Istanbul, now home to some of the swankiest and modern shopping malls in the world, is also home to what must be the very first shopping mall in history, the Grand Bazaar, or Kapali Carsi, meaning covered marketplace in Turkish.
It is situated in the Bazaar District and this huge 15th century indoor arcade is the largest covered market in the world, selling traditional Turkish goods such as carpets, jewellery, textiles, antiques and souvenirs. As you enter through one of the arched entrances, prepare to feel overwhelmed by the sheer vastness and enormity of the place with its high vaulted roofing, booth-like shops with wares spilling over into the passageways, the din, the colour and sense of chaos.
Visitors can delve into a world of colour, chintz, craftsmanship and, to be frank, a fair amount of cheap goods. There is such a vast variety of goods available that there is definitely something for everyone. Jewellery to rugs, pots to spices, plus leather, clothing, fruit and vegetables.
History of the Grand Bazaar
These days, it covers in the region of 30,700 square metres with up to 4000 shops, but the original core area was the Ic Bedesten, also known as the Cevahir Bedesteni, completed by Mehmet II in 1461.
When the bazaar first opened it played host to the local people who used it as a congregational point when they had visited the mosques close by. They could catch up and buy goods or trade goods; the only real difference today is that there is a much larger selection of goods and a lot more visitors.
Bedesten means the part of a bazaar where valuable goods are kept, and many areas within the bazaar are still referred to by this name. Mehmet II, or Mehmet the Conqueror as he is known, was the sultan responsible for conquering Constantinople in 1453, effectively bringing an end to the Byzantine Empire and establishing the start of the Ottoman Empire.
As the original bedesten multiplied into two, roofs and porches were erected so that commerce could be comfortably conducted in all types of weather and lockable doors and gates were also added so that it could be closed up at night at the close of business. It eventually evolved into the sprawling roofed complex of thousands of shops, bordered by tradesmen's workshops known as hans, or kervensaray, spreading out over some 60 alleys and streets that is now a veritable maze. Many of these hans are still in use to this day, especially in areas such as the jewellery quarters where skilled craftsmen are still able to provide customised designs.
Where is the Grand Bazaar?
If you do not wish to become a little overwhelmed, it's wise to look at a map beforehand to get your bearings. You will see that the Grand Bazaar stretches west to east between the mosques of Beyazit and Nuruosmaniye, these being two of the most popular entrances.
You can catch a 10-minute tram ride from Eminonu (which will also pass by the Sultanahmet area of the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia) and alight at Beyazit. This entrance is called Carsikapi Gate and will take you into the jewellery section and is a popular starting place. On your way back to Eminonu, you may wish to take a 15 minute stroll downhill passing through the Tahtakale District which provides a more down to earth but vibrant street lined market where probably better bargains are to be had.
To make shopping easier most of the sellers offering similar products are grouped together and there are specialist areas devoted to one particular subject, such as leather. A decent floor plan will show you that from the Carsikapi entrance you can go straight ahead following the Feraceciler Sokak towards the Oruculer Gate where you can find textiles, bathrobes or pestemals (used to cover yourself in a Turkish Hamam).
Alternatively, you can turn right along the Kalpakcilar Caddesi, the widest thoroughfare in the marketplace, heading towards Nuruosmaniye Gate with many roads leading off from here. This route will provide the easiest way to traverse all parts of the Bazaar enabling you to reach other 'must see' areas such the historic Ic (Cevahir) Bedesten for carpets and kilims and the Zincirli Han which is one of the prettiest hans in the bazaar and where jewellery can be custom made to order.
How to shop at the Grand Bazaar
Although situated close to other Istanbul attractions such as the Hagia Sophia and Topkapi Palace in nearby Sultanahmet, you may well wish to visit here on a separate day as all require a significant amount of time and effort. Getting a good deal at the Grand Bazaar is not necessarily a quick transaction and will invariably entail much drinking of Turkish tea or cay as at any other Turkish market. However, do not assume that being offered tea or coffee places you in a pressurised position of having to make a purchase. Tea and coffee are offered freely in many places in Turkey whether it be at the bank or in your local chemist and is not an indication of high pressure selling nor expectation of a deal about to be closed.
One guide book to Istanbul suggests you should only visit the Bazaar when in a good mood. If you treat the haggling as good banter, you will enjoy it and have an entertaining afternoon or morning out, drinking tea and enjoying the theatre of watching piles upon piles of carpet being unfolded. However, it is important to be clear and resolute if you do not wish to end up making what could turn out to be a ill-advised purchase.
What to buy at the Grand Bazaar
There are plenty of small items on which you can spend a few lira, but if you are intent on buying anything serious such as an antique, carpet or jewellery item you should conduct thorough research before embarking on doing so.
There are plenty of shops both within and not far from the Grand Bazaar so that you can easily research prices. If you don't want to make a serious purchase but just want to buy something, there are certainly a lot of souvenir type purchases to be made. You will soon discover what the going rate is for a ceramic bowl or candle holder so that you do not pay over and above what you should.
When to visit the Grand Bazaar
The Grand Bazaar is open from 9am until 7pm Monday to Saturday, and closed on Sundays. While probably best avoided in the hot summer months of July and August, autumn appears to be a good time to visit with many people suggesting that late afternoon is the best time for bargains.
A visit to the Grand Bazaar is a must for anyone visiting Istanbul and well worth setting aside three to fours in this city within a city which, by the by, also has its own mosque, banks, police station, cafes, restaurants and hamam.