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By Rick Steves, Lale Surmen Aran, and Tankut Aran
Stepping into this maze of vendors from the street outside, you’re immediately thrust into a sensory-overload world of bustling shoppers and aggressive sellers, lit by thousands of electric bulbs. Welcome to Istanbul’s Grand Bizarre…er, Bazaar.
Known locally as Kapalı Çarşı (kah-pah-luh chahr-shuh; “covered market”), the Grand Bazaar sprawls over a huge area in Istanbul’s historic city center. This labyrinthine warren of shops and pushy merchants is a unique Istanbul experience that shouldn’t be missed, even if you’re not a shopper. While much of the bazaar is overrun with international visitors, it also has many virtually tourist-free nooks and crannies that offer an insightful glimpse into the “real” Istanbul.
The bazaar was a bustling market during Byzantine times, and it grew even larger when the Ottomans arrived. Anchored by traditional bedestens (commercial complexes of related shops and workshops), over time the diverse merchant shops were connected and roofed into a single market hall. At its prime, the Grand Bazaar was the center of trade for the entire Ottoman Empire, guarded by a hundred soldiers like a fortified castle.
By the 1950s, the Grand Bazaar had 4,000 shops, bursting with everything from jewelry to silk and traditional copperware to exotic imports. But then came the tourists, and many local merchants were displaced by souvenir and carpet shops.
Even though the bazaar has lost some of its traditional ambience, a visit here is still an irreplaceable part of any trip to Istanbul. Enjoy the schlocky tourist zones, but allow time to also sample a bit of the market’s outer fringe, still frequented more by Turks than tourists.
Navigating the bazaar
Traditionally, each bedesten of the bazaar had its own unique product. Though this organization has been disrupted in the more touristy sections, most bedestens still have the same 15th-century layout of a central courtyard surrounded by shops selling wares made in workshops just feet away.
The giant complex does have named “streets” (caddesi) and “alleys” (sokak). But few of these streets and alleys are well marked, and the few signs are often obscured by merchandise, so relying on these names isn’t always successful. Navigate by asking people you encounter for help — but beware that asking a merchant for directions may suck you into a lengthy conversation about the wonders of his wares.
And those who wander here should keep in mind that the bazaar contains what’s likely the highest concentration of pickpockets in Istanbul. Watch your valuables.
Dealing with aggressive merchants
If you visit the Grand Bazaar — or just about anywhere in Istanbul’s Old Town — you’ll constantly be barraged by people selling anything you can imagine. This can be intimidating — or fun if you loosen up and approach it with a sense of humor. The main rule of thumb: Don’t feel compelled to look at or buy anything. Vendors prey on Americans’ gregariousness and tendency to respond politely to anyone who offers a friendly greeting. They often use surprising or attention-grabbing openers:
“Hello, Americans! Where are you from? Chicago?! I have a cousin there!””Are you lost? Can I help you find something?””Nice shoes! Are those Turkish shoes?””Would you like a cup of tea?”
The list is endless — collect your favorites.
If you’re not interested, simply say a firm, “No, thanks!” and brush past them, ignoring any additional comments. This may seem cold, but it’s the only way to make it through the market without constantly getting tied up in unwanted conversations.
If, on the other hand, you’re looking to chat, you’re in the right place. Merchants are often very talkative — but be warned that a lengthy conversation may give them false hopes that you’re looking to buy and could make it even more difficult to extract yourself gracefully from the interaction.
Lale Surmen Aran and Tankut Aran are the authors of the Rick Steves Istanbul guidebook.