travel in style: istanbul shopping guide

istanbul blue

| Blue Mosque, Istanbul. // All photos by me or Mr. SMC |

Second only to an ill-conceived, 24-hour adventure in Tangiers in my 20s (buy me a couple of drinks sometime, and I’ll tell you a tale), Istanbul is bar none the most “foreign” place to which I’ve ever traveled. By which I mean I don’t speak the language, don’t know the culture, the food, the traditions…did I need head scarves? Long sleeves? Was I allowed to wear jeans? Because, let’s be honest, inadvertently botching a cultural norm in a country I’ve already admitted was utterly foreign to me (in every sense of the word) sounds like an intimidatingly easy thing to do.

And yet. Once I arrived, much like my time in Morocco, I knew immediately I’d worried for nothing. I found the people in Istanbul to be unfailingly, overwhelmingly friendly, helpful and welcoming. On the rare occasion someone didn’t speak English, they either found someone who did, or we successfully (and cheerfully!) mimed to each other until we sorted it out. The 3 Turkish phrases I frantically committed to memory on the plane elicited so much appreciation from locals that you’d have thought I mastered the language. It is busy, and crowded, and…well, foreign, but I didn’t see a single act of protest, let alone violence. Some people wore head scarves (you do need one to visit mosques), but my tour guide showed up the first day in a tank top.

I honestly don’t know whether this is a case of low expectations being exceeded or whether I really loved Istanbul as much as I think did, but truly – it was unforgettable, and I’d recommend it heartily to anyone at all!

As for sights to see, I know you can grab any guidebook and figure out that you should see the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia and Sultanamahet Palace. (Tip: At a minimum, short sleeves and long pants or a maxi skirt are required for the Blue Mosque, though they do have cover-ups available to borrow if you forget.) Don’t miss those…but honestly, once you’ve done them, the rest is just wandering and experiencing the city. A few suggestions:

  • Buy roasted chestnuts or corn from a street vendor.
  • Stop searching for a cappuccino and have Turkish coffee in a café. I quite enjoyed Mihri – it’s situated right between the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia, so you can sit and sip and soak in the best people-watching. If you go at the right time, they even have whirling dervish dancers. (There’s also a luxe hammam inside, if you’re so inclined.)
  • Wander the streets and take pictures of the feral cats and dogs, which are everywhere! The city traps, sterilizes, vaccinates and releases, and people just leave pet food out so no one goes hungry.
  • At some point, make it over to the Asia side, if only for bragging rights. (I hear the ferry to Kanlica is a wonderful ride, and I have it on good authority that there’s some not-to-be-missed Turkish yogurt to be had while you’re there).

Language, food, culture…I decided I’d figure it out when I got there. The part I really wanted to research before I left – surprise, surprise – was the shopping. I wanted to know what souvenirs to buy, and where to buy them. But there’s surprisingly little information out there about that, as it turns out. So, I did some legwork (and wallet work). Here’s what I learned:

Grand Bazaar: Truly an experience not to be missed. It’s a miles-long maze of shops that’s unlike anything I’ve ever experienced – like the souks in Morocco, but even larger. A few rules and regulations:

  • Put down the map. I can tell you with absolute certainty that you’re going to get lost in here. So just relax and enjoy the labyrinthine quality of the Bazaar – it’s part of the experience. Whenever you’re ready to leave, you’ll be able to find an exit, which is also the right time to break out your phone’s GPS to help you navigate from there.
  • Bargain! I know, you’re in a foreign country, you don’t speak the language, and you don’t want to insult anyone. But believe me: the salespeople love it – it’s part of the fun for them! I ended up buying a scarf from one vendor just because he entertained me. In another stall, a salesperson played rock/paper/scissors with Mr. SMC to settle on a price (the hubs won, of course). So, be fair and be smart, but have fun! (And yes, they all speak English…at least when it comes to money.)
  • Be fair. There’s a rule floating around that once you agree on a price, it’s insulting to walk away. For me, that’s just common courtesy, but do keep it in mind.
  • Be patient. Don’t buy from the first store you come to – those closer to the entrances have higher rents and higher markups.
  • Don’t buy anything valuable. Period. Unless you brought your jeweler’s loop along, save the high-priced purchases for stores you’ll actually be able to find again if something goes wrong.
    • One exception: Mekhann, if you can find it, was the one shop in the Grand Bazaar where I’d actually spend some money. Their prices are fair (not cheap, but fair) – I bought a beautiful, hand-embroidered scarf there that’s unlike anything you’ll find anywhere else, and when it comes to scarves, I know a thing or two. (Tip: This was also the single exception I found in the entire city of Istanbul when it came to haggling. They were not fans. I got them down about 20%, but don’t expect the same deep discounts you’re negotiating elsewhere.)
  • You get what you pay for. Whether you’re at the Grand Bazaar or elsewhere, there are plenty of people who will be happy to take you for a ride. Check that “hand-painted” Turkish tile twice – the paint should be raised, and “Made in Turkey” should be written on the back. Grab a magnet off a display and test it against that copper Turkish coffee pot you’re considering (solid copper isn’t magnetic). This matters less with souvenirs for others, but I went out of my way to avoid the mass-produced trinkets for myself.

Spice Bazaar: I loved this even more than the Grand Bazaar – the visual of all of those beautiful baskets of spices, the Turkish Delight piled to the ceiling, the perfume of peppers and saffron in the air – it’s unmissable. Wander, sniff, banter with the salespeople, and definitely buy a few unusual spices to take home, but watch the quantities they put into bags for you – do you really need a kilo of dried oregano? Also, please don’t let your tour guide take you to “their favorite” stall. They’re all great – remember, these are food products, so you can taste and smell and know right away what’s good. If you go with your guide, you won’t feel as comfortable bargaining – which is how you end up leaving with $300 worth of Turkish Delight. (*cough*)

| Buying a carpet in Istanbul, in 20 seconds |

Carpets: If you make it through Istanbul without shopping for carpets, please tell me how you managed it. There are 3 rug stores to a block, at least. Strangers will walk up to you during lunch and ask if you’d like to buy a carpet. (Tip: try not to get irritated when that happens – everyone’s got to make a living. I ended up telling them I’d already bought two that morning and had no money left, which made them laugh.)

That said, if a rug is something you’d at all be interested in, it’s an incredible experience. And the rug stores all ship your purchase home for free – the shipping fees are subsidized by the Turkish government.

Based on some recommendations, I ended up at a incredible (and incredibly overwhelming) shop called Ottomania, where I spent more on a rug than I care to admit, but had maybe the most fun of the entire trip. Now, when I say overwhelming, I’m talking about a 6-story building filled floor to ceiling with carpets. Ziya and his team must have showed me more than a hundred options before I ended up – of course – buying the first one I’d seen, a beautiful 19th-century Kurdish dowry rug (you can see it in the video, at the bottom of the stack, as well as a few cameos of my maxiskirt and I pacing indecisively). After we bought, he insisted we stay for lunch, and served us the best meal we had the entire trip, all on his rooftop terrace overlooking the Blue Mosque.

When I told Ziya I’d be including him in my guide, he asked me to share his cell phone number so you all could call him and he’d help you arrange tour guides and other fun things in Istanbul. I’m not going to do that, but definitely ask for Ziya if you go, and tell him he’d better give you a price as good as the one he gave me. And if you want his cell phone number, email me.

Here’s what you need to know about carpet-buying:

  • Be knowledgeable. This is one area in which you can absolutely, positively get taken for a ride. An authentic Turkish rug should not be cheap, so there’s that – but it’s also very easy to pay too much, or to buy something that isn’t what they’re saying it is. So, if there’s even the tiniest chance you’ll get lured into buying a rug while you’re in Istanbul, educate yourself on some of the basics before you go.
  • Avoid the carpet shops in the Grand Bazaar, or really any of the bazaars, unless you have a specific recommendation from someone you trust. The bazaars are huge, loud, and completely overwhelming – it’s easy to get turned around and end up in a disreputable shop. Also, they’re a little too used to taking advantage of tourists.
  • Ask questions. Once you’re actually considering buying, don’t be shy. Ask about construction, origin, fabric…make them tell you anything you want to know. Even if you don’t know a kilim from a dhurrie, you can tell a lot by how someone answers your questions. If they know what they’re talking about, if they’re passionate about what they do, and if they’re selling something of value, they’ll have answers to all of your questions.
  • Be sure. If you find something you truly love, and it’s at all within your means, buy it – it’s that simple. Travel souvenirs like this are tangible reminders you’ll have for a lifetime. But that said, if you don’t find something you love, or if you just can’t afford it, it’s okay to walk away. Even after they’ve served you apple tea and Turkish Delight. (Which, I promise you, they will.)
  • Bargain. Once you’ve found something you love (and not a moment sooner – remember what I said about agreeing on a price and then walking away?), start to haggle. Be firm, but polite, and never show them how much you love it. As a rule of thumb, if you pay more than half of what the “original” price is, you’re doing it wrong. But also, don’t be absurd. If they tell you it’s a $10,000 rug and you know you can’t spend more than $500, say so. They’ll be the first ones to send you on your way if you’re that far apart. (After showing you a few things that are in your price range, of course.)
  • Verify.  Get a Certificate of Authenticity for your rug, and do it before you leave the store. Trust me on this one…trying to get their attention once you’re half a world away is not easy. (Again, *cough*)

The recap: My favorite souvenirs from the trip? The rug, of course. A small handmade copper Turkish coffee pot and a handpainted serving platter I picked up at a student art festival we happened upon, where students were selling the pieces they’d made in class. Piles and piles of spices and teas. And though it’s cheesy, I still wish I’d bought one of those sets of Turkish coffee cups you’ll see stacked mile-high in the Grand Bazaar.

The one thing I didn’t buy, which I really regret, is jewelry. It’s one of my go-to souvenirs whenever I travel, and I was really looking forward to finding some special piece to remind me of my time in Turkey. However, when I got there, I realized that I have a very unreliable track record when it comes to telling real from fake. I can spot a faux Birkin at a thousand paces, but this very morning, I spent several minutes gushing over my barista’s “vintage diamond ring”, only to find out she bought it at Stella and Dot. So, much as I loved the antique emerald and diamond drop earrings I found at the Grand Bazaar, the idea of spending thousands of dollars on something I couldn’t in any way authenticate seemed like a bad plan.

So, my friends…that’s the tale! I hope you had some fun, learned a couple of things, and added Istanbul to your travel bucket list, if it wasn’t there already. If you go, or want to go, and have any questions at all, leave them in the comments – I’m always happy to be your Istanbul shopping tour guide!

{PS: A few shoutouts. First, Turkish Airlines – they’ve ruined me for every other airline on the planet. If ever you get a chance to fly with them, absolutely do it – the experience is not to be believed. Second, if you need a place to stay in Istanbul, I heartily recommend the Ottoman Hotel Imperial. The staff was incredibly kind and helpful, the rooms were charming and large, the rates are unbelievable and the location truly cannot be beat. And nope, no media special treatment from either of these – just genuinely liked them.}

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5 comments on “travel in style: istanbul shopping guide

  1. Jessica

    This post is fantastic. Thank you for taking the time to so thoughtfully recap your experience. I’ve pinned it to refer to later. Istanbul is definitely at the top of my travel list — and, yes, I definitely need a rug! (And I probably would have purchased all three of those pillows on the bench in the top photo!)

  2. Shopping's My Cardio

    Jessica: I’m so thrilled that you liked it – thank you! And you can’t even imagine…my hubs had to drag me out of Mekhann (the pillow/fabric store) kicking and screaming. I’d have lugged the entire shop home if he’d left me unattended 😉

  3. Jess

    thank you SO MUCH for this guide! very timely – i’m hoping to get there sometime in the next year or two!

  4. shoppingsmycardio Post author

    Jess: I’m so glad it’s helpful!! And I’m even happier to hear Istanbul is on your travel list – it really was an amazing city to experience. LMK if I can help with anything else once you start planning!

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