he saw the leaves could be used for calligraphy, nothing could stop him.
Each drawing means something and is usually related to tolerance, kindness or other virtues.
“It’s a lengthy process,” said Merdenyan, “the leaves have to dry – or sleep – for a year. They then wake up and I dress them with messages of tolerance.”
Calligraphy is applied with a cat’s hair brush and he uses gold leaf and his own special paints. His most important work?
“It took more than two months to finish.” Imagine that; two months for a single leaf.
By morning’s end I felt far less initimidated by this gigantic market, so much so that I returned the next day without Kathy, emboldened by her advice. I applied her lessons, went back to her favorite merchants, and walked away with a few too many silk scarves.
I was in Istanbul, after all.
- You’ll find Kathy Hamilton at Istanbul Personal Shopper. Her half-day Istanbul Grand Bazaar walk costs US$250 for you and your friends but if you plan to do any shopping at all you’ll get that money back in no time. I saved at least that much because of the prices she negotiated. If you’re going shopping with Kathy make a short list of what you need and let her have it ahead of time. This will give her a chance to find the best deals for you and save you a lot of time. And she’s great fun!
- To get to the Istanbul Grand Bazaar take the tram that snakes through Sultanahmet. Get off at the Beyazit stop and walk downhill about a block until you reach a vaulted passageway called Corlulu Alipasa Medresesi (plus a few accents I can’t find on my keyboard). You’ll be entering the wholesale area.
- A map of the Grand Bazaar will help you get around.
- If you love originality, don’t forget to drop by Nick’s to see his amazing leaf calligraphy (and that’s not all he does). If you want genuine cultural objects you’ll find them at Murat Bilir’s shop, L’Orient.
- Pay particular attention to the quality of goods. The price of a machine-woven raw silk scarf that is modest in size will be a lot lower than that of a hand-woven larger shawl. In other words, compare apples with apples.
- Watch your stuff. You’re in a huge market. Enough said.
- The bazaar is not great for window shopping: the moment you stop to admire something you’ll be approached. That’s the not-so-fun part.
- Remember that the bazaar is closed on Sundays! If you forgot, it’s not a lost cause because you’re only five minutes from Hagya Sofia, the Blue Mosque and the Basilica Cistern. Not to mention the awesome pastries at the Hafiz Mustafa Literary Café right across from the Sultanahmet tramway stop.