Today marks the third week I've been in Istanbul and I still haven’t seen everything I wanted. The city is massive, full of excellent food to sample, incredible sights to visit, and stellar nightlife to keep you entertained for months on end. While I still have much to see, I hit the ground running and, as promised, here is the rest of my story from my very first full day in Istanbul. Starting from where I left off in my last post, my compatriots, Alex and Zoheb, and I had just finished our prayer in the Sultan Ahmed Mosque were off to continue our exploration of Istanbul.
While it was only 5:00 pm in the evening, the sun had already sunk far below the horizon, leaving the city under a blanket of darkness and stars as if it were midnight. From the Blue Mosque, the three of us journeyed to the famous Grand Bazaar and Spice Market just fifteen minutes away. The streets of the old city center were packed with visitors, flashing lights, and local vendors of all sorts, but the Grand Bazaar took my claustrophobia to a new level. The labyrinth of shops sprawls out endlessly in every direction and even the best navigator is destined to get lost among the narrow passageways. Enclosed by an intricately painted arched roof, the Grand Bazaar maintains a perpetually moist - almost tropical - environment thanks to the droves of people coursing through it's restricted walkways. While the atmosphere is a delightful escape from the cold, rainy weather outside, the heat quickly becomes intolerable especially when combined with the small spaces and boisterous crowds.
I have no idea how the vendors can sit inside sipping teas all day.
Each cramped shop is manned by a local who, like hookers on a Vegas street corner, catcall passersby in an attempt to peddle their wears. From clothing to shoes, to hookahs, diamond necklaces, and solid gold bars, if you want it odds are it’s in the Grand Bazaar somewhere. There is a seemingly endless array of goods to buy and peruse, but the markup is absurd. Very few of the items on display are labeled with a price and the moment you inquire with the vendor they inflate the cost based how much they think you can pay. If you look or talk like a westerner, there's a good chance the price they quote you is 4x what they would sell to a local (or more). This was my very first experience with bargaining and I know for a fact I got ripped off everywhere I went. As a general rule of thumb, always start out by offering 40% of the "retail" price (or lower). Even with this significant discount the vendor still makes a profit and at least you can walk away knowing you aren’t getting screwed too badly.
The neighborhood between the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Market is a cluster of erratic, winding roads lined with vendors much the same way as the Bazaar - just without the roof. While there are still dense crowds of people, the torrent of tourists becomes mixed with locals going about their day. In this area you can find goods more suited to daily life such as blankets, rugs, local style clothing, buttons, home improvement supplies, electronics, and for some reason even automatic weapons (don't ask me why). From their cramped shops, merchants spread out their inventory into the middle of the road while street vendors peddle fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice and simits from their little carts.
While similar to the Grand Bazaar, the nearby Spice Market is a cornucopia of delightful sensations for the nose. Once inside, the crowd returns to predominantly tourists and the vendors resume their stubborn harassment. While the Grand Bazaar is full of durable or luxury goods, the Spice Market is packed with snacks, treats, and other sweets that would entertain a child for hours on end. From the congested walkways, I look on at the numerous shops with their vibrant, aromatic spices and local teas on display; all neatly piled into perfect mounds and their delicate scents permeating the air around me. While an abundant variety of nuts, dried fruits, cheese, and jams abounds in the sprawling market, what catches my attention are the lightly dusted cubes of gelatin known as Turkish Delight. Over the course of the next few weeks, I'd go on to eat a plethora of these treats along with any other snacks caught my attention as I wandered by.
My personal favorite was the pomegranate variety with little pieces of dried fruits and nuts.
The Grand Bazaar and Egyptian Spice Market are both complete madhouses, but I felt perfectly at ease for a number of reasons. First off, I love getting lost, and I'm always in favor of any attraction that helps facilitate the feeling. Second, I thrive in chaotic atmospheres such as this, especially after living in NYC for so many years. Third, the muggy heat of the Grand Bazaar is nothing compared to the humid, 90+ºF temperatures of Houston I grew up with. Touristy as they may be, the excitement surrounding the Grand Bazaar and Spice Market is definitely not overhyped and should be a top priority for anyone visiting Istanbul. It was my favorite experience short of my visit to the famous Hagia Sophia.
I so look forward to seeing what else Istanbul has to offer. Thankfully I've got plenty of time!