OK, it's touristy. There are just as many 'I love Istanbul' T-shirts as there are Ottoman antiques, there are just as many belly dancing costumes as there are painted miniatures - but you feel you are shopping in a "bazaar" and all its exotic connotations. The Grand Bazaar is an Istanbullu "experience". Something you will not find anywhere else in the world.
I loved it. I admit to being a confirmed a shopaphobe. When I buy a pair of shoes - I'm in, I try them on, and pay for them all within five minutes. But I lost myself in the Grand Bazaar. I spent over three hours in there which is a minor record for me and I enjoyed it so much I went back three days later. I think it is the feel of the place I found so fascinating. That so may of the old trades were still there. A street of goldsmiths, a courtyard of cobblers, a row of haberdashers with stalls showing a rainbow of fabrics. You have to have a heart of stone not to be swayed by the Grand Bazaar.
This is one of the oldest shopping centres in the world. Part of the huge building goes back to the 9th Century when it was used as the Byzantine ministry of finance. What you see today was built by Mehmet the Conqueror in 1461 only seven years after he breached the gates and took Constantinople for the Ottomans. The empire was built on trade and sold anything you wanted from all corners of the Turkish domain. The Sandal Bedestan was one of the most important parts as it was the end of the Silk Road from China (along with Venice). But also for sale were furs from Russia, jewels from Persia and spice from India. The bazaar grew so fast it encompassed 65 streets with 18 gates leading in from the outside. Most of the trading in the bazaar comes from gold. You may get to see the "black bag" shoppers who load up here in Turkey and sell for treble the amount back in the Russian Federation. Gold smuggling is still big business in Istanbul.
The Grand Bazaar spreads far and wide into Sultanhammet. The best way to reach it is via Divan Yolu - the districts main artery and where the tram passes by on the way to the city walls. When you reach Beyazit tram stop (only ten minutes walk from the Hippodrome) then turn north and you are in mercantile Istanbul. The streets around here sell everything and here is the Bazaars main entrance. Inside you are in a covered marble street 500ft long called Kalpakcilar Caddesi - the street of goldsmiths. The whole passage glitters. Jeweller after jeweller lines this impressive passage.
As you move further into the bazaar its immensity becomes apparent. There are over 5,480 stalls spread over 65 covered streets. It's so immense you will never see them all. It's got its own banks, bureau de changes, restaurants, and a police station. The stalls are housed in marble passages often lit by Islamic domes from above. The whole place is very well lit, but wearing on the feet . North of the 'street of gold' is a real warren with antiques at the centre and fabrics and denim to the west and north. But the sheer number of things to buy is astounding - antiques, every type of clothes, Turkish carpets, bolls of fabric, leatherware, 'apple tea', backgammon sets, belly dancing costumes, curved slippers, oriental lamps, calf-skin rugs, prayer beads, snuff boxes, painted miniatures, leather jackets, and pipe puffing nagiles.
The sell wasn't as hard as I thought it would be. The young men who ran the stalls obviously took an interest if they noticed you peruse their wares but there wasn't the pushiness I expected in the Grand Bazaar. Moving between the stalls comparing prices your eye may be easily distracted by a cheap T-shirt; but that ivory chessboard might be a better bargain. I began to feel sorry for the stalls at the far back because shoppers must be overwhelmed before they get to them. If you need a rest there is a cafe in the antique section called 'Julias' Kitchen where a straight black Turkish coffee costs 3 lira.
And after an hour in the Grand Bazaar, you may well need it...