Istanbul is steeped in history, from Byzantine underground cisterns to its magnificent Ottoman architecture. A visit to the Grand Bazaar, one of the oldest and largest covered markets in the world, is on everyones itinerary. With over 4,000 shops in an intricate network of 61 inner streets, it can be somewhat overwhelming to decide what to buy at the Grand Bazaar. We’ve picked the best in a neat little list below.
Spices & Herbs
Baharat in Turkish, spices and herbs have always been central and abundant Ottoman Turkish cuisine. Ottomans deployed a variety of strategies to increase the spice trade between the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean. An extensive infrastructure of spice trade was already in place by 1560 and covered markets, bazaars, were at the centre of this trade.
Turks rarely shop for spices at the Grand Bazaar. That’s simply because we’re in the 21st century and you can find good quality spices in your local supermarket or even buy your spices online. However, it is well worth checking out some of the rarer finds at the spice stalls.
Saffron (safran), compared to prices in Europe and the US is much more reasonable when bought bulk. Mountain oregano (kekik or dağ kekiği) is all natural, wild, fresh oregano picked from mountain skirts (this is the stuff goats and sheep feed on) and is superior to any other oregano I’ve ever tried. Sumac (sumak in Turkish) and Aleppo pepper flakes (pul biber) are also ones to look out for. I wouldn’t wholeheartedly recommend the famous spice mixes, however. Simply because they can easily be made at home using the key ingredient spices and there’s always the likelihood of adulteration with inferior spices. When buying organic spices make sure the product is certified by one of these certification bodies.
Turks like tea. A lot. There are hundreds of varieties of teas and you can smell the aromas as you walk through the spice stalls. Most fruit teas are actually made from dried fruit molasses. Teas made from molasses of apple, lemon, grapefruit, quince, peach, pineapple, mango and more are available. (Btw, the popular powder Apple tea is nothing but flavour enhancers) These are all natural and each seems to cure one ailment or another, as I’m sure the eager sales men will go on and on and on about. Having said that, I regularly drink linden blossom tea (ıhlamur çayı) for settling stomach acids and fennel tea to knock me out to deep sleep.
Like fennel tea, there are other unorthodox herbal teas you’ll come across. Echinacea being a popular choice along with oregano tea, sage tea and rosehip all taste great and are natural teas you should definitely check out..
Fabric & Rugs
If you’re going to buy anything from the Grand Bazaar, buy fabric. If you have enough cash on you buy a turkish rug (kilim) as well. There’s an endless selection of fabric from all over the world. Organic dyes, root dyes, wool, Turkish cotton, cashmere, silk, linen. It’s all here. It helps a lot if you know what you’re doing as it can be a little overwhelming. Beautifully patterned Ikat cushion covers, silk Suzani handmade fabric and flatweave kilim galore. Yazzma on Tektekçiler Street/Sokak (where most of the textile shops are located) is a popular destination and they have an outrageous selection.
But most importantly you should treat yourself and buy a Turkish hammam towel, also known as fouta or peştemal. Nowadays they double as beach towels in Turkish resorts and world over, but trust me, these towels are the ultimate in bathing experience and have been used throughout Anatolia for centuries. Super lightweight and super absorbent cotton fibres makes it the ideal, multi purpose towel Douglas Adams probably had in mind when he said “bring a towel”.
You’ll most certainly come across the lighting shops and promptly take out your phone to snap the best Instagram photo these colourful Turkish lamps. They’re great decoratively and add mystique to the atmosphere. Some are cheaply made though so make sure you scrutinise before you buy. And as always, shop around, haggle, and haggle some more before you settle.
Beads, Thread, Buttons & Yarn
If you’re into your arts & crafts you’re going to have a ball at the Grand Bazaar. Literally millions of this stuff here. Even if you’re not a bead connoisseur, it’s worth checking out the mesmerising selection of beads. The way they’re arranged is really pleasing to look at, art like. Along with beads, you can find all the other paraphernalia needed in the sewing and stitching department. You could also try your hand at making your own accessories with precious stone and metal beads.
Turkish Gold & Jewellery
Now this is when things start to put serious dent in the bank balance. Turks have a deeply ingrained cultural relationship with gold. Gold still is a status symbol in Turkey. The tradition of giving gold bangles and coins known as Republic Gold (Cumhuriyet altını) to the bride as a gift at weddings also is very much alive. Turkish gold is world renowned and highly sought after, especially through out the Middle East. Going all the way upto 24 carat in purity, the yellow of Turkish gold is warm and bright.
You can find a variety of styles from traditional, floral designs to modern sharp and mechanical pieces. Visit the Kuyumcular Street/Sokak, literally meaning the jewellers street and have good look. Whilst gold is traded according to the daily market prices, you’ll often see significant ‘labour‘ costs added on top of the ‘weight’ cost of the gold. This is where you bring out the haggling skills. Never show desire, be prepared to walk away and remember the opening price always factors in haggling.
These are a fraction of what to buy at the Grand Bazaar and there’s something for everyone. A few of things to remember;
The shop keepers know their demographic inside out and as they like to call themselves, they’re ‘people dealers’ (insan sarrafı). As in they know the value of a person just by looking at them. No wonder, seeing as up to 400,000 people visit the Grand Bazaar daily and up to 92 million tourists each year! You’ll be overwhelmed with charming compliments in your own language (I’ve witnessed a shopkeeper fluent in Chinese), tasters and playful attention seeking. It’s all a part of the show. Remember to haggle, 99% of all prices of goods are barter-factored-in. You don’t have to be polite to each and every sales person by entertaining a conversation. If you’re not interested, keep walking momentum going and do as the penguins in Madagascar do “Just smile and wave boys, smile and wave”.