One of the places I was most excited to experience in Istanbul earlier this year was the Grand Bazaar. The sprawling marketplace includes thousands of shops and has been an important location in the city since the 1400s. I knew that the Grand Bazaar gets tons of visitors — it’s allegedly the most visited tourist site in the world — and would therefore be pretty touristy, but still, I was looking forward to it.
We hit up the bazaar shortly after arriving in Istanbul. We wandered for a couple of hours, but it was… disappointing. We were visiting in the off season so the crowds weren’t bad, and we didn’t have any run ins with pushy vendors.
Instead, I was surprised at how dull it felt. The main drags were full of the same Turkish delight vendors, and deeper inside most of the stalls were selling what appeared to be cheap clothing, shoes, chintzy jewelry, screen printed backpacks, etc.
It reminded me quite a bit of the labyrinthine markets in L.A.’s Chinatown, which sell loads of worthless junk (but which are kind of amazing because they’re rarely crowded and very much off the beaten path.) I had been warned that the bazaar had evolved into a more globalized, mass market kind of place (in large part, no doubt, due to tourists like myself). But I still wasn’t prepared for it to be a relatively forgettable part of the trip.
Over the next few days, I couldn’t quite get over the dissonance between what I expected and what I saw. So before heading to Ephesus, Laura and I gave it another try.
But this time, we did things differently. Instead of wandering aimlessly, we walked until we were semi-lost/in a quiet area, found a tiny and grungy food stall filled with older locals, and bought bread and lentil soup.
For the next hour, we simply sat and watched. Men ran by with tea. Pigeons fluttered in the rafters. Shoppers occasionally strolled by to look at the carpets in a nearby shop.
The experience turned out to be one of the best people watching opportunities I had while in Istanbul.
There’s a lesson to take away from these two Grand Bazaar experiences, I think. During our first visit, I never slowed down. I was always looking for something, but wasn’t quite sure what it was and consequently never found it.
Conversely, the second visit was all about taking things slowly. There was no agenda and I wasn’t trying to superimpose some ill-formed preconception onto the place. It was an exercise in patience, pace, and acceptance, and — as usually is the case — all of those things paid off.
— Jim Dalrymple II