İstanbul’s Ottoman-era Grand Bazaar gets more than its fair share of souvenir-hungry visitors. The area around it, however, is relatively little explored, which is a shame as it holds some very worthwhile attractions, from the historic Cembirlitaş Hamamı, one of the best Turkish baths in the country, to the city’s very best mosque, the hilltop Süleymaniye Camii. Throw in the ornate Baroque Laleli Camii, and it’s easy to see how you can spend a day in this area alone. To get here from Sultanahmet, either walk or take the T1 tram.
Many of the finest works of Ottoman civil and religious architecture throughout Turkey can be traced to Mimar Sinan (1489–1588), who served as court architect to three sultans – Süleyman the Magnificent, Selim II and Murat III. Probably born to Greek or Armenian Christian parents, he was conscripted into the janissaries in 1513. As a military engineer, he travelled the length and breadth of southeastern Europe and the Middle East, giving him the opportunity to become familiar with the finest Islamic – and Christian – monumental architecture there. His bridges, siegeworks, harbours, and even ships, earned him the admiration of his superiors.
Sultan Süleyman appointed Sinan court architect in April 1536, and he completed his first major religious commission, İstanbul’s Şehzade Camii, in 1548. Shortly thereafter, he embarked on a rapid succession of ambitious projects in and around the capital, including the waterworks leading from the Belgrade Forest and the Süleymaniye Camii. Competing with the Süleymaniye as his masterpiece was the Selimiye Camii, constructed between 1569 and 1575 in the former imperial capital of Edirne. Despite temptations to luxury, he lived and died modestly, being buried in a simple tomb he made for himself in his garden in the grounds of the Süleymaniye Camii – the last of more than five hundred constructions by Sinan, large and small, throughout the empire.
With 66 streets and alleys, more than four thousand shops, numerous storehouses, moneychangers and banks, a mosque, post office, police station, private security guards and its own health centre, İstanbul’s Grand Bazaar is said to be the largest covered bazaar in the world. In Ottoman times it was based around two bedestens (domed buildings where foreign trade took place and valuable goods were stored): the Iç Bedesten probably dates from the time of the Conquest, while the Sandal Bedesten was added in the sixteenth century. The bazaar sprawls further, into the streets that lead down to the Golden Horn. This whole area was once controlled by strict laws laid down by the trade guilds, thus reducing competition between traders. Each shop could support just one owner and his apprentice, and successful merchants were not allowed to expand their businesses.
The best time to visit the bazaar is during the week, as it’s very crowded with local shoppers on Saturday. Expect to get lost as most streets are either poorly marked, or their signs are hidden beneath goods hung on display. However, try finding Kavaflar Sok for shoes, Terlikçiler Sok for slippers, Kalpakçılar Başı and Kuyumcular caddesis for gold, and Tavuk Pazarı Sok, Kürkçüler Sok, Perdahçılar Caddesi and Bodrum Han for leather clothing. Carpet-sellers are just about everywhere, with more expensive collector’s pieces on sale on Halıcılar Çarşısı, Takkeciler and Keseciler caddesis, and cheaper ones in the tiny Rubiye Han or Iç Cebeci Han. Ceramics and leather and kilim bags can be found along Yağlıkçılar Caddesi, just off it in Çukur Han, and also along Keseciler Caddesi.
The old bazaar (or Iç Bedesten), located at the centre of the maze, was traditionally reserved for the most precious wares because it could be locked at night. These days, however, it’s indistinguishable from the rest of the complex.
A number of decent cafés in the bazaar enable shoppers to unwind and avoid the constant importuning of traders.