It would be easy to spend a whole day exploring the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, wandering around the winding streets, drinking coffee, and haggling for goods, just as people have been doing for centuries past. Historically a stop upon the famous Silk Route between Europe and the Far East, today’s market is a massive, walled area, based on two historic shopping areas, a number of old hani (inns), and a whole maze of streets in between.
I wasn’t sure I was going to enjoy it. I’d already been crushed by the crowds at the city’s Spice Market, and importuned by traders wherever I went in Istanbul, and I was expecting to find the same at the Grand Bazaar. But I need not have worried: the bazaar is big enough to accommodate the crowds and the selling was (relatively) low key.
Exploring the Streets of the Grand Bazaar
The Grand Bazaar was founded in 1461, and claims to be the largest covered market in the world. It is a labyrinth of around 60 streets in 15 sections, connected by arches and topped with painted domes. As you wander around stop to look at the information boards which explain the history of the bazaar and its restoration.
There are thousands of shops here, as well as restaurants, mosques and workshops. The bazaar even has its own police force: it is a whole community in itself.
I saw men (never women) sitting outside their shops: chatting, smoking, reading the paper, or sipping the cups of tea or strong coffee supplied to them by an army of men and boys who dashed around the market with round trays. Occasionally they looked up from their stools to try to entice me to buy, but it was clear that most people there were camera-toting tourists rather than shoppers. According to my guide book it is Saturday that is the main shopping day: this is when the locals come to make their purchases.
Most of the hani have been incorporated into the bazaar, and the associated mosques and watering places for animals have been lost. But in one corner is the Zincirli Han, a 16th century two story inn that used to be a caravanserai (lodging place for merchants on the Silk Route). It still has upstairs rooms used as lodgings, and the tiny courtyard has an air of peace and timelessness about it, as if removed from the bustle of the bazaar and the passing of the centuries.
Shopping in the Grand Bazaar
I was there to look, not to buy. But serious shoppers will find plenty to tempt them. Every street is lined with shops and cafés, selling scarves, designer clothing, jewellery, luxury goods, and iznik pottery with traditional Ottoman designs. You can even take a tour with a local who will help to find the best bargains and guide you through the intricacies of haggling.
The central area is one of the original parts of the market. It was surrounded by a high wall, and could be locked at night, so was used to store and sell valuable goods. That tradition continues today and it is home to dealers in antiques, gold and silver. Specialist areas are evident elsewhere in the bazaar, including sections devoted to carpets and leather goods.
But my purchases were restricted to a cup of strong sweet Turkish coffee, which I drank at a café with low chairs and bronze tables, while watching the life of the bazaar going on beside me.