The Grand Bazaar of Istanbul has been in the shopping business for over 550 years. Turkey’s ancient and giant covered mall can be both astounding and utterly confusing.
Estimated to have between 3000 to 5000 shops depending on the article you read, the 60 covered vault like streets of the Grand Bazaar are crammed with tiny shops selling rugs, hand painted ceramics, spices, jewellery, gold, silver, scarves, t-shirts and likely the kitchen sink although I missed that booth.
How you can miscount 2000 shops seems rather puzzling until you step inside the gigantic, noisy labyrinth of a shopping center. Shopping the Grand Bazaar is a retail experience we highly recommend but also suggest some ways to make the experience both enjoyable and economical.
1) How not to get lost in the Grand Bazaar
The Grand Bazaar of Istanbul has four main gates (but 22 in total) where shoppers can enter. Take a photo of the entrance you arrive to. I’m not kidding.
You may think you have a good sense of direction until you enter the shopping maze and then five minutes later when every Turkish rug store looks like the one you saw two minutes prior. Having your digital photo you will at least be able to show a kind soul your entrance and ask meekly to be pointed in the right direction.
The stalls are grouped in areas according to products. Watch for color coded maps near one of the 22 gates. Yellow is where you find gold; green codes the rug area; pink for souvenirs; you get the drift. There is even an entire section for belly dancing wear. I took a pass on that one.
2) Arrive early to shop but not too early
The Grand Bazaar sees more than 91 million visitors a year. Travel and Leisure in 2014 named Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar the most visited tourist attraction in the world. By mid day it can feel like a few million have come the same day as you so arriving early is wise.
On the other hand striking a deal the moment a store opens is unlikely. It takes a while for the sellers to have a Turkish tea or coffee and to get settled. They are not to be rushed. Sellers in the shops are not always the owners and as such they have a quota of sales to meet each day. They will be more motivated to bargain in the early part of the day so as to meet their quota. Late afternoon deals may be harder to come by.
3) Never start bargaining with your best price
If you are not comfortable with haggling then shopping in Istanbul will be challenging. This is the way it is done and should you just offer the full price you may be reprimanded. On more than one occasion when I was ready to throw in the bartering towel after a couple of exchanges a shopkeeper would wag his finger at me and with a grin encourage me to keep going.
This is Turkey and buying and selling is a social activity to be enjoyed. Well you may not enjoy it but this is the concept. Expect that you can get 30% to 50% less than the asking price but know to achieve that you will need to do some significant negotiation. Be prepared to walk away. There are many spots where you can re-group with a Turkish coffee or better yet some Turkish Delight.
4) Istanbul shopping involves patience
At no time in our many hours in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar did we encounter an unfriendly shopkeeper. Assertive yes, loud yes but never unfriendly. As you stroll by the lanterns, copper and eye catching cloths of every imaginable color you will hear the shopkeepers calling out in many languages to potential customers “How are you?”
Once engaged they will ask where you are from and it is surprising how often a shopkeeper in Istanbul can have a friend, or cousin or sister in your home city. Be patient, nod and smile. If you really don’t want to buy something and you say no you will not be harassed. Expect some conversation though. This is the Turkish way.
5) Be prepared to drink Turkish tea while shopping at the Grand Bazaar
If you show serious interest in an item, especially something larger such as a rug, Turkish tea will be called for and there will be further socializing and bargaining. It is believed that the tea is served farther back in the shop so that other customers of the Grand Bazaar can not hear the deal you are striking.
If you rush a seller they instruct you to “relax”. Those of us from North America seem to be obsessed with efficiency but here the market experience is meant to include enjoyment of the bargaining process.
How to get to Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar
Take a tram to Beyazit, Üniversite or Sirkeci. The Grand Bazaar is around 15 minutes walk from the Aya Sofya/Blue Mosque area.
Grand Bazaar Shopping Hours of Operation
Monday to Saturday 9:00 – 19:00. Closed Sundays and bank holidays.
Special Tip for Savvy Shopping in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar
Before our trip to Turkey I learned the numbers 0-100 in Turkish. It took some time as I am no linguist and the Turkish language does not necessarily roll off the tongue, at least in my case. Many shopkeepers fell silent, which is saying a lot, when I began bartering in Turkish. They were delighted with my efforts and I would like to think I got some special deals because of it. Just be sure you know 5 from 50.
Does the Grand Bazaar shopping experience sound like fun to you?
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