Exploring And Shopping At The Grand Bazaar, Istanbul

Colourful exterior of the Zincirli Han
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It would be easy to spend a whole day exploring Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, wandering around the winding streets, drinking coffee, and haggling for goods, just as people have been doing for centuries past.

I have to confess I wasn’t sure I was going to enjoy it: I’d already been crushed by the crowds at the city’s Spice Bazaar, 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.

A Historic Market

The Grand Bazaar has a long history. It was founded in 1461, during the reign of Sultan Mehmet II, and was based around two bedestens (a type of covered market typical of the Ottoman Empire) in the heart of Istanbul. Historically it was a stop upon the famous Silk Route between Europe and the Far East, and a number of the old hani (inns) that were used by medieval traders can still be seen.

Today’s bazaar is a massive, walled area that 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.

Domed ceiling of the Grand Bazaar
Domed ceiling of the Istanbul Grand Bazaar

The narrow streets are home to around 4,000 shops, as well as restaurants, mosques and workshops. The Bazaar even has its own police force: it is a whole community in itself.

Exploring The Bazaar

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 the shop owners 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.

Colourful exterior of the Zincirli Han
The Zincirli Han is an ancient lodging

One building that still stands is the 18th century Nuruosmaniye Mosque, and the Nuruosmaniye Gate forms one of the entrances to the Bazaar.

Shops Of 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, traditional textiles, jewellery, handmade Turkish rugs, and iznik pottery with traditional Ottoman designs. And, of course, there are many places to buy snacks, street food and traditional local dishes.

Scarves of every colour
Piles of scarves of every imaginable colour at the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul

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 carpet shops 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.

How To Explore The Istanbul Grand Bazaar

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WorldWideWriter is owned and managed by Karen Warren.

I have been writing and travelling for many years (almost 70 countries at the last count), and I’ve visited every continent except Antarctica. This website is my attempt to inform and inspire other travellers, and to share some of the things I’ve discovered along the way. Read more…

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