Few visitors return from Turkey without some kind of souvenir; whether it’s a cheap-and-cheerful pack of local herbs and spices or an expensive carpet depends on the budget of the traveller and the skill of the salesman. The best selection of good-quality wares is to be found in the major tourist centres: İstanbul, Cappadocia, Bursa and the coastal resorts. You won’t find a bargain at the production centres themselves; wholesalers and collectors have been there long before you.
Read on to find out everything you need to know about shopping in Turkey, before discovering more fascinating facts about Turkey that might just surprise you.
How to bargain
Bargaining is a way of life in Turkey; whether you love it or hate it depends on your character. In general it’s acceptable to haggle over the price of souvenirs, which often lack price tags, so the vendor is able to adjust his asking price according to what he thinks you can or will pay. This applies to everything from expensive items such as carpets or kilims through to cheaper items like lokum (Turkish Delight) and spices. As a guideline, begin at a figure lower than whatever you are prepared to pay, say half the shopkeeper’s starting price. Once a price has been agreed, you are ethically committed to buy, so don’t commence haggling unless you are reasonably sure you want the item.
“Assistance” from touts, whether in İstanbul, major resorts or even provincial towns, will automatically bump up the price thirty to fifty percent, as they will be getting a commission. Also, be prepared to hand over between three and seven percent extra if paying by credit card; your bargaining position is strongest with crisp, bunched notes, either foreign or TL.
Don’t bargain for bus, rail or air tickets, or for fruit or vegetables at street markets.
Bazaars, shops and markets
Several types of traditional bazaar continue to coexist in Turkey with the modern American/European-style shopping malls that increasingly dominate the wealthier districts of large cities.
Covered bazaars are found in larger towns like İstanbul, Bursa and Şanlıurfa. Essentially medieval Ottoman shopping malls, they comprised several bedestens at which particular types of goods were sold, linked by covered arcades also originally assigned to a particular trade – though strict segregation has long since broken down.
Surrounding these covered bazaars are large areas of small shops, open-air extensions of the covered areas and governed by the same rules: each shop is a separate unit with an owner and apprentices, and successful businesses are not allowed to expand or merge.
Street markets are held in most towns and all cities, similar to those in northern Europe and selling cheap clothes, household utensils and most importantly fruit, vegetables, cheese, yoghurt, olives, nuts and the like. More exotic are the semi-permanent flea markets (bit pazarı, literally “louse markets”), ranging in quality from street stalls where old clothes are sold and resold among the homeless, to lanes of shops where you can buy antiques and bric-a-brac.
In many cities, particularly in İstanbul, everyday shopping is increasingly done in Western-style department stores, shopping malls and supermarkets.
Carpets and kilims
Turkish carpets and kilims (flat-weave rugs) are renowned for their quality and have a very long history (the designs on many kilims have their origins in the Neolitihic period). Be warned, though, that they are no longer necessarily cheaper in Turkey than overseas, and some dealers reckon there are now more old kilims and carpets outside the country than in it.
Most visitors will find themselves in a carpet shop at some point in their visit – willingly or unwillingly. It’s very easy to be drawn into buying something you don’t really want at a price you can barely afford once you’ve been smooth-talked and drip-fed with copious quantities of apple tea. However, it’s still possible to get a good deal and enjoy the process; see our tips given here.
Turkish carpets are single-sided, and knotted with a pile. They are either all-wool, wool pile on cotton warps and wefts, all-silk or – easily mistaken for silk – a glossy mercerized cotton pile on cotton warps and wefts. Needless to say, the higher the silk content, the more expensive the rug, with new, hand-woven wool carpets starting from around €150 per square metre, and pure silk ones starting at €550. Turkish carpets are made using the double-knot technique, making them more durable than their single-knot Persian counterparts. The most famous Turkish carpets are Hereke, named after their town of origin. Pure silk, they have an extremely high knot density. Larger Hereke take up to four years to weave and cost around €1010 per square metre, with prime examples going for tens of thousands of euros. Silk carpets woven in the central Anatolian province of Kayseri are usually a third cheaper. Other key carpet maufacturing areas are Bergama, Uşak and Milas – all near the Aegean coast. Be warned – any carpets that seem suspiciously cheap, especially silk ones, are almost certainly Chinese, not Turkish.
A kilim is a pile-less, flat-woven wool rug. The better ones are double-sided (that is, the pattern should look much the same top or bottom). A cicim is a kilim with additional, raised designs stitched onto it. Traditionally woven by nomadic Anatolian tribal groupings such as the Turcomans and Kurds, kilims are generally much more affordable than carpets. Prices for newly woven examples (invariably woven by women and sold by men) start from around €30 per square metre, whereas a rare antique kilim can fetch thousands of euros. The vast majority of kilims are heavily patterned with geometric motifs – invariably stylized birds, animals, flowers or other images from the natural world that formed the backdrop to the nomads’ lives. Originally they served as floor coverings, tent partitions and blankets or, stitched together, as storage/saddlebags and bolsters.
Turkish designs are beginning to match the quality of local fabrics such as Bursa silk and Angora wool. Nowadays you will pay near-Western prices for genuine locally designed items at reputable shops – local brands are aggressively protected from counterfeiting, if necessary by police raids.
However, many visitors find it hard to resist the allure of the cheap fake designer clothing available everywhere, with all the usual suspects (Armani, Diesel, Louis Vuitton et al) the victims. Genuine international designer wear is priced little differently to elsewhere.
Both in terms of design, quality and price, Turkey is a great country to buy jewellery, though gold prices in particular have rocketed in recent years. Gold and silver jewellery are sold by weight, with little regard for the disparate level of craftsmanship involved – at the time of writing silver was TL1.9 per gram, gold TL94 – and so too are semi-precious stones. One particularly intricate method is telkâri or wire filigree, most of which comes from eastern Turkey, particularly Diyarbakır and Mardin. Gold in particular can be very good value and is so pure (22 carat) that telkâri bangles bend easily. Also remember that sterling silver items should bear a hallmark.
Leather is still big business in Turkey. The industry was originally based in western Anatolia, where alum deposits and acorn-derived tannin aided the tanning process. Today, İzmir and İstanbul still have the largest workshops, though the retail business also booms on the Mediterranean coast, particularly in Antalya and Alanya. Jackets are the most obvious purchase, the prices of which vary from around €75 from a downmarket outlet to well over €350 from a branded “designer” shop such as Matraş, Desa or Derimod. Shoes are less good value and women’s sizes rarely go over 40.
A tavla takimi or backgammon set makes a good souvenir of Turkish popular culture. Mother-of-pearl inlaid sets are the most expensive, but fakes abound so if in doubt go for one of the plain, wood-inlay sets. Copperware is still spun and hammered in the traditional way in some Turkish towns, notably Gaziantep in the southeast. The most popular items are lidded jugs, large serving trays and bowls. Mavi boncuk (blue bead) key rings, lintel ornaments and animal collars are sold all over the place to ward off nazar (the evil eye).
Meerschaum pipes, carved from lületaşı stone quarried near Eskişehir, are available in all tourist areas. Less common are Karagöz puppets, representing the popular folk characters Karagöz and Hacıvat, preferably made from camel skin in Bursa. Towelling and silk goods, the best of which come from Bursa, are also good buys, as are the pure cotton peştamals (the usually striped cotton wraps used in Turkish baths), bathrobes and tablecloths woven in Denizli. Kütahya ceramics may not be the finest ever produced in Turkey, but the vases, bowls, plates and, in particular, tiles, churned out in this western Anatolian town, are attractive enough and reasonable value as decorative items. Revived İznik ware is a cut above. For more contemporary ceramics try the nationwide store Paşabahçe.
Traditional Turkish musical instruments are sold all over the country. The most easily portable are the ney, the Mevlevî flute made from a length of calamus reed; the davul or drum; and the saz/bağlama, the long-necked Turkish lute. Rock and jazz musicians might like to score, a bit cheaper than abroad, a set of cymbals from one of two world-famous brands – İstanbul and Zildjian – both made by İstanbul-based or İstanbul-origin Armenian companies.
If you’ve any interest in local recordings it’s worth listening to a cross section of Turkish styles and making a purchase (CDs go for TL15 and up) or two. For more information, see the discography of recommended items.
Spices and foodstuffs
Acknowledging the slight risk of having certain goods confiscated on return to the European Union or North America, locally produced spices, condiments and foodstuffs make for a compact, lightweight souvenir purchase. Low-grade saffron (zafran), the stamen of a particular kind of crocus, is still gathered in northern Anatolia. Sumac (sumak) is a ground-up purple leaf for sprinkling on barbecued meats and salad onions. Pine nuts (çam fıstığı), gathered in the coastal mountains, are excellent and, especially if purchased in northwest Turkey, are considerably cheaper than in Europe. Pekmez (molasses of grape, mulberry or carob pods) is nutritious and makes a splendid ice cream, muesli or yoghurt topping. Olive oil, most famously from Gemlik, is a worthwhile purchase, as are the olives it’s made from. Olive-oil soaps are also popular, especially Defne Sabunı, a laurel-scented soap from Antakya. Both hot and sweet peppers are made into concentrated pastes (salçalar), while dried aubergine/eggplant and pepper shells are convenient for stuffing. Nar eksisi is a sour-sweet pomegranate syrup widely used as a salad dressing or meat marinade. Turkish Delight (lokum) is a perennial favourite and comes in a bewildering variety of flavours.
Antiques and smuggling: a warning
Under Turkish law it is an offence to buy, sell, export or even possess genuine antiquities (which includes fossils). Exact age limits are not specified, suggesting that decisions by customs officials are subjective, though a principal measure of antiquity is rarity. At popular archeological sites like Ephesus, you may be offered “antiques” by hawkers, which are invariably fake.
In the case of carpets handled by established dealers, you run a very slight risk of investing a lot of money in a supposed “collector’s item” that turns out to be collectable only by the Turkish Republic. If you’re apprehensive about a proposed purchase, ask the dealer to prepare both a fatura (invoice) recording the exact purchase price – also necessary to satisfy customs – and a declaration stating that the item is not an antiquity. Expect a heavy fine and possibly imprisonment if you transgress these laws.
- Do some research, preferably before you leave home (check out some of the books reviewed).
- Avoid buying in the first shop you visit, and look around several. You can always go back – preferably the next day, when you’ve had time to think about it.
- Don’t be embarrassed at how many carpets the dealer is laying out for you – that’s his (or usually his lowly assistant’s) job.
- Ask as many questions as you can – this will test the dealer’s worth, and could give you some interesting historical background should you make a purchase.
- Check the pieces for flaws, marks and the density of weave – hand-woven wool is preferable to machine as it is stronger and the rug will last for longer.
- Natural dyes such as tobacco and saffron are the most highly prized and less likely to fade. You should be able to tell by opening up a section of the pile with your fingers. If the tint at the bottom of the pile is different to that at the top it is a chemical dye.
- Even in the most reputable shop bargaining is essential. Whatever you do, don’t engage in the process if you’ve no intention of buying.
- You’ll probably get a better deal for cash – this will also help overcome the temptation to credit-card splurge.
- Most important of all, only buy the piece if you really like it and are sure it’ll look the part back home – any other considerations such as future appreciation are mere distractions.