Perhaps it was the renown of the Grand Bazaar that put Istanbul on the map of the world's great shopping destinations. Paris isn't the only destination in Europe where visitors drop in for the weekend for a whirlwind spending spree, not with the hunting grounds of Old Istanbul and the elegant boutiques of the new one at your fingertips.
Where Should I Go?
Any shopping tour of the city will inevitably begin with the Grand Bazaar. Pay particular attention to the exclusive shops along Kapaliçarsi Caddesi leading up to the Nuruosmaniye entrance to the Grand Bazaar. Less overwhelming in scope are the shops located in the Arasta Bazaar and its extension along Kücük Ayasofya Caddesi, and in the modest Avrupa Pasaji in Beyolglu's Balikpazari. Savvier shoppers should seek out stores located on the forgotten back streets, because the owners of these are hungrier than those in more highly trafficked areas, and therefore more willing to cave in on your final price.
The Egyptian Spice Bazaar (Misir Çarsisi; closed Sun) in Eminönü is another mandatory stop on any shopping tour, although its initial merchandise of exotic spices from the East has expanded to include T-shirts and that spongy Turkish delight. For handicrafts, ceramics, and gifts displayed in the historic setting of an old medrese, head to the Istanbul Handicrafts Center, Istanbul Sanatlari Çarsisi, across from the Blue Mosque and next to the Dervis Tea Gardens, with former classrooms arranged around a central courtyard now displaying fine-quality hand-painted silks, Anatolian dolls, calligraphy, and miniatures crafted by local artists. There's also a quality souvenir shop with fixed prices.
Istiklal Caddesi, from Beyoglu to Taksim, could be in any major city in the world, a bustling promenade of cafes, clothing stores, blaring record shops, and bookstores. A short taxicab ride away to the northeast of Taksim is the trendy neighborhood of Nisantasi, a pleasant cross between New York's SoHo and Madison Avenue. Boutiques along Tesvikiye Caddesi and in the smaller side streets of the neighborhood are stocked with high-quality merchandise in elegant settings, with major names like Mudo, Emporio Armani, Vakko, and Beyman.
Istanbul also has more than its fair share of outdoor markets, selling the usual assortment of fresh produce, sweatshirts, and maybe the odd antique. A walk through one of these provides yet another opportunity to witness another facet of this complex culture. There is a flea market in Beyazit between Sahaflar and the Grand Bazaar every Sunday, in the Horhor Market located in Akisaray on weekends, and on Çukurcuma Sokagi in Cihangir daily. The arts-and-crafts fair on Sundays in Ortaköy has become more of an outlet for jewelry and revolutionary Turkish ideas; still it's a fun place to spend the afternoon.
What Should I Buy?
The first thing that comes to mind when plotting out a plan of attack for acquisitions in Turkey is a rug, be it a kilim or tribal carpet. Carpets, kilims, and a whole slew of related items that have lost their nomadic utility comprise an indescribably complex industry, but it is unlikely that you will get very far before being seduced by an irresistible excess of enticing keepsakes.
Most people are unaware that Turkey manufactures some of the best leather items in Europe, comparable in quality to those sold in Florence, Italy (and in some stores in Florence, the merchandise is Turkish). Because leather items are individually produced in-house, quality and fit may vary, but the advantage of this is that you can have a jacket, skirt, or trousers made to order, change the design of a collar, or exchange an unsightly zipper for buttons at prices far less than what you'd pay back home.
The entire length of Kalpakçilar Caddesi in the Grand Bazaar glitters with precious metals from the Nuruosmaniye Gate to the Bayezit Gate, and at first it may seem that gold and silver are astonishingly cheap. But the cost of precious metals is fixed internationally, and the low price of gold and silver is due to the cheap cost of labor. Thanks to advanced machinery and techniques imported from Italy, the quality of workmanship in Turkey is much better than ever, but not all workshops are the same, so look your piece over carefully.
Some of the world's best meerschaum comes from Turkey. This heat-resistant sea foam becomes soft when wet, allowing it to be carved into playful pipes that would make a collector out of the most die-hard nonsmoker. An afternoon in a historic hamam will expose you to some of the most beautiful traditional white copper objects, available as kitchen utensils as well as bathing ones, although keep in mind that you can't cook with this toxic stuff unless the inside has been coated with tin.
As far as antiques go, shopkeepers seem to be practiced in manufacturing bogus certificates of origin that will facilitate your trip through Customs, but beware: The certificate may not be the only counterfeit item in the shop. Collectors should keep in mind that it is prohibited by Turkish law to export anything dated prior to and through the 19th century.
Less traditional items can easily fill a suitcase, and with clever Turkish entrepreneurs coming up with new merchandise on a regular basis, you won't get bored on your second visit. Pillowcases, embroidered tablecloths, ornamental tea services, and brass coffee grinders are just some of the goodies that never seem to get old.
A Note About Bargaining
That old measure by which you should offer the seller half of his initial price is old hat. They've caught on to our shopping savvy, and bump up the price accordingly. I've heard that a good rule of thumb is to offer about 25% less than you're willing to pay, but in my experience, you must hold off your counteroffer for as long as you can get away with it. This method will meet with varying responses, but after a few times, you'll get the hang of it.
Also, after you've narrowed down your choice to two pieces, snub your first choice and put it down (with plans to come back to it later). Negotiate on your second choice -- undoubtedly one of the finer samples in the shop, and therefore one of the pricier items on sale. Once you've established that it's out of your price range, turn to your first choice with a disappointed "and what about that one."