One day, I woke up. The sun was shining, the sky was clear, and I was feeling particularly invigorated.
“Yes,” I thought. “Today is Bazaar Day.”
Much like Rex Manning Day, Bazaar Day is something to both fear and look forward to, if only to just get it over with. The Grand and Spice Bazaars are “must-see’s” in any Istanbul guidebook or hip traveler blog post. I was armed to the teeth with advice about each, including but not limited to:
– Go to the Grand Bazaar to look, and the Spice Bazaar to buy
– Compare and contrast prices before settling on a vendor, then haggle
– Go when you have seemingly unlimited patience for crowds
– Be prepared for aggressive vendors
– Expect to get lost
Now my patience was wearing thin at this point to begin with, just because it was hot and I was tired of sightseeing. But markets and bazaars are my jam; I love the excitement, the looking, the shopping, beautiful displays–it’s pretty tough for me to burn out any kind of market-like shopping experience. I didn’t plan on buying much–I’m working within a budget, after all–but the sensory extravaganza promised to me by countless Google Image searches had my appetite whet.
Istanbul’s public transportation system is good. I think. Compared to Chicago, it’s crappy, but it exceeded my expectations. Maps are easy to find, though it certainly helps to plan your route beforehand. Their website, Istanbul Electricity, Tramway and Tunnel General Management, has an English version that is mostly still in Turkish, and their trip planner application proved useless. But it’s max 2 lira to ride, which comes to a dollar and change in USD, leaving all the more lira for a simit break as you try to figure out where you are.
Seriously though, it wasn’t bad.
But, me being the walker–thinking I can just walk to wherever, whenever–decided to walk from Nisantasi to Bazaarlandia. Google maps says it’s only 3 and a half miles. But I felt like Jesus crossing the desert. If Jesus were a misguided 25 year-old woman and the desert were more populated and with better food.
While my predilection for hoofing it in Spain was mainly because everything was so close to everything else (save for Guell Park…more on that another time), the whole reason I wanted to walk to the bazaars was so I could cross the Galata bridge.
It was an incredibly hot day, but it’s at least ten degrees cooler near the water. I stood on a shaded, breezy part of the bridge and it was utterly lovely. The bridge is surrounded by the mass metropolis that is Istanbul. Looking at the city, separated by the Bosphorus, here is no extra space where a building hasn’t been built; it’s gazing at the epitome of populous sprawl, teeming with life and dirt and smog and noise. Gorgeous.
On the bridge itself? Guys hanging out fishing.
Lucky for me, Bazaarlandia is just across the bridge. The Spice Market was my first stop.
The market is located in one covered building, but the labyrinthine streets surrounding it are full of vendors as well. There were a good amount of tourists when I went, and it almost was to my benefit; while the merchants were waving cardamom under the noses of Mr. and Mrs. Fanny Pack, I was free to stealthily look and snap pictures.
I quickly realized there were two different kinds of booths here, what I call the Lookers and the Touchers. The Lookers are what I took pictures of; they’re picturesque with beautiful colorful displays but low turnover. They attract the most tourists ’cause they’re just so darn pretty! They seem to be “chain” booths, and the vendors wear a logo-ed polo shirt.
The Touchers aren’t so pretty, but their turnover is higher thus implying that their product is better. It also seems like the more specialized the booth, the better; instead of going to the guys that sell tea and spices and candy and lip gloss, go to the ones that sell what you’re looking for exclusively. Their efforts are more concentrated. And pay attention to where other Istanbullus are shopping–always trust the locals.
After wandering around the Spice Market for a couple hours, I settled on buying a beautiful copper ibrik and some Turkish coffee to make in it. Then it was off to the Grand Bazaar.
The walk to the Grand Bazaar is a short, albeit interesting one. Each section of neighborhood or bazaar is dedicated to one type of ware, and the steep, uphill climb to the GB is lined with shops selling textiles: bedding, bolts of fabric, lots and lots and lots of scarves. This continues into the actual Bazaar itself.
I’ve gotta say, when they say be prepared for aggressive merchants, they mean be prepared to feel like a lone guppy tossed amongst snapping turtles. They will do anything to strike up conversation, including follow you for a few stalls, and asking you lots and lots of questions. That is, if you make eye contact. Or decline their invitation or otherwise acknowledge them in any way. My favorite interaction went like this:
A salesman tapped me on the shoulder.
“Senorita, you dropped something,” he said. I look around.
I got a good laugh out of that one. Also, I cannot pass up a Turkish Delight sample if my life depended on it, so I got roped in that way a couple times. Soon, I was snatching a sample and running away.
I eventually learned the best technique is to smile and keep walking. It was funny–they didn’t quite know what to make of me, and I got spoken to in lots of different languages, sometimes one after another. Hint: they usually don’t speak Spanish, so I feigned only speaking Spanish. Worked like a charm.
Some parts of the Grand Bazaar were beautiful: the tea, spices and candy, mostly. And the textiles. The carpets are incredible.
There were also lots of shops that sold plush towels, bathrobes, peshtemal and natural body stuff, like soaps, lotion and oils. I came across an adorable little oasis with cafes selling food and tea, and it was very sweet, dark and cozy.
I was checking out the bellydancing costumes and spotted a place with colorful tablecloths, so I stopped there for apple tea.
A note on apple tea: Now, this is less of a tea and more of an “apple drink.” It’s sweet and cidery and slightly tart; very tasty. I later bought some from a tea shop; it comes in little granules that look like hamster food, and you stir a couple spoonfuls into hot water.
I ordered apple tea off the menu twice while I was in Istanbul, once I was served the above apple drink, and once I was served a fruit tea that tasted like apple sort of. It was pink. I’m not sure how to differentiate between the two when ordering.
Before heading out, I stopped by the Book Bazaar, an unofficial book subset of the Grand Bazaar. They had beautiful texts in Turkish and Arabic, along with illustrations and bookplates for sale. I would’ve liked it a bit better if at least some of the stalls sold used books, but it was still pretty neat.
All in all, I would probably say that the Spice Bazaar was my favorite of the two: less pressure to buy, less overwhelming, cooler goods. The GB reminded me of–I hate to say it–a really big flea market. The crappy stalls waaaaaaay outnumbered the exotic, awesome ones, everything is completely overpriced, I got frustratingly lost at times (coupled with the cat calling/aggressive sales pitches–I wanted to pull my hair out), and I was just a little overwhelmed with it all. Maybe it would’ve helped if I had gone to the Grand Bazaar before the Spice Bazaar, but I still think I would’ve liked the latter better anyway.
Hot, tired and hungry, I ended up taking the Metro back.