Inside the 600-Year-Old Grand Bazaar of Istanbul

Uncover the medieval magic of behind each spice, rug, and leather goods stall ...Read More

Tourists shuffle through one lane within the covered Grand Bazaar. (Source: iStock / Kostas Pavlis)

It all began in the winter of 1455. The Ottomans had recently sacked the city of Constantinople and uncovered a lagging economy. That’s when Sultan Mehmet II had an idea…

In an effort to spur business, he had a building constructed near his palace so that flagging merchants could trade jewels and textiles. Construction took almost five years, but eventually, the brick structure opened its doors to the public.

What followed was an economic domino effect: markets springing up across the city in response to the Sultan’s own center of trade. Over the next several hundred years, the Grand Bazaar took shape, folding in tailors, luxury goods merchants, second-hand goods purveyors, booksellers, and hundreds of other vendors. Indeed, by the 17th century – when the Ottoman Empire spanned three continents – the Grand Bazaar had become the largest, most trafficked market in the world.

Today, the Grand Bazaar is a monumental feat of international commerce, spread over 60-some streets and featuring more than 4,000 shops. It is unquestionably the largest market in the world and attracts as many as 400,00 tourists every day. At its core is the Iç Bedesten (roughly translated as “internal covered market”), which contains 15 bays for vendors and is accessible via four primary gates, one for each cardinal direction. Additionally, the Sandal Bedesten offers enough bays for 20 additional vendors, all capped by brick domes.

An imposing spice stall at the Grand Bazaar, brimming with loose spices of every kind (Source: iStock / kelvinjay)
An imposing spice stall at the Grand Bazaar, brimming with loose spices of every kind (Source: iStock / kelvinjay)

Aside from these stone-and-brick structures, original market edifices were built out of wood. This practice changed following a devastating fire in the 1700s, however; subsequent stalls were built of stone and/or brick and were limited to one story.

The original rituals and routines of Bazaar vendors have changed surprisingly little since the 1700s; vendors still lay out their wares attractively (although often hide the most expensive items) while passersby eye merchandise, tempting each stall owner to launch into his/her sales pitch. While these days, the goods on offer are quite a bit different than what one found in the Bazaar’s early years – including hand-blown glass lamps, purses, jewelry, ceramics, spices, rugs, clothing, assorted tchotchkes, and an abundance of food – the Bazaar nonetheless carries forward its character from yesteryear.

Before you go gung-ho with browsing and buying, however, here are some key things to keep in mind when visiting the Grand Bazaar:

  • The Bazaar is huge and crowded. Keep your personal items close to your body and concealed at all times. Also, just be aware there will be jostling as fellow shoppers walk past you.
  • Haggling is common, so be prepared to make a counter-offer if there’s an item you’re interested in. (Also, read up on our must-know haggling tips.)
  • There are metal detectors at the entrances, so be prepared for a scan and possibly an inspection. In general, security is tight in Istanbul so always be ready for this sort of screening.
  • The Grand Bazaar is most widely known for its leather goods, jewelry, antiques, rugs, and fabrics. While it may seem like a day-long task to find stalls that carry these goods, never fear; they are largely grouped together and easily found via readily-available maps. To make your trip smoother, plan your route before you arrive.
  • While many of the merchants do accept credit cards, it’s always a good idea to have cash (Turkish lira). Also, be sure you bring your passport with you as some vendors/security officers require it as your ID.
  • There are lots of places to eat in the Grand Bazaar, but be sure you try something Turkish and affordable (in other words, save your money for other bazaar goodies). We recommend Havuzlu Restaurant, in part because the food is Turkish and delicious (the meaty stews are the best) but they’re also used to serving English-speaking tourists.
  • Resist the urge to tack on a visit to Hagia Sophia or the nearby palace as part of your trek to the Bazaar; you’ll just be overwhelmed. Set aside a full day for shopping at and exploring the Bazaar, then set aside time another day for hitting other important sites in the city.

Do you have a favorite shop or restaurant in the Grand Bazaar? Send it to use at editor@wideworldoftravel.com and we’ll add it to this article.