The largest and oldest covered markets in the world Grand Bazaar (Kapali Çar??), 61 covered streets and over 4,000 shops which attract between 350,000 and 600,000 visitors daily' should be any dedicated shopper's first port of call in Istanbul. Crammed in among chaotic covered streets and alleys, its thousands of stalls hold all manner of items, such as carpets and kilims, leather, suede and denim clothes and accessories, ceramic tiles, bowls and vases, hand-beaten copper and brass lamps, coffee-grinders and samovars, gold and silver jewellery (beware imitations) and much more.
Much of the current prosperity comes from gold (of which nearly 100 tons is sold in the bazaar each year), coachloads of 'black bag' shoppers.(so called because of their habit of filling bin sacks with cheap clothing) and tourism. But, among t he sea of mantlepiece trinkets, nasty leather jackets, no-label jeans and hippie-wear, there • ire attractive quality goods to be had. To take time out I rom the constant hard sell, head for the ?ark Kahvesi, a fine old-style coffee house on the prominent Ya?l?kç?lar Caddesi.
A paradise for some, the crowds and hawkers, and indeed the sheer size of the bazaar, can render the experience quite nightmarish for others. As a result, some shoppers prefer the smaller Spice Bazaar (M?s?r Çar??s?) in Eminönü. As well as offering the typical souvenirs found in its larger cousin, the Spice Bazaar (Egyptian Bazaar) also sells vast quantities of herbs and spices, as well as delicious candies and mixed nuts. It's also a good place to buy a nargile (water pipe) and accompanying fruit-flavoured molasses.
Although the shops are now mainly geared towards tourists, the Grand Bazaar still retains a great deal of its oriental flavour in the blackened corners and arched courtyards of its bans (merchants' inns), as well as in the workshops and stalls of traditional blacksmiths and bronzesmiths, jewellers and fabric merchants, miniature painters and antiques dealers.
Istanbul was always one of the world's most important trading centres, with extensive open markets in Byzantine times. The Ottomans ushered in a new economic era, with the city at the) centre of an empire that stretched from the Arabian deserts almost to the European Alps. In 1461 Mehmet the Conqueror ordered the construction of a bedesten, a great lock-up with thick stone walls, massive iron gates and space for several dozen shops. This survives in modified form as the Old Bedesten (If Bedesten), at the very heart of the bazaar. It remains a place where the most precious items are sold, including the best old silver and antiques. The Sandal Bedesten was added later, named after a fine Bursan silk and filled with textile traders. It now hosts a carpet auction at 1pm every Wednesday, well worth attending as an audience spectacle.
It is as easy to lose track of time in this covered labyrinth as it is to lose oneself in its hectic, meandering alleyways. Don't be afraid to put the map away here, as part of the fun is getting lost, although making your way through the crowds amid the persistent cajoling of shopkeepers can certainly take its toll.