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One of the most exciting parts of Istanbul is finding the local street markets. Istanbul in fact has been a capital of culture, trade and novelty for millennia now, so it has a longstanding tradition of a highly competitive and mind-blowingly huge Grand Bazaar.
The market is huge and intimate at the same time. Much of the market has evolved into a whole city quarter under canopied streets between low arching shops, so it is not all open, but much of it is in fact covered. This creates an internal atmosphere that makes it almost magical and brings practical benefits like keeping one cool and dry. The market isn’t really a place one should be concerned about navigating well. The streets run in all directions and each one looks the same as the other, so a good practice is just to be content to wander within and figure things out once you’ve reached a doorway leading outside.
The market contains over 5,000 individual shops and this provides a wonderful display of artistry, design and of course welcome competition. In a place as big as this there are bound to be repeats of stuff one has seen earlier as well as a healthy sampling of unique items. In either case it is a good idea to put of buying at first, simply browsing without showing too much interest is the best thing to do, otherwise time will fly by in haggling and discussion. After one has made the rounds and has a mental checklist of things one is willing to get, then it is time to commit.
I found the best thing is to hike back to two or three stores that are selling similar items. Bargain what you can from each, compare your lowest prices and return to the place where you find the best options. Be aware that the Bazaar is a hive of cheap knock offs and some very well made items. If you are looking to get something especially precious ask for some documentation and bargain as hard as you can. If going for the cheaper side, be sure and pay accordingly, don’t just trust someone’s word that the quality is good. Also pay attention to shopkeepers who like to joke, offer you tea and aren’t excessively pushy, (everyone will be pushy to some extent) these kinds of individuals are not only easier to deal with, but have a confidence in their product that others don’t.
Finally be aware that the Bazaar is quite an affordable place for souvenirs overall. Many visitors simply are intimidated by the intense bargaining and all the showmanship that goes into a sale. As a cultural experience try and embrace the experience, be firm in your bargaining, make them work to convince you, remember it is your liberty to buy and they’re not running a charity, if they really won’t be making a profit, they will refuse you offer repeatedly, get them to chase you down and agree to your final price and you’ll have some great souvenirs and a story to go with it.