“Hey American, where are you from?” Even with a backpack full of clanging copper bowls and carpets, the shopkeepers in the Grand Bazaar will still peddle their wares as if buying six Persian rugs and a hookah is an everyday purchase. They’re not shy about letting you know they want your money and will do their best to get it by bellowing out well-worn phrases and telling you that their cousin lives in America too. It’s practically impossible to have a hassle-free experience, so consider haggling a traditional part of visiting the cultural centre of Istanbul.
For travellers, exploring the alleyways of ancient bazaars across Europe, Africa and Asia must be one of the most enchanting ways to absorb a culture. The labyrinth of tunnels and secret pathways burst with local produce and crafts that tell stories of the way life used to be. Old market streets and even older bazaars are today some of the grandest tourist attractions in cities across the world, and the pinnacle of them all is Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar.
Along uneven cobblestone pathways, the footsteps of merchants and traders have walked the streets of Byzantine for centuries. In the hope of invigorating trade after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople, the original marketplace was built in 1455. Its original name “bedesten” translates to ‘bazaar of the cloth sellers’ where bolts of cloth and hand-woven tapestries were sold. It stood alongside the Sultan’s Palace and within a matter of a few years had grown into a bustling square. Hard to imagine that almost 500 years later, the Grand Bazaar would take first place as the world’s major tourist attraction.
The Grand Bazaar is located inside the walled city of Istanbul and is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world, with 61 covered streets and over 4,000 shops. It stands within the district of Fatih and in the neighbourhood (mahalle) bearing the same name (Kapalıçarşı). It stretches roughly from west to east between the mosques of Beyazit and of Nuruosmaniye. The stores are bursting with everything you can imagine, from jewellery, silk clothing, fragrant spices, traditional copper-ware to Oriental imports. The Grand Bazaar was discovered by travellers once seeking the ultimate “Oriental market” experience and in it’s heightened commercialism, lives up to the name.
Though it’s easy to get caught in the thrum of the thriving market, don’t forget to look up to take in the equally grand architecture and gilt-edged surroundings while you search for a place to stop and sit. Exploring the quieter back alleys and interior courtyards will treat you to some of the cities best eateries. There are plenty of cafes pressed tightly together, where the ambience comes from smoky grill plates and strings of eggplant hanging from the roof. Modern courtyard cafes, canteens and snack bars fill the air with aromatic Turkish flavours.
You’ll need a full day to discover the laneways and streets, and that’s without being distracted by the red cowboy boots and guitars emblazoned with the Turkish flag on them. It’s as fun as it is frantic. The market is open from 9.00am -7.00pm and closed only on Sundays; it has one day to pause from its self-made frenetic energy. The locals perhaps find it a bit more tailored for the western shopper, but there are still enough Turkish artefacts and locals artisans weaving crafts and tales, to make it an authentic Istanbul experience. The market was built mid-winter and it’s still the cooler months of March-May and September-November that are the best time to explore it. Have your wits and your wallet about you and you’ll have one of the grandest shopping days ever!