Istanbul is home to one of the most historic marketplaces in the world. Known as the "The Grand Bazaar" or Kapalıçarşı,in Turkish, it's a shopper's dream and quite possibly, an introvert's worst nightmare. It's loud. It's crowded. A stray cat may sit on your lap (happened to me and it was amazing). Someone may spit on your shoe (also happened to me, but it was an accident). And vendors can be downright aggressive. But it simply cannot be missed on a trip to Istanbul.
The Grand Bazaar is a massive covered marketplace that sprawls across 61 streets and is located around the corner from the architectural marvel, Hagia Sophia. The Hagia Sophia, which means "Church of Holy Wisdom" (pronounced AYA-SOF-IA by locals) was built in 537 AD and the Grand Bazaar was created to help fund the building's construction and maintenance. Side note, I was embarrassed to discover I'd be pronouncing it as HAG-IA SOF-IA for the past 15 years since learning about it in AP Art History class with Mrs. B.J. McElderry.
Anyways, The Grand Bazaar has been home to an astounding 4,000 shops for more than 500 years. It's survived raids, plagues, technological changes, economic declines, wars and natural disasters. That's truly amazing considering that researchers predict that 25% of America's 1,000 shopping malls will close in the next 3 to 5 years. My guess? The Grand Bazaar will be here for another 500...at least.
Here are my Top 8 Tips for Navigating the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul.
1. Wear Sunglasses - I'm serious. Wear the biggest celebrity sunglasses you have. Keep them on and avoid making eye contact with a vendor unless you truly want to engage in a conversation or a sale.
2. Walk the Middle - It can be very crowded at the Grand Bazaar, so my recommendation is to walk right smack in the middle of it. You won't be hassled as much by shopkeepers if you are hidden between shoppers on either side.
3. Keep a Budget - Come up with a shopping budget in advance of your trip. It would be easy to spend dozens, hundreds or even thousands of dollars on souvenirs here. Make a budget and stick to it.
4. Make a Shopping List - Make a list of all the friends, family, colleagues and neighbors you want to bring back gifts for. It's a lot easier to make smart purchases when you know exactly who you're buying for.
5. Know the currency conversion rate - You'll be a much more successful negotiator when you understand the local currency's conversation rate. For example, 15 Turkish Lira equals $1 USD so I was constantly multiplying by 15 in my head. Tough math, but it helps to better understand the prices.
6. Make Friends - Yes, some shopkeepers are very aggressive but keep an eye out for the ones who won't pressure you into a sale or conversation. My husband Josh and I met two awesome guys named Alex and Danyal who were our unofficial city guides and even took us out for iftar, which is the massive evening meal that ends fasting during Ramadan. It's believed that the very first iftar on American soil happened on December 9, 1805 when President Thomas Jefferson postponed a state dinner at the White House until after sunset to accommodate a visiting diplomat from Tunis.
7. Don't be rude - Just don't. It can be stressful to have shopkeepers yelling at you, "HEY LADY. WHERE YOU FROM?" but don't be disrespectful back. Being a tourist is kind of like being an unpaid, unknown ambassador. Misinformed stereotypes on entire nations are sometimes based on these interactions and misunderstandings. Even though you don't want to buy you can be both, firm and friendly.
8. Come Thirsty - Turkish hospitality is legendary. Yes, they want to sell you stuff but their offers of tea and coffee are genuine. Take them up on it. You don't have to buy anything you don't want to! It's fun to sit and just enjoy a coffee with a new friend.
Out of the 25+ countries I've visited, Turkey quickly rose to the top of the list. And the frenetic energy, interesting personalities, enticing smells and feels of the The Grand Bazaar is just one of the reasons why.