AKA How to Get Lost in the Grand Bazaar Without Spending All Your Money
A short tram ride away from Topkapi and Sultanahmet is the marvelous Grand Bazaar, the Turks’ biggest shopping mall. (Well, unless Erdoğan gets his way #Gezipark. Keep chapulling!) Travelers on the tram can get off at the Beyazit station, and then walk through what looks like a maze of markets, before reaching one of the main entrances. It is strongly advised to bring a map! The Grand Bazaar has several entrances, each of which will put you on a different street heading in a different direction. There are very few landmarks within the structure as well. Remembering that you came in near a carpet shop with the big evil eye will not help you much. After living in Istanbul for six months, I could still get easily lost in the labyrinthine passages.
Of course, part of the fun of the Grand Bazaar and Turkish shopping is allowing yourself to get lost, following the exotic scents of Turkish spices, distracted by the shiny brassware, or summoned into a carpet shop by the owner who claims his cousin went to the same university that you did. Or he has an uncle who is from Kentucky, which is close to where you live in New York, right? They have plenty of tricks up their sleeves to lure you inside. Most traders seem to be fluent in at least nine languages. If you ignore their first call of “Miss! Ma’am!” they will soon try again. “Senorita! Madamoiselle! Fraulein! Devochka!” until you turn around. (I have even heard shopkeepers speaking Japanese. Impressive.) But most of the sellers are friendly and talking to them will be one of the highlights of your trip. Make sure that they bring you the customary apple tea. It’s always free, whether or not you decide to purchase anything.
It is hard to avoid the hard-sell (which is an essential Turkish shopping experience), but there are a few ways to do it. The most important thing is to NEVER MAKE EYE CONTACT. If you so much as glance at a shopkeeper, expect to get the sales spiel. If you spend more than a split second looking at the merchandise, expect the same. Whenever I would wander the narrow passages, I would flick my eyes all around, never lingering on one item for too long.
Step Two is to KNOW WHAT YOU WANT TO BUY. When my husband and I needed to buy a wedding gift for some friends, we knew the Grand Bazaar was our one-stop shop. We wanted to buy something uniquely Turkish and decided on an Izmir tile plate. We began by stalking a few stalls. We walked by quickly, took a split-second glance and confirmed that this store had what we were looking for. But we didn’t stop. Instead, we ambled around to the corner, seemingly disinterested to the eyes of these Turkish shopkeepers. After lingering there for a minute or two, we strolled by again to get another quick glance at the colors. We made two more passes, each time to get a slightly better look at the merchandise. Luckily for us, there was a small café across from this shop. So we sat, ordered some Turkish tea and glanced at the wares from a safe distance. Michael Westen tradecraft at its finest.
Step Three is the trickiest but the most fun especially for us budget traveler types. HAGGLING time! Now that we had an idea of which plate we wanted, we finally approached the shop. In less than a millisecond, the owner was upon us, smiling and ready to sell. We asked about the price. It was a bit more than what we’d expected it would be. Offering 50% of the initial price is customary, but since this was a beautiful piece of artwork, we did go a little higher so as not to insult our seller. Of course, he always has a niece who is getting married, and the phrase, “How can I feed my family?” will likely be used, even if it is in half-jest. (I usually respond my telling them about my $40,000 in student loans. “But how can I pay Sallie Mae?”) When the price did not come down as much as we wanted, we applied my go-to haggling strategy – the walk-away. “Well, thank you. We’re going to go get some lunch, but maybe we’ll come back later.” After fewer than five steps, the price dropped just a bit more and we at last came to an agreement. The beautiful tile platter was ours!
The Turkish shopping experience is not for everyone. It can be quite exhausting to spend even fifteen minutes in the Grand Bazaar. For those who want more “Western-style” shopping, make your way to Istiklal Caddesi in Taksim. From Sultanahmet, you can catch a bus just next to the Eminönü ferries, or cross the Golden Horn to the Karaköy ferry, where you can take the Tünel funicular to connect in Taksim (as long as there are no protests going on that day, that is!) Istiklal Caddesi is a 2-mile stretch of road that is the Fifth Avenue of Istanbul. It is in the “modern” part of the city, not far from its business district. While you can find some good Turkish kebab places tucked in among the European boutiques, this is a better place to head at night. After all, most of these shops can be visited in any European or American city, but Taksim is home to Istanbul’s nightlife. Not far from Taksim is the Galata Tower, which you can visit for about 10YTL (the standard admission price for all of Istanbul’s tourist attractions.) There is also a nightclub at the top of the tower, which showcases spectacular views of the Bosphorus and the Istanbul skyline. It will provide much needed relaxation after a strenuous day of Turkish shopping and haggling.