What’s all the fuss about the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, Turkey

Beautiful Turkish lamps

Beautiful Turkish lamps

When my travel mates and I set foot in Istanbul we didn’t have much of an agenda until our first evening of settling in and glancing full on reading the lonely planet guidebook affectionately named lola (lo-lonely, la- la guia/guidebook). I enjoy reading guidebooks for the history and practical info but unlike my travel mates, once I’m in a city I usually drop the guide and see what I find as I lose myself in the streets and neighborhoods. My main focus in Istanbul was to taste every flavor on the menus and visit the Grand Bazaar. Similar to Marrakech souqs, the Grand Bazaar is the big marketplace where guidebooks suggests you allot half a day to browse, get lost and find yourself pinning for all the lamps, ceramics, pretty jewelry and random unexpected finds.

ceramic bowls

ceramic bowls

Our plans to go to the Grand Bazaar kept getting delayed from a longer than expected queue to visit the stinky feet smelling Blue Mosque (thanks to an overwhelming number of tourists) to me falling sick and my only wish was making it back to the hotel and crawling into my warm bed. I’m not a big souvenir shopper, except for my new habit of collecting magnets and the occasional journal or scarf (or 5.  I have a thing for scarves). I’m fascinated by how each country and city represents it self through it’s gift shops and local markets; wooden carvings- masks, statues and spoons throughout Eastern and Southern Africa, Lochness monster, “Nessie” stuffed animals in Scotland, Mind the Gap” T-shirts in London, olive oil and Flamenco, wine and toros in Spain, lots of leather handbags and silk blankets (yup, I bought one) in Morocco. And spices. Lots of spices.

So how does Istanbul represent itself? What is Turkey known for?

On our last afternoon, we entered the Grand shopping center and unlike the mostly outdoor marketplace in Marakech, Istanbul’s is indoor with gorgeous arch ways and painted floral designs.

Walking in the Grand Bazaar, Istanbul, Turkey

Walking in the Grand Bazaar, Istanbul, Turkey

But I was disappointed.

But maybe I shouldn’t have had expectations. Vendors were selling the same things you find in many places- jewelry, knock off Gucci handbags, designer jeans and shoes, and the typical scarves, ceramic bowls and cups, beautiful Turkish lamps and a few specializing in the famous carpets.
But what did I expect?

It is the Grand Bazaar, where everything under the sun is sold. Despite the recommendation to spend half a day with the likelihood of getting lost, we only needed half an hour because we kept walking down the same “street,” passing by the same vendors who hoped you’d come in, where they told you, “I have a special price for you, looking is free.”

Tea sets

Tea sets

I did have my eye on the beautiful glass and seed bead lamps. I wanted one. or two or three and envisioned having my home decorated with beautiful Turkish lamps. I laughed when I asked a young guy with a sheepish grin, How much is this lamp and he quoted me 30 lira (15 Euros) and when I looked on at the lamps, he showed me a different model, a candle holder and said, look, this one is cheap, it’s from China but this lamp you like, It’s strong and proceeded to stand on one foot on top of the small lantern shade.

I did end up buying one of these...

I did end up buying one of these but not in the Grand Bazaar…

Now that’s an interesting way to sell me something- talk about how something I’m not interested in and tell me it comes from China. Right. I’m already the weary traveler who assumes most things that are from said country are manufactured in China. Are these Turkish lamps really made in Turkey? Who knows? Apparently, standing on the “inferior” lamps is their selling point, more than one Turkish vendor used this technique to try to encourage me to buy. I wondered just how far I could bargain?

Bargaining isn’t my thing. Though I should be a pro by now after 9 months in Africa, and a few vacations in Mexico but it feels strange to me. Maybe it’s my personality that I never want to offend anyone even when practicing the golden rule of bargaining- at minimum, cutting the price in half. I’m used to fixed prices in the States, though I love a good discount. In theory bargaining sounds great- how good of a price can I get today? How low can I go? But I feel the opposite; that the vendors seize me up and try to take advantage of me based on where I’m from. White gal. From America. She’s rich and in some ways they are right. I’m rick in their eyes because I can afford to travel to their country. But vendors selling in a Bazaar are wise businessmen and know the tourist bargaining game well. The vendors always seem to win by playing the card you’ve offended them by suggesting too low a price, make you feel sorry for them or just get out right mad, as I experienced in Morocco when I mentioned the same exact scarves cost less in Granada, Spain than in Marakech. The vendor tried the “poor-me” story and then basically told me to get lost as he yelled, “ Go buy them in Spain, then.” The classic trick in bargaining is to walk away after you make your ultimate deal and if they are willing they’ll come running after you to seal the deal, this has worked in Mexico and Africa but I wasn’t successful in Turkey or Morocco.

With my eyes on a lamp, I casually asked several different vendors and was surprised they all had similar prices. “Well, bargaining may be more challenging but at least I won’t feel cheated,” I thought. Too many choices of colors and sizes, I didn’t want to make a decision too quickly, though time wasn’t on my side.

Abundance of scarves

Abundance of scarves

I passed by a scarf vendor, as I headed towards the door, and ran my hands along the smooth pashima scarves. A young Turkish man with a big smile said, “you must try” followed by “you must know how to wear one” as he adorned me with the soft fabric. Early I had seen similar scarves ranging in prices for the equivalent of 40 euros to 5 euros, same design, same material just different vendors seeing if they could pull a fast one on the unsuspecting tourist. “How much?” I asked, curious about the price. “How much do you want to pay?” he responded. Confidently I replied, “10 lira (5 Euros).” The lowest price I’d seen in nearby shops. He looked at me, shook his head and carefully took the scarf off me and said, “No, these are 40 lira. It’s 100% pashima.” He left it at that. No attempt to bargain. We both neither of us was going to budge. And he knew perfectly well, they’re would be someone else who’d be more than willing to pay the price he asked or bargained “down to.”

A half hour later, I happened on a shop filled with pashima scarves for 10-15 lira each.

And you know what?   His 40 lira scarf was there.

It pays to shop around. And to not always bargain or except the price they tell you.

I admired the scarves longer than I needed to and after our purchases (managed to only buy 3) the owner brought us tea. Tea is often served over big business deals but we took this as a little sign of appreciation of our purchases as he shared a bit of his family history and life story with us. Despite having a degree in computer science he prefers to be his own boss selling scarves.

I’ve learned that big Markets aren’t where the best prices are and typically if you have to bargain, prices have already doubled so when you cut the price, you’re likely still paying more than a store that has fixed prices. You’re better off going to smaller shops, stores off the main drag, stores that specialize in one produce or if you can, find where the locals shop.

Do you feel like you’re getting a deal or like you’re getting ripped-off when you bargain? Have you noticed a difference in different bargaining based countries?

15 thoughts on “What’s all the fuss about the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, Turkey

    • Unfortunately, I don’t. When I was In London I stumbled upon a shop devoted to all things Turkish but the cost was double but heck, they did the hard work of importing it. Good luck in finding what you’re looking for!

    • Hi Bani, Thanks for stopping by. Definitely a first world problem. I know there are various opinions to bargaining and their are many angles, perspectives to the concept of bargaining, tourist influence, etc. I personally don’t like it that much though depending on where I am, I do it because it’s the cultural norm. I find in less touristed areas, prices are usually less inflated…

      • Hi, I am in Istanbul now and want to get some scarves for my 9-year-old girl. Do you still remember the shop where you got the 10-15 scarves? Thanks!

      • Hi Josie,
        Thanks for reading. Got your message too late and I’m not sure I could explain how to get there… I just remember where it is. And no, I don’t know of any online vendors for the laterns.

  1. Maybe, it’s that were victims of globalization. I noticed in Spain that the handmade crafts were not all made in Spain anymore in the bazaars and shops. Back in the 80’s when Spain was a poorer country and the big Chinese manufacturing machine was harder to tap into, the handmade fans and scarves, toys and leather goods were Spanish made. I imagine in Turkey many are made in Turkey but the whole bargaining game can be annoying. I do it. My husband is from that region of the world so I know how to play the bargain game but it wears me out. If I am buying something more pricey and good quality I can afford to spend half and hour or so bargaining and playing. But if I just want some freakin’ souvenirs, I want to buy them and move on and get back to my exploring the city, not play a silly game of offering a fair price for a over inflated price. Until I compromise on just above the fair price I originally offered and get insulted and called a cheapskate for paying generously. Doh. What I did in Morocco was take some Moroccan friends with me and stand out of the way after telling them what I liked, have them go and make the transaction. Same thing with the Lebanese. Worked like a charm.

    • Hi Birgit,
      Thanks for reading.
      Yes, Globalization has a lot to do with it. These days, many traditions and artisan ways are being lost as other cultures try to be more western. Meanwhile, some us westerners want to revert back to less complicated ways and be more connected to the land, where things come from…

      I try to bargain and play the game, though I don’t like it. I had more success in Chefocean, a smaller town in Morocco and had some locals help me too. It was an interesting because it was 2 guys and they had no idea what a good price was for some things, which made me appreciate that bargaining can be a challenge even for people who are from there. Also depends on what it is! But yes, having locals help you is like night and day!
      And yes, if it’s a big purchase, it’s worth it otherwise, it’s just easier to pay or find shops with a fixed price.

      • My traveling companion bought a beautiful hand knotted carpet in Morocco when we went in 1987. It was really funny! The merchants in the shop after all the mint tea and bargaining didn’t want to settle for mere money. They wanted his Levi’s and his Ray Ban sunglasses. So he took off his pants and sunglasses in a backroom and they set him up with a pair of baggy pajama pants to wear back to the hotel. Pretty funny! Now that’s how to bargain! 😀

  2. I think I’d buy up the entire souk if I was there. When I was in Damascus, they have similar souks there and everything is super-cheap, it was terribly difficult to decide what NOT to buy. And even today, I regret not buying one or two things that I can’t find here.

    • Yeah, that’s how I felt when I was in Morocco. I wanted everything but often prices seemed more expensive in Spain so I didn’t really try. I waited till I was in a smaller town and vendors offered better prices!

  3. I love those boots sitting above the scarves! But you make a good point…where are all of these “artisan crafts” really made? Shopping around can make a difference, and then again, as you know well, sometimes it’s have a local with you that really helps you find the good stuff.

    • Who really knows these days where crafts are made. I wondered a lot while in Africa since you find so many of the same souvenirs in every craft market from Malawi to south Africa…

  4. I love the colors of those lamps! I don’t think I’d do very well bargaining at the Grand Bazaar though, sounds like I’d get too frustrated with the shop owners there. That was nice of the last guy to bring you tea and have a chat!

    • Yeah, Fun to browse but big markets in touristy zones aren’t ideal for the best deals, me thinks!

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