A Brief History of the Grand Bazaar
One of the largest and oldest covered bazaars in the world, the Grand Bazaar is 30,700 square meters with over 60 streets and alleys and 4,000 shops. The original historical core of the bazaar, İç Bedesten, was completed by Mehmet the Conqueror in 1461. A “bedesten” refers to an indoor arcade with shops and there are several areas within the bazaar referred to by this name.
Over the years, the Grand Bazaar expanded from this core of two bedestens to become a sprawling roofed complex of thousands of shops, fringed by the tradesmen’s inns and workshops known as hans. According to the Ottoman traveler Evliya Çelebi’s Seyahatname, by the seventeenth century the Kapalı Çarşı (or the Çarşı-yı-Kebir as it was known at the time) had reached its present size, with over 4,000 shops and nearly 500 stalls known in Turkish as dolap (literally translated to “cupboard”).
In addition, there were various other amenities for the merchants who worked there: restaurants, a hammam, and a mosque, as well as at least 10 smaller mescits, or prayer rooms. Today, this city-within-a-city contains a police station, a health dispensary, a post office, branches of most major banks, and a tourist information center.
In comparison with street names in the English-speaking world, those in Turkey are often very descriptive. The street names in the Grand Bazaar—referring to their original functions—are no exception. Takkeciler Caddesi is literally “Skullcap-makers’ Street” as takke means skullcap; Aynacılar Sokak was for sellers of ayna, or mirrors; Halıcılar Caddesi was where halı, or carpets, were sold; and Keseciler Caddesi was for vendors of the kese, the rough exfoliating cloth used in a hammam.
While today the Grand Bazaar is no longer the commercial center of Istanbul, it is still one of the best places to get a taste of life in Ottoman-era Turkey.
The Grand Bazaar is closed on Sundays and Turkish public holidays.
The main area of the Grand Bazaar boasts a total of 64 streets and 22 entrances, however the entire section around the historical bedesten is also considered to be a part of the market. Prepare to get lost and embrace this as a part of the authentic experience.
If your time is limited and depending on what you are looking for, exploring the area around a particular gate can be helpful. Jewelry shoppers might find it easiest to enter through the Beyazıt Gate and follow Kalpakcılar Caddesi, which is the main walkway connecting it with the Nuruosmaniye Gate. Leaving the complex through that gate will take you to Nuruosmaniye Caddesi, with many interesting stores. Halfway between Beyazıt and Nuruosmaniye Gates is Çarşıkapı Gate, which comes in handy when you need the easiest way to pass across the entire complex.
Zincirli Han is a must visit not only for carpet shoppers but also history enthusiasts. The easiest way to get there is through the Nuruosmaniye Gate, following the directions towards the Mercan Gate. If you are unable to communicate with the assistance at the entrance, simply follow Kalpakcılar Caddesi, passing by the entrance to Sandal Bedesten, and make a right at Terzibaşı Sokak, continuing to walk straight down as you follow the signs.
Grand Bazaar shopping etiquette
Take your time to chat and bargain
Trying to see the entire Grand Bazaar in one afternoon is an unrealistic task. With this in mind, it is best to experience the Grand Bazaar at a leisurely pace, not by rushing from one shop to the next. The eventual purchase is not as important as the process and the relationship that will be established between the vendor and yourself. Chatting and bargaining with the sellers, who often are fluent in more than one language, is what makes the Grand Bazaar experience different. Dozens of stores lined up next to each other sell similar products, making haggling and customer service crucial. Accepting tea does not mean either party has sealed the deal; instead, it is the Turkish way of welcoming visitors. If you are not pleased with the offer, leave and look for a better deal elsewhere.
Always feel free to leave and move on
Although the Grand Bazaar often feels like sensory-overload, especially for first-timers, there are a few ways to ease the experience. You will quickly notice that once you lay your hands on a product, regardless of whether you have the intentions of buying it or not, the shopkeeper will always try to close the sale. The truth is that the more aggressive the vendor, the more likely the item you are going for is not worth your time. The shopkeepers of the most trusted places will not harass you to buy their products. If you ever feel uncomfortable, just move on to the next shop.
Although the Grand Bazaar seems to have it all, only certain shops are worth the visit and only certain items are worth the purchase. Their fame precedes them, so if you ask the locals for advice, many would share with you the following tips:
- If you are entering through the Beyazıt Gate, you will not have to look very far as the main walkway is paved with jewelers. Although the places might seem very similar, some of them are more special than others. A notable shop is Topkapı Özavar, offering a wide selection of colorful jewels. The snake brooch displayed in the shop window is a replica of a piece from Madeleine Albright’s collection. Kalpakçılar Caddesi No.10
- Timuçin Jewelry has two locations; one in the Grand Bazaar and another in the upscale neighborhood of Nişantaşı. Rare diamond cuts, vintage designer jewelry, and collectible timepieces make the place a true treasure-hunter’s paradise. Kalpakçılar Caddesi No.24-26
- İç Bedesten is where most of the antique shops are located. Many vendors around Istanbul sell items that appear to be antiques, so finding a trustworthy place that understands the value of an item is crucial. Şalabi Antiques is one such place, serving its customers at the Grand Bazaar since 1880. The shop’s collection includes vintage jewelry, personal objects such as mirrors and snuff-boxes, and Ottoman items for a special occasion table setup. Sandal Bedesten Sokak No.6
- At Epoque you will find iconography with defaced surfaces, antique Turkish rings with emerald stones, and vintage pocket watches. From home accessories to silverware, watches to tableware, this antique shop is filled with treasures. Sandal Bedesten Sokak No.38
- Collectors and sailing enthusiasts will appreciate the plethora of choices at Minyatür’s Nautical Instruments, ranging from historical maps, globes, and compasses to diving equipment that can only be used for decorative purposes. İç Bedesten No.241
- Eski Fine Arts and Antiques has three separate shops with an array of smaller sized nineteenth and twentieth century antiques from various countries that were formerly in the Ottoman Empire. Paintings, calligraphy, hookahs, backgammon sets, sea-foam pipes, and items made of silver, ivory, and amber are all stocked in the lighted glass shop display. Cevahir Bedesten No.152
- If you make your way outside the main complex towards the Çulhacı Han, you will find Sait Asil, which focuses entirely on vintage silver objects for the home, many being sold as sets, that range from silverware to candle holders on two floors. Çulhacı Han No.8-9
Carpets & Kilims:
- Located in the heart of Zincirli Han, Şişko Osman is a fourth-generation family business offering an extensive selection of carpets and kilims from all over the country. Osman Şenel is the man and the name behind the company, with an expert understanding of his trade. Acı Çeşme Sokak, Zincirli Han No.15
- Ethnicon stands for “ethnic” and “contemporary.” You will find unique, hand-woven carpets and kilims made with a range of colors. Most designs are modeled on existing kilims, with special attention paid to details such as tassels. Along a similar vein is Dhoku, another carpet and kilim store by Ethnicon’s owner, specializing in modern designs. Takkeciler Sokak No.58-60
- Named after the six generations of family owners, Şengör is a carpet store where time has stopped. Rare pieces from the beginning of the Turkish Republic and family photos displayed on the walls take the visitors back in time. Takkeciler Caddesi No.65
- Over the years, Recep Karaduman has formed a veritable collection of one-of-a-kind carpets and kilims from all corners of the Balkans, Anatolia, Iran, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Takkeciler Sokak No.54
Click here to read the complete guide to buying Turkish carpets.
- Bathrobes, peştemals (Turkish towels used in hammams), and other traditional items can be found next to Oruculer Gate at Eğin Tekstil. Favored by locals for its classic approach and wide range of products, the shop has been in operation since 1861. It sourced costume textiles for some of the most recent Hollywood productions, including The Hobbit, Troy, The Last Samurai, and Pirates of the Caribbean. Yağlıkçılar Caddesi No.1
- Head to Abdulla for all-natural products, including towels, blankets from southeast Anatolia, peştamals, and shawls. You will also find pure olive oil soaps and scrub mitts. Alibaba Türbe Sokak No.15
- Sivaslı Istanbul Yazmacısı features a lovely collection of scarves, stockings, gloves, and other ethnic goodies, mostly handmade and featuring Turkish motifs. Yağlıkcılar Sokak No.57
- Ottoamano made its name on one item—the scarf—but the plethora of items on offer is like nothing you have seen before. You will want to browse through the high-quality items made of silk and cashmere. Sandal Bedesteni No.10
One of the main reasons locals visit places in the Grand Bazaar is the custom-made services that many of the hans offer. While the storefronts display ready-made products, craftsmen have workshops in the back of the hans. These workshops have been in business for several generations, with the skills passed on from generation to generation. Modern-day goldsmiths and jewellers in Istanbul draw their knowledge and inspiration from centuries-old traditions, and the actual origins of the trade go back much further. Commissioning specially made work takes time and most likely Turkish language skills, so this option may not be suitable for short-term visitors.
In the Ottoman times, Istanbul-style handiwork using precious materials was widely recognizable, creating the image of the city as the regional center for craftsmanship. Today, there are five distinct groups of items which are known to be authentic to Istanbul: gold chains, pieces with rose-cut diamonds, pearls, jewelry made of golden coins, and belt buckles. Many of the craftsmen work on original designs, while others specialize in working based on a client’s requests.
Many of the goldsmiths and jewelry-makers are in hans within the walking proximity to the main area of the Grand Bazaar near the Mercan Gate (not on Jewelers Street, as the name may otherwise suggest): Zincirli Han near Tığıcılar Sokak, Varakçı Han in Kapalıçarşı Ağa Sokak, Kalcılar Han, and Çulhacı Han. As the qualifications of each craftsman vary from stone setting to sand casting to polishing to engraving, it may take more than one specialist to finalize the design of your dreams.
Rest, eat, and drink
Restaurants within the Grand Bazaar complex are known to be some of the best in Istanbul for one simple reason: their customers have been depending on their services for decades and their longevity speaks to the quality.
- Located just steps from the Bazaar, Aslan is an esnaf (tradesmen) restaurant specializing in Turkish home cooking. The selection of delicious hot and cold dishes changes daily in this casual eatery where the focus is on flavors rather than décor. Vezirhan Caddesi No. 70, Çemberlitaş; T: (0212) 513 76 10
- A classic among Grand Bazaar tradesmen restaurants, Havuzlu offers homemade meals, extensive vegetarian options, and grilled meats and kebabs since 1960. Gani Çelebi Sokak No. 3, Grand Bazaar; T: (0212) 527 33 46
- Get a boost of energy with a cup of Turkish coffee at Şark Kahvesi, a traditional coffee house. Yağlıkçılar Caddesi No.134, Grand Bazaar; T: (0212) 512 11 44
- Aynen Dürüm is a tiny restaurant located in a narrow alley offering customers just a few delicious classic options wrapped in a light flatbread. Grand Bazaar, Muhafazacılar Sokak No.29, Grand Bazaar; T: (0212) 527 47 28