If Istanbul’s cultural and historical sites have made your head spin, wait till you venture into its incredible maze of shopping choices. The city which blends Europe and Asia has been an important merchant hub for centuries; trading, selling and shopping are at the core of its very existence. It should come as no surprise then, that the city offers an almost infinite choice of retail-therapies. From designer decked shopping malls, to dusty, dizzying bazaars, small holes in the wall and trendy backstreet boutiques, making sense of shopping in Istanbul can be a bit of a daunting task.
But if Istanbul is to shopaholics what Nirvana is to Buddhists, the absolute and ultimate, heaven; then it stands to reason that a little bit of effort would certainly not go unrewarded. Sure, you may need to conjure up some steely determination, perky perseverance and street-smartness, but once you’ve got those under your belt you’re bound to return home with suitcases full of incredible and unique souvenirs.
Here is our handy survival guide to diving headfirst into the craziness that is Istanbul shopping…. and emerging victorious.
Get in the know
You may not be aware that Turkey is one of the best, and largest, manufacturers of clothing in the world. Best thing about it is, they don’t make the clothes to be sold under better known European brands; they make and sell their items under their own name. Unless you’ve been living under a fashion-rock, you ought to know that Mavi Jeans is one of the hottest brands in the world right now, wooing shoppers and celebrities all over the world. Mavi is most definitely Turkish, made in Istanbul, and found here at a fraction of the price of New York, Paris or London. Yet Mavi is just one example of the excellent items you can find here. The same argument stands for locally made and excellent quality fabrics, jewelery and leather goods as well as carpets, ceramics and silk scarves.
Moreover, don’t shy away from the bazaars because you think they’re touristy. Yes, there are a lot of useless souvenirs stalls here, but the bazaars have not been operating for centuries just to satisfy today’s tourists. In Istanbul, they are still the best places to buy silk pashminas, rugs and kilims, so head here on your first day to get an idea of the kind of quality and price range you can expect.
The bargaining chip
If you’re going to visit the bazaars, or any shop in the Old City centre, chances are you’ll need to bargain hard. Bargaining can be a lot of fun, actually, but sometimes it’s easy to get carried away with the ‘fun’ without having much intention to actually buy anything. Doing that will ensure you have one pissed-off trader on your hands, so do beware. The general rule of thumb in Istanbul is that you knock off about a quarter off the initial price, and work from there very slowly. It helps to have a ‘final offer’ in your mind before you even start to make sure you don’t end up spending more than you had intended. Shop owners in the bazaars are quite good sports, and play by the rule; if they don’t lower their price at your third and final offer, chances are they can’t go any lower.
To tea or not to tea
There is not one transaction, in this neck of the woods, that doesn’t start with a humble cup of tea. Wars have started and ended over cups of tea, countries have traded slaves over cups of tea, and if you expect to make a big purchase in Istanbul, without having a cup of tea with the salesman, then we’re afraid you’ll be coming home empty handed. The most important thing to remember here is that this is not, like many believe, a selling tactic. This is an intrinsic part of Turkish culture; accepting a cup of tea does not mean you must buy something; in this case it just means you are aware, and respect, their culture. If you find Turkish tea too strong and bitter, don’t be afraid to ask for apple teas instead…it’s deliciously sweet!
Beware the middle man
Most people find Istanbul shop and stall owners to be a little on the aggressive side and, while we can’t really disagree, we think they are mostly harmless. Usually, a stern ‘no thank you’ is enough to deflate their efforts. The ones we do find excessively annoying are the ‘middlemen’, salesmen commissioned by the worst shops to go out into the tourist crowds and recruit potential customers. These men are pushy, can get quite aggressive and are resistant to any kind of ‘no’. Don’t fall for their I can show you the best shop for this and that’ routine; you will undoubtedly pay triple price for lower quality, and they won’t leave you alone for the rest of the day. If you want to know where the best shops are for a particular item, use the internet. It won’t charge you extra, won’t talk incessantly, and you can disconnect after you’re done.
The invaluable tax-back
Your holiday to Istanbul is almost over, your suitcases are bursting at the seams (as are your credit cards), and you’re happy and content knowing you’ve survived the world’s most incredible shopping destination. Next comes the most humourless part of all: dealing with the excessively bored custom officers at Ataturk International Airport, to try to get the tax (VAT) back on your purchases.
First of all, two main hints: pack your purchases last (so they are at the top of your suitcase) and do not check in your bags until AFTER you have visited the Customs Tax-Free Office at the airport. The above-mentioned bored officers will not ask to see your items, unless they can clearly see you don’t have your suitcases with you. This, they do just for kicks. Be prepared, have all your receipts with you, and don’t give the guys any reason to refuse your entitled refund.
Spice Bazaar Mileusna via Flickr
Lamps William Neuheisel via Flickr
Costumes mark Haynes via Flickr