Turkey for tourists: souvenirs to buy and take home
Straddling Asia and Europe, Turkey’s cultural heritage is rich and varied, with the Middle East and the Mediterranean influencing everything from fabric to food. One of the most attractive aspects of visiting Turkey is the chance to take a little slice of this heritage home with you. We give you a rundown of the best goods you can buy in Turkey, and where to find it.
In the Ottoman era, copper bowls, plates, cups and utensils were common household items. Now, these antique items are on sale in Turkey’s bazaars, markets and antique shops. You might spot some of the original, heavy copper pieces but most of the items on sale are modern versions, made of thinner copper.
However, these inexpensive items can be lovely, and decent quality to boot.
It’s important to realise that copper is poisonous, and items not covered with silver-coloured tin will be unsafe for serving food or cooking with. You can get a tinner (kalayci) to apply a coating of tin for you, just ask at the shop where you buy your copper.
For the best prices and selection in Istanbul, head to Cadircilar Caddesi, near the Grand Bazaar, where you’ll find everything from beautiful tea services to cute spice grinders that make ideal gifts.
Nazur bonjuk - evil eye
The nazur bonjuk is a good luck charm that wards off the “evil eye” of one person casting a spell on another. For more than a thousand years Turks have carried the nazur bonjuk so it can “look back” at the spell-caster and protect its owner.
Few people believe in the superstition now, but most Turkish homes have at least one evil eye watching over its inhabitants - and if a baby is born it’s likely he or she will have a nazur bonjuk pinned to their sleepsuit. The best nazur bonjuk charms are hand crafted in blown glass and are all shapes and sizes. The pretty little trinkets make a great souvenir to take home and give to friends.
These beautiful carpets are known throughout the world and are coveted by many visitors. However, you must be careful when buying a kilim as many are made in China. Although the quality of these imposters is often good, they’re not the real thing.
When looking for the right carpet, visit a few stores so you can get an idea of the quality. Avoid buying while on a tour (as you’ll be charged a high commission) or from a tout who takes you to a shop.
The Turkish diet of lamb and mutton means there is plenty of leather in Turkey, including suede.
Istanbul is the best place to pick up leather goods, but every large centre has handmade leather jackets, clothing, hats, gloves, bags and wallets.
As with buying carpets, do your research well, checking out several shops. If you’re in Istanbul, start at the Kurkculer Carsisi - the furrier’s market - in the Grand Bazaar, then check out the shops surrounding the bazaar - they’ll have lower rents, which means lower prices. Again, beware of touts and tours.
You can also have something custom made, which won’t cost much more than buying something off-the-rack.
Turkey’s the ideal place to pick up some bold items of jewellery, as well as some delicate handcrafted silver and gold work.
Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar is the number one place to pick up some reasonably priced jewellery. Head to Nuruosmaniye Caddesi, the east street of the bazaar. The street is lined with jewellery shops. The Spice Market now also has a few jewellery shops.
When buying silver or gold jewellery, make sure the maker’s hallmark is stamped onto the item, demonstrating its authenticity. Although Istanbul has the best variety of gold jewellery, any bazaar in Turkey will be likely to have good quality gold jewellery.
Clothing and textiles
Turkey exports a huge amount of textiles, and supplies large fashion companies like Calvin Klein, Disney and XOXO with raw materials for their factories. Bursa and Pamukkale are top spots for textiles, and many Istanbul residents head to these towns to buy luxurious towels and bathrobes.
However, there are plenty of fabrics and textiles to be found in the city, especially in the Grand Bazaar where you can buy silks, cotton fabrics and all sorts of locally made textiles as well as the finished items - just about any clothing item you can imagine.
Another option is to buy a set of towels and robes from a hammam. Turkish hammams use high-quality cotton goods, and usually have some for sale. These make lovely - and luxurious - keepsakes.
The Turks could teach the rest of the world a thing or two about spices. At your local bazaar - and of course, in Istanbul you’d head to the Spice Bazaar - head for the shops that sell freshly ground spices, not the prepackaged combos for tourists.
Our tips: red pepper flakes (pul biber) are a versatile, mildly spicy addition that you can add to a wide variety of savoury dishes; dry oregano (kekik) is fragrant with a bitter note, used to finish soups. Look out for zahter, the wild oregano particular to Turkey; dry mint (nane), used for lentil soups soups and pilafs; cumin (kimyon), ideal in meatballs, legumes and hummus; sumac (sumak), a sweet-and-sour dried berry used to season salads, tomato dishes and red peppers; urfa pepper (isot), a dark, chocolatey pepper that can be used in almost any savoury dish; nigella seeds (corek otu), sprinkled on pastry and added to cheeses.
Ottoman books and prints
The Ottomans were expert - and extravagant - calligraphers, adding the dust from gemstones like sapphires, lapis lazuli and gold to their work. Miniature prints often represent the sultan and his family, depicting scenes from his everyday life - somewhat removed from the everyday life most of us experience.
A few old maps, books, prints, engravings and lithographs are sold in Cukurcuma and on the Calipdede Caddesi, but the best place is the Old Book Bazaar (Sahaflar Carsisi), located between the Grand Bazaar and the Beyazit Mosque.
Beware the rule of antiquities
Rummaging through Turkey’s bazaars might yield some old treasures. But be aware - it’s actually illegal to buy, sell or own antiquities - and authorities especially don’t look kindly upon those who take them out of the country. This includes, but is not limited to, coins, icons, tiles and ceramics, paintings, statues and sculptures..
It’s unlikely that you’ll buy an antiquity (more or less, an object older than two centuries) without knowing - they’re usually very expensive. Reputable vendors will have certificates demonstrating that the object you’re buying is not an antiquity and may therefore be bought, sold and exported.
Sticky Turkish delight, or lokum, makes a great gift for those back home. Made with dried fruit and nuts, syrup and cornstarch, it’s a global favourite but some of the best examples are found in the shop Haci Bekir, where one story has the sweet treat originating from, but you can find it just about anywhere.
Turkey is the world’s largest producer of hazelnuts, and is among the world’s top producers of dried fruits and nuts, including figs, apricots and raisins. Fill your boots - not only is quality good but fruits and nuts are cheap.
The moreish white cheese found on Turkish plates every breakfast time is known as beyaz peynir, and there are many varieties available to stash in your suitcase. Look out for the yellow blocks of kasar peyniri, the lighter cerkez peyneri, crumbly lor peyniri or the stringy tel peyniri.
Turks refer to their favourite drink as being black as hell, strong as death and sweet as love. Turkish coffee isn’t like the coffee you drink back home - it’s thick as tar and velvety, with grounds left in the bottom of the cup. Not everyone likes it, but some tourists fall for it hard and haul ground coffee back home with them.
Buy direct from small Turkish coffee vendors, who do their own roasting, or buy pre packaged. The most popular brand of Turkish coffee is Mehmet Efendi, which you can buy everywhere - just avoid it at duty free, where it’s at its most expensive.