Istanbul Bazaars Walking Tour:
Location: Western Old Town Istanbul
Cost: Free, Self-Guided (Sight costs below)
Start: Galata Bridge (Galata Koprusu)
End: Restaurant Row
Distance: 1 1/2 Miles of Walking
Time: 2 Hours of Walking (with shopping around 5 hours)
Fun Scale: 9 out of 10
Nothing sparks the magic and mystery of Istanbul better than visiting one of the historic bazaar markets. It’s at the bazaars where your senses will get pleasantly overwhelmed by sights, sounds and the smell of spices from across the globe. The moment you arrive you truly realize how early day Istanbul capitalized on its location bridging Europe, Asia, the Middle East together through trade. With exotic rugs, colorful lamp, detailed pottery, tasty local treats, and lots of knock off designer clothing, the maze-like bazaars have it all. Prepare to practice your bartering skills and have an unbeatable time on this walking tour of Istanbul’s grand bazaars.
Istanbul Grand Bazaars Walking Tour:
1. Galata Bridge (Galata Koprusu): The energetic Galata Bridge is the perfect segway connecting Istanbul’s historic Old Town and modern New Town to the North. The two-tiered bridge is always peppered with pedestrians and forever full of life. Local fisherman line the rails of the upper level trying to snag a bit with their poles and countless restaurants and shops await your business down below. We love the atmosphere of the areas surround the bridge no matter what time of day and the water side restaurants on Galata’s lower level are charming after dark.
The In the days of Constantinople, the Byzantines strung a giant adjustable chain across the Golden Horn roughly where the Galata Bridge is today to stop unwanted ships from coming in from the Bosporus River. Many groups tried to bust through the chain but it wasn’t until the Ottoman conquest of 1453 that anyone did. The Ottomans debated building a permanent bridge where the chain had been many times but for hundreds of years it never got to be anything more then a group of barges tied together. Leonardo da Vinci was even brought to Istanbul and submitted a potential bridge design which was turned down by the Sultan. When the Sultan asked Michelangelo to submit a plan after that he said no. Finally in the mid-1800’s the Ottomans started building a series of wooden bridges up and down the Golden Horn, some even had varying levels of tolls. In the early 2000’s they replaced the last of the wooden bridges with concrete ones including the current Galata Bridge.
2. Galata Fish Boats: Just off of the Southwest corner of Galata Bridge you’re in for a real treat with vigorously swaying Galata Fish Boats. The highly gilded, oriental-style boats are tossed from side to side as cooks prepare freshly caught fish on board. It’s almost violent how hard the boats are moved but that’s all part of the attraction. As you get closer to the ordering line you’re bound to be impressed at how effective the workers move around and prepare dish and the boats quickly move back and forth. You can quickly get a delicious fish filet wrapped in bread and a soda for about 10TL. The filets are easy to take on the go, but the boat companies also have a bunch of covered tents with community seating for you to take a load off as well.
If fish isn’t what you looking for, still stop to admire the showmanship and figure to figure out how the workers can stop from getting sea sick. If you are still hungry you can also check out one of the many other stands selling roasted corn or Turkish doughnuts covered in pistachio sprinkles. Whenever you are ready to continue on don’t bother trying to cross the road as it can be dangerous with heavy car and tram traffic. Even if traffic looks light, the high barrier on the other side of the road makes it hard to cross, so use the tunnel straight South of the fish boats instead.
*Emerging from the tunnel will put you right in the middle of…
3. Eminönü Square: With the water of the Golden Horn behind you, the imposing New Queen Mother’s Mosque (Yeni Valide Camii) to your left, and the historic Spice Market in front of you, it’s no wonder that Eminönü Square is a busy one. The Vendors are a little more aggressive trying to sell you anything from flags to food, but it’s all in good spirits. Sometimes we feel that maybe the square isn’t so busy as it’s just 50% taken up by pigeons which makes the people have to be closer together. The commotion is all part of the experience though especially on a Bazaars Walking Tour.
In any other city the New Mosque would be purely stunning, but has some of the most beautiful mosques in the World so this one is definitely skippable. It is interesting to note though that it took the Ottomans from 1597 to 1665 to build the New Mosque which is crazy since it only took 7 years to fully build the city’s famous Blue Mosque. The best photos of New Mosque can be taken from both on the Galata Bridge and from across the river, especially around dusk when it is lit up. During the day the occasional guys dressed up as Sultans, Ottoman Fighters, and Aladdin-style vest/fez combos always led to great pictures.
Near Eminönü Square: Make sure to notice on our map where both the Eminönü Tram Stop and Ferry Dock are. The Tram Stop will get you easy access to both the heart of Old Town and all the way up to New Town. The Ferry Dock is the same one you’ll use if you decide to do the popular Bosporus River Cruise. Also make sure to locate the Istanbul’s largest active mosque on the top of the hill to the Southwest called the Süleyman Mosque which we visit later.
*On the South side of Eminönü Square it’s impossible to miss the entrance to the L-shaped…
4. Egyptian Spice Bazaar (Mısır Çarşısı): Smells, colors, flavors, oh my! The Egyptian Spice Bazaar isn’t only great prep to get you ready for the Grand Bazaar yet to come, but also offers a ton of its own flair and pizzazz. Each stall you stop by seem to be a new attack on the senses with colors and aromas hitting you from every direction. The L-shaped Spice Bazaar truly is a melting pot of cultures. Mix Turkish delights, Moroccan saffron, Chinese tea, local pistachios, Indian curry, cheeses, cumin, sausages, jams, apricots, Russian caviar all together and you have an international market worth stopping at! Throwing in a couple shops selling random plate, genie shoes, with traditional clothing and you truly have a Bazaar. Teas and sweets are always excellent pickups while traveling, but feel free to step outside your comfort zone. They have funny items like Sultan paste they claim to be both Turkish Viagra and an Aphrodisiac.
The Spice Market was started in 1660 as part of the opening of the New Mosque next door and still remains the center of Istanbul’s spice trade. It was a little odd to open a spice market as part of a mosque but was actually quite brilliant and to this day the revenue made from renting out the stall goes toward upkeep on the mosque itself. While some guides books say the Egyptian Spice Bazaar gets its name far the influx of spices that came is from Egypt, it is actually because the money the New Mosque used to build the market largely came from taxes the Ottomans collected in Egypt.
Shopping Tips: If a shop it really dressed up and makes a great photo opt, chances are its more for tourists and not the high quality locals would buy. When shopping always talk them down on price and don’t feel bad about walking away, there are tons of shops selling the same stuff. Make sure to taste test if you either don’t know what something is or want to make sure it’s good. The most important thing is to ask them to vacuum pack it for you which not only stops it from spilling in your luggage, but also keeps it fresh longer without a fridge. Hours: Monday-Saturday 8am-5:30pm & Sun 9:30am-7pm. Closes 30 minutes early in off season.
*As you leave out of the elbow of the Spice Market continue forward away from the New Mosque down the narrow Hasırcılar Caddesi. You’ll stroll past many cool silk shops and popular Turkish Coffee shops. When you get to Rüstem Pasha Mosque, which as the prettiest tiles in town, you are at…
5. Long Market Street (Uzunçarşı Caddesi): Long Market Street doesn’t even feel like Istanbul to us, it feels like you shopping on a local back street in Bangkok, which is cool. Yes, the uphill path is narrowed by shops hemorrhaging goods on the street, but it feel old world. It’s almost gritty, but clean at the same time. There is literally everything you can imagine from weird kid’s toys, to housewares, to dusty suits, perfect knickknacks, and well priced souvenirs. Most stores have a little bit of everything, but it is better shopping than a flea market. There always seems to been a bit more locals here then in the bazaars which can make bartering a little easier then in places overrun by tourists. All of the weird combinations of goods ends up being a blessing as you end up distracted and barely notice you’ve been walking uphill most of the way.
6a. Mosque of Süleyman the Magnificent (Süleymaniye Camii): From the time you first got to Galata Bridge, you’ve been ale to see Istanbul’s largest mosque sitting on top of the hill, but as you get closer it seems to disappear behind the jungle of rooftops. Don’t worry, Mosque of Süleyman the Magnificent is surly still there, waiting for you, begging you to visit. It can be confusing on where to turn as the cross street off of Long Market street wears many names depending on what map or even what road sign you look at (İsmetiye, Vasıf Çınar, Sıddık Sami Onar, and Süleymaniye). The first time we walked there we had to ask a shop owner how many streets down it was just to notice the sign for İsmetiye was posted right on the corner of his building. Looking back on it, it wasn’t really very hard we were just too distracted and not paying attention. Once you’ve turned off long market street, Süleyman Mosque is only 3 steeper, but short blocks ahead.
The first area you hit is a wide open lawn with steps that lead to a handy and clean underground bathroom. Sitting between you and the mosque is a huge Ottoman cemetery which is a real treat as a Western. Ottoman graves typically have both a small vertical footstone and a large vertical headstone with Arabic writing on both sides. One side of the head describes the deceased and the other side is dedicated to their show of faith. In the cemetery, women’s graves are typically the only ones with flowers and men who serviced in the Military have their headstones topped with headgear showing their rank. All of the headstones in the cemetery are a dull concrete color except for one which honors Sultan Süleyman II who had the mosque built in the 1550. This headstone is forest green with gold gilding topped with a sphere and the footstone is marble. The Sultan wanted a mosque to revival Hagia Sophia and after just 7 years of building the whole complex was finished which still bares his name to this day. Süleyman’s actual body, along wife his wife, daughter, Sultan Ahmed II and Sultan Safiye are all in the cemetery’s mausoleum which was modeled after the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem where the Prophet Muḥammad is said to have ascended to heaven.
Entering the mosque on the Southwest side is easy and a little quicker than the Blue Mosque as there are less tourists. Remember it is an active mosque and restricted to only practicing Muslims during the 5 daily calls to prayer, tips explained below. The interior of Süleyman Mosque isn’t nearly as impressive as the Blue Mosque but the the nearly 37,000 square foot space is expansive. If you can imagine, the interior looks even larger than 37,000 square feet for three reasons: the main dome is 174 feet tall and 82 wide which adds a lot of space, cascading domes allow the roofs weight to be spread out, and the supporting buttresses are masked with decorative stone. If everything inside looks pretty new it’s because a massive 3 year renovation was just completed in 2010 which included new carpet and paint.
Visiting Hours: Open daily one hour after sunrise until one hour before sunset. Closed to tourists starting 30 minutes prior to each of the 5 daily prayer times until the service it over. Services last around 30 minutes, but the Friday mid-day sermon may last a full hour. Best Time To Go: Typically between 9am and Noon as it is the largest gap between services. Here is a helpful list of current prayer times for Istanbul day by day to better help you plan your time. Cost: Free.
6b. Mosque Etiquette For Tourists: Modest dress is required for both men and women with your shoulders and knees covered; most major Mosques will let you borrow a wrap if you are not covered. Women must also cover their heads with a scarf which are available to borrow but you can buy your own cheaply at any market. Even during non-prayer time people may be praying so no running or yelling. Like any place of worship do not take photos of worshipers without permission. Keep in mind that non-Muslims must stay behind the wooden barrier surrounding the main worship area.
Removing Your Shoes: When approaching the entrance everyone must remove their shoes at the platform by the door. Proper etiquette states prior to stepping up on the wooden platform you take your shoe off without letting your foot touch the ground below the platform. This act ensures that both your feet and the platform will remain clean before entering; socks typically remain on if you are wearing any. Plastic bags for your shoes are provided to bring them with or you can safely leave them outside in the racks by the door.
7. Istanbul University: When the Ottomans conquered Constantinople in 1453, the current grounds of Istanbul University were built as the Empire’s 1st Royal Palace, Eski Palace (Old Palace). The Sultan quick outgrew the Eski Palace and decided to build a 2nd much larger one on the site of a former Greek Acropolis just North of Hagia Sophia. The 2nd Palace, Topkapi Palace, was completed in 1478 and Eski was turned into the Ottoman Ministry of War. Eski Palace remained the Ministry of War for 350 years until the Ottoman Empire fell and the grounds were handed over to Istanbul University in 1923. The school claims to be founded in 1453 which is a little mis-leading as there were actually several Ottoman schools over time in a number of locations that eventually evolved into Istanbul University.
Over the University’s tall perimeter wall, its hard to miss the 279 foot tall Beyazit Fire Tower. Because the campus sits on top of one of the Seven Hills of ancient Constantinople, Beyazit Hill, it was the perfect place to build a fire tower. Ironically both the 1749 and 1826 fire towers were made of wood and burned down. The third tower, which stands today, was ordered by Sultan Mahmud II and smartly made out of stone in a minaret spire style. Visitors used to be able to climb the 256 wooden steps to the top of the tower from which you could see the entire city, but it is no longer allowed due to fire code. The tower is often lit up on Muslim holidays and also show the weather forecast across the city. Yellow lights indicates fog, red lights shows snow, green lights rain, and blue lights shows that the weather will be sunny. If you want a closer look tourists are allowed inside the grounds’ outdoor areas.
Most people think that the formidable main entrance on the Southside of the school, now called University Gate (Serasker), is the original Palace gate, but it is not. In 1827 the Bâb-ı Âli Gate was built here to represent the power of the Ottoman State, but then replaced it with the current Serasker Gate to represent the power of the Ottoman Military. The current one was built because the campus was housing the Ottoman Ministry of War they wanted people to know they meant business. Because old palace grounds are now part of the college the Gate is now called University gate and is one of the most photographed places in Istanbul.
Prominent alumni from Istanbul University include Israel’s former Turkish President Abdullah Gül, former Israeli President Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, and former Israeli Prime Minister Ben-Gurion who oversaw the formation of the State of Israel in the 1940’s.
8. Beyazit Square (Hürriyet Meydanı): Sitting where Theodosius’s Roman Forum from 313A.D., Beyazit Square is the largest public square in Istanbul. The Forum, when combined with Constantine’s Forum just to the East was huge and stretched all the way to the Hippodrome. The part of the Forum where Beyazit Square sits had a large Triumphal Arch spanned the road in front of it and the tall Column of Theodosius stood opposite the Arch. The road under the Arch was called Middle Street (Mese) and went all the way to Rome. When the Ottomans conquered the city in 1453, Sultan Mehmet torn down most of the this section of the Forum, but small preserved section of the Column of Theodosius can still be seen across the road from Beyazit Square.
As part of building Eski Palace where Istanbul University sits, the Ottoman built an armory building on the far Westside of the Beyazit Square which now holds the Calligraphy Museum. Calligraphy Museum holds one the best collections of Arabic calligraphy in the world. Because most Islamic art wasn’t allowed to contain images of living beings it was typically geometric or figurative and needed outlets to grow. A natural avenue of growth was in the indulgence of elegant writing. You may already be use to seeing large calligraphy medallions and quotes inside mosques, but this museum has an endless amount of variations. From manuscripts to panels and tiles, the museum gives a great look into a unique art form.
Ottomans also added the Bayezit Mosque in 1505 which still sits on the Eastside of the square. It is pretty plain-jane as far as mosques go, but is a complete complex housing much more than just a mosque, with a religious school, a Turkish bath, and a hostel all inside its walls.
After the Ottoman Empire fell, Beyazit Square became a huge gathering point for United Turks as their new government formed. Celebrations and meetings spilled onto the Square sparking many prideful Turks to call it Freedom Square.
Calligraphy Museum Hours: Tuesday-Saturday 9am-4pm. Closed Sunday & Monday. The Museum is often closed for extended times for random renovation. Museum Cost: 3TL.
Old Book Bazaar (Sahaflar Çarşısı)
9. Grand Bazaar (Kapalı Çarşı): Dating back to the Byzantine era, Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar is considered the oldest shopping mall in the World. The Grand Bazaar started out as a series of different types of markets all right next to each other and when the Ottomans took over in 1453 they starting bringing them all under one roof. As the numerous markets turned into one large roofed market, it gained the name Kapalı Çarşı, meaning Covered Market. The Covered Market continued to grow until becoming the labyrinth it is today known as the Grand Bazaar. In all, the conjoined areas of the Grand Bazaar make up a maze of 61 streets, 4400 shops, 2200 workshops, 18 fountains, 40 inns, 12 small mosques, 12 warehouses, 1 school, 1 Turkish Bath, and 19 water wells. To give you an idea on how massive the Grand Bazaar is, today it employs over 30,000 people and gets over 300,000 shoppers daily!.
As such a large conglomerate, it’s safe to say you can find almost everything imaginable on sale at the Grand Bazaar. Jewelry both real and fake, silk cloth, tons of beautiful ceramic dishware, copperware, mosaic hanging lights, Oriental imports, Turkish Delight stands, tradition Ottoman outfits, Turkish Rugs, Fez hats, and tons of knock off designer clothing, shoes, and luggage. In case you feel lost, the main “street” running through the Grand Bazaar is called Kapalicarsi.
10. Erenler Nargile Cafe (Erenler Çay Bahcesi): If you truly want to enhance your Turkish experience you have to visit a Nargile Cafe. Nargiles, also known as waterpipes or hookahs, are a popular cultural vein in Istanbul which have been used by Sultans and common folks alike. Our favorite Nargile Cafe is on our Old Town Istanbul Walking Tour, but Erenler Cafe is a very close second. It is located just off the major street with the Tram line, but is fairly tourist free and filled mainly with neighborhood locals and some university students. Erenler is open to both men and women as noted by the entrance sign reading aile which means family. The main area of the Cafe is a cozy courtyard shaded with leafy ivy-filled trellises with seating for 200 customers, a line of carpet shops down one side, and side rooms with men playing backgammon. Many hanging mosaic lights and the inviting staff make the atmosphere complete.
You don’t have to be a cigarette smoker to enjoy a Nargile at Erenler as most of the menu options have different flavors of dried fruit with just a little bit of tobacco. They also have strong all tobacco options, but because it pure without all of the random chemicals of a cigarette, it is a much more enjoyable experience. If you don’t know what you are doing, don’t worry you will have an attendant to help you out. A basic Nargile at Erenler is only about 12TL so combine it with a cup of Turkish Tea and even if you only have a couple puffs you’ll experience the heritage and have a great story to tell. The cups of Turkish Tea are super cheap also and are less then 1TL, coffee/juice is 4TL, and you when you are done you usually pay at the counter in the back of the room. If you are hungry and can’t wait until Restaurant Row to eat, Erenler also sells light foods like toasted cheese sandwiches. Hours: Daily 7am-Midnight, stays open until almost 3am in the Summer. Address: Yeniçeriler Caddesi 36/28.
11. Burnt Column (Çemberlitaş): In 326 A.D. as Constantinople’s Forum stretched all the way from Beyazit Square to the Hippodrome, the Byzantines built the Column of Constantine right in its center. The Column stood over 150 feet tall and depicted Constantine standing on the top in an Apollo pose holding an orb believed to contain part of the cross of Jesus. Below the column, an underground hall of relics were built and were believed to hold the cross of the two thieves who were crucified with Jesus. Detailed bronze wreath were also used to cover the joints between the columns blocks. In 1106A.D. top 45 feet of the Column fell down and was replaced by a large gold cross. When Crusaders breached the city in 1204, the new cross, bronze wreaths, and relics were all stolen leaving a bare Column with a damaged base.
When the Ottomans took over in 1453 left Column up which is weird since they torn almost all of the Forum down. Since they also left the Columns in the Hippodrome standing, they must have just really liked Columns. If the Column was always called the Column of Constantine, why do locals call it the Burnt Column? It comes from when a 1779 fire burned a lot of the surrounding neighborhood and darkened the column.
The picture we decided to use is an illustration of the Burnt Column published by the San Francisco Call on January 6, 1907.
12. Mausoleum of Sultan Mahmud II: The cemetery houses the sarcophagi of three Ottoman sultans: Sultan Mahmud II (1875-1839), Sultan Abdulaziz (1830-1876), and Sultan Abdul Hamid II (1842-1918), and those of their close relatives. Adjacent to the mausoleum is a small graveyard containing the graves of some of the sultans’ more remote descendants and assorted dignitaries.
13. Restaurant Row: If you’re looking for true Turkish Delight, look no further than the area we call Restaurant Row! As you approach the pedestrian only alley off Divanyolu Caddesi known as Restaurant Row, you are bombarded with smells and colors that overwhelm your senses. Traditional sweet shops cram into every nook leading to the alley and carry everything from sweet Turkish Delights, to fresh pomegranates, baking fruit torts. If you are looking for some late night shopping there are also many traditional shops selling hanging lights, clothing, rugs, dishware and more. Even if you aren’t buying anything the ambiance after dark in any of the light shops is awesome.
Sir Evi Restaurant (Website) is a place we’ve eaten at many times and has probably the coolest decor on Restaurant Row. The upstairs a bathroom are both really neat, plus the food is awesome! Amerdros Restaurant is another place we’ve had good food at. It is a little cheaper than Sir Evi and has more outdoor seating. Regardless on where you choose to eat you have to make sure to order a traditional Turkish dish. The one that will really make your jaw drop is Testi Kabab. Testi Kebab is more or less a vegetable and meat stew but it cooked in a sealed clay pot to keep the moisture in and brought to your table still sealed and engulfed in flames. The waiter gives it a few stiff whacks to knock the top off, blows out the fire and your eat right out of the pot as your bowl. The act and presentable never gets old.
Location: Intersection of Divanyolu Caddesi & Hoca Rustem Sokak. Hours: Most shops and restaurants are open daily until late.