Spread over 66 streets with a mind-boggling 3,000 shops, 30,000 employees and 325,000 daily visitors, The Grand Bazaar in Istanbul can be a dream for a shopaholic. It can also be a nightmare if you're not prepared. Here are 5 tips that will help you not only survive the chaos but also ensure the experience is more positive than panic attack and help you come out with some great deals, as well.
Know what you're looking for and how much it should cost
The Grand Bazaar has a lot of things from home décor and fashion to obscure knickknacks. For new shoppers, it can be an overwhelming and dizzying experience. Having some idea of what you’re looking for can greatly increase your chances of finding it and at a great price. But know that even with thousands of vendors, the Grand Bazaar isn't a one-stop shop. Don't expect to find electronics - if you do they’re overpriced knock-offs. The Grand Bazaar is the best for finding three things: souvenirs, fake designer goods, and GOLD. Some of the best gold merchants in Asia are located right here. Have you ever seen a gold bar? Well, now you can buy one.
Everyone has different tactics and every merchant is different but prices are generally given in ranges. If the price is 100 lira, I say 25 lira, expecting to meet somewhere in the middle. I buy most things about 40-60% off the asking price, but it truly depends on where you are and what the item is. Prices will generally be higher and harder to negotiate in more trafficked areas as Turkish vendors don't necessarily want everyone knowing they'll drop their prices (even though it’s not a huge secret). Negotiations are also easier first thing in the morning or late in the day.
With that said, sometimes a price is fair. If you feel like something is a good deal, buy it, regardless if a friend says they found it for half the price. The purpose of negotiation is to get the best deal possible and sometimes that is right at the start. It will be pretty obvious if someone is willing to work with you. I find that going back and forth for 30 minutes over a dollar (after considering the exchange rate) isn't worth my time, but some people love the exhilaration of getting the most bang for their buck.
Secure your Money and Valuables
The Grand Bazaar is one of Istanbul's most popular tourist destinations, not unlike the Eiffel Tower in Paris or the Emerald Palace in Bangkok. As one of the world's leading attractions, it's also a top spot for pickpockets, thriving on a high concentration of tired, distracted, and oblivious tourists. You can greatly lower your chances of being a victim by taking a few minor precautions.
Try not to carry large sums of money, but if you must, separate them into different pockets. I usually keep small bills in my jacket while hiding large bills in a secret pocket deep inside my bag. The more barriers between your valuables and outsiders, the better. Don’t keep anything in your back pocket, as it's the easiest place to grab.
Clothing choice also matters. Loose clothing allows easier access for pickpockets, as pieces more fitted to your body make you more aware of physical contact. And ladies, I haven't seen one vendor turn down cash hidden in your bra. Just saying.
Slow Down and Explore
I can't advocate this enough. The Grand Bazaar has dozens upon dozens of vendors selling the exact same thing. It's normal to find 5 people with the same goods at different prices literally right next to each other. I've seen prices anywhere from 100 lira to 1000 lira for the same item within days of each other. The consumer has all the power in the Grand Bazaar.
NEVER buy from the first place you see. Price match whatever you're looking for at three different locations. The lowest price, minus 40-60% is what it should cost. And don't be fooled by the, "Mine is authentic, theirs are fake" rhetoric. It's not true. Grand Bazaar vendors usually get their wares from the same sources.
One of the biggest tips is to explore the side streets and alleys connected to the Grand Bazaar. THIS is where you'll find all the best deals. Often times I start my search there as I know it will be about 50% cheaper. Think about it like a mega mall vs. a strip mall. Prices at the mega mall are higher because of the "show" surrounding it. Same principle applies here, plus there’s great food to be found.
Eat and Stay Hydrated
When you're tired and hungry you tend to make mistakes. It's important to stay comfortably full and hydrated, not only from a negotiation standpoint, but for a health one, as well. The Grand Bazaar is largely open air and depending on what time of year you visit, it can reach a sweltering 100 degrees. Add that in with body heat, and it’s quite easy to faint.
Be sure to always carry a large bottle of water with you, about a liter for every two hours. Throughout the bazaar are affordable and delicious restaurants and food stands. Take a break every few hours to refuel, but be careful; you don't want to eat too much. If your stomach’s not yet adjusted to Turkish cuisine, the Grand Bazaar and an upset stomach can be a recipe for disaster as bathrooms are few and far between. Other than that, shop your heart out and enjoy the world’s largest scavenger hunt!