Last year I went on a buying excursion to Istanbul, Turkey. My love affair with Istanbul began in 2011 when I traveled there for the first time with a girlfriend. We stayed for two blissful weeks and did everything from visiting the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, to having drinks at as many rooftop terraces as possible and boating in the Mediterranean Sea. Lastly, we shopped every market there was to find. When I laid eyes on the endless labyrinth of shops and stalls in the Grand Bazaar, I knew this was the place I'd be returning for years to come. You see, I have an insatiable desire for pretty things. Usually in the shape of a piece of jewelry or object I can wear. Lately, its also been textiles and decor. Really, I am constantly searching for something authentic that tells a story of the places I've been. Hhhhh, I love traveling.
Along my various trips, I've picked up a few very valuable tips to shopping smart in the Grand Bazaar. Remember, the Grand Bazaar was built in the 15th century and is the oldest covered market in the world! It truly is the real deal. These lessons have kept me safe, taught me some fierce negotiating skills and helped create some great relationships with local artisans. I think it's safe to say these tips can carry over to any market or bazaar in a foreign country. Listen up!
1. DON'T MISS OUT | When you're planning a visit to the Grand Bazaar, don't forget to check the calendar for religious holidays. On certain Islamic holidays the Grand Bazaar is closed and can stay closed for as many as four days to a week depending. A potentially huge bummer if you're only in town for a bit.
2. TIMING IS EVERYTHING | Unless you're up for an insane amount of haggling and crazy, chaotic crowds, do not visit during high season. High season in Istanbul is typically during the months of June, July and August. There are quite a bit of tourists coming in from all over the world making the Grand Bazaar feel overly crowded, as well as making it easier for the shop sellers to raise the prices on coveted items. The best time to go is late August or early September. The Grand Bazaar is an overwhelming place as it stands, but going at the right time makes the experience that much better. There is time to peruse the shops at your leisure and get to know the shop owners. This is important because you can spend time understanding the history, craftsmanship and story of each and every thing you buy. At this point, it will be much easier to tell the difference between high quality goods and the cheaper knock-offs. Taking the time to touch and feel the products will also help you make better buying choices, for sure. Haven't we all returned home with an over-priced trinket purchased too quickly causing immediate regret? Be smart and take your time.
3. SPEND THE TIME | The Grand Bazaar is, well, grand. With over 1000s of stalls and shops the market is divided by "areas" of interest. There are textiles, silver, gold, ceramics, jewelry, authentic leather goods, carpets and plenty of unique souvenirs. To put it in perspective the Grand Bazaar has 21 gates, 17 inns, 56 streets with 4,000 shops and employs over 30,000 people. In order to truly make smart choices and comprehend all of your options, it's essential to spend the right amount of time there. At least three to four hours if you just want to stop by and get a feel for the place. Otherwise, I would plan on committing to a few days, especially, if you're looking to make relationships with the vendors for future orders. At that point, you'll know which areas you want to focus in on and how to navigate the different spots of interest.
4. DRESS APPROPRIATELY | You do not have to abide by the Muslim practice of covering your head. Actually, Istanbul's fashion is ahead of the time and comparable to places like Paris and Milan. A mecca for mixing old and new world style and elegance, you will see it all as far as fashion goes. From head-to-toe veils to high fashion. What we really mean by 'dress appropriately' is that you should maintain a level of simplicity when shopping the Grand Bazaar. Avoid wearing flashy jewelry and expensive looking clothing or handbags. It tends to send the message that you have the money to spend, therefore your negotiation power tends to decline rapidly. So leave the Prada behind. You get the picture.
5. GET READY TO HAGGLE | The Grand Bazaar is a magical and intoxicating place if you can accept that there will be some aggressive haggling, including being approached constantly by shop keepers wanting to sell their wares. The best thing to do when walking the market is to avoid eye contact and walk at a brisk pace, unless you plan on visiting that shop. Once you've narrowed in on something you like, remember that the original price is going to be high. Throw out a number that is usually 30-40% lower and prepare to meet in the middle. Don't give up when you're feeling intimidated and if you really want to stick to a price, be prepared to walk away. Usually, you'll get invited back to seal the deal. If not, remember there are hundreds of other shops selling the same thing. This is the best practice in negotiation you'll ever have, we promise. Ultimately, stand your ground, but have fun! You're in Istanbul, after all.