Outdoor markets are fantastic. Eclectic mixtures of goods. Vibrant colors. Strange plants and creatures on sale. The chaotic roar and hubbub of people hustling to and fro seeking goods and services. I find the whole experience intoxicating. So, you can no doubt imagine how excited I was to have arrived in Istanbul – a city known for its wonderful markets and home to the Grand Bazaar.
Unfortunately, the weather was brutal. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts I arrived in the midst of the worst winter storm Istanbul (and the region) had seen in more than 25 years. The entire city was covered in snow and a lump quickly grew in my throat. With poor weather conditions, what would I find? Would the shop keepers close up their outdoor stands? Would the city come to a standstill? I needn’t have worried. The store keepers braved the cold weather, and even paused to have some fun with it. The entire city devolved into one massive snowball fight.
Some were more obvious than others opting for conventional snowballs. While other shop keepers presented the guise of stoic calm, eyeing passerby’s casually, all the while evaluating how antic-friendly they were. Then, with a perfectly timed but ever so subtle poke of a broom they would empty an avalanche of snow from their shop’s awning onto a passerby. The look of smug gleeful-happiness as a snowballer scored a successful throw quickly turned to alarm, and then ever so briefly frozen terror as waves of damp snow left them covered from head to toe in fresh, damn, wet snow. That brief look of terror never lasted long, as everyone nearby burst into laughter and the unlucky victim leapt into a comical dance trying to empty the snow from their shirt.
While the Grand Bazaar and Spice Market are the two most popular outdoor markets for tourists, the city is awash in streets dedicated to various types of goods. These streets and semi-permanent outdoor markets offer everything from rugs and pipes to antiques fresh fruit and fish. As a periodic fisherman and someone who had the childhood dream of being a marine biologist I always find fish markets to be one of my favorite type of outdoor market.
As I explored Istanbul my favorite market district was located on the Asian side of Istanbul in the Kadikoy district. While it lacked the age of the Grand Bazaar and uniform structure, I found it to be a much more authentic marketplace with vendors selling real goods, at real prices to real Turks.
The fish stalls were particularly impressive boasting a wide assortment of fresh caught fish creatively displayed. In many instances the fishmongers had taken extra time to flare out the fish’s gills exposing them like a red neckerchief. While somewhat morbid when written here, the visual effect when viewing the stands in person was quite impressive.
Just how fresh were the fish? I think this goose-bump instilling photo of these slimy eels gives it away. Perhaps it is their snake like appearance, but I’ve always had a hard time with eels. I don’t mind eating them when cleaned and cooked, but seeing them alive in the wild, dead on a vendor’s stall, or even smoked or cooked whole sends a shiver down my spine.
Unfortunately, the hostel I was staying at didn’t boast a kitchen so purchasing fresh fish for dinner was off the menu. Given the opportunity during my next visit, it’s definitely something I hope to remedy. As I find myself sitting here writing this post, and looking back over my photos I can’t help but find my mouth watering.
The markets also boast wonderful herb stands wish shop-fronts overflowing with massive bags of fresh herbs and spices. I often found myself pausing in front of these stores as much to enjoy the rich scents that surround them as to peruse their wares.
Fans of Mediterranean food won’t be disappointed, you’ll find stands overflowing with large tubs of different flavored grape leaves, dolmas, just bout every type of pickled vegetable you can imagine and other similar foods.
Then there are the olives stands which boast a veritable rainbow of different colored olives. After the fish stands, these are probably my favorites. Presentation is a key point of pride among many of the street vendors and it really shows in the care and thought that goes into many of the stands. It has always amazed me, especially when one considers that they set up and break down the displays every morning and evening.
While most of the stands in the area were dedicated to selling raw food and basic ingredients, there were a few that offered pre-made treats. These included things like Dolma and pickles, but also often included one of Istanbul’s local delicacies – fresh mussels stuffed with flavored rice and some of the other regional treats which were delicious, but I dare not even begin to speculate on.
While I’ll only mention them briefly in this post, two other must visit destinations are the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Market (see footage from both in the video above). The Grand Bazaar is a warren of small covered streets (more than 60) that boasts some 3,000 shops and dates back to the mid 1400s. While the Grand Bazaar is heavily touristy, it is still possible to find some great antique shops and a fun venue for a bit of shopping. In response to heavy demand and traffic the Bazaar has slowly taken over the surrounding area where you’ll find slightly more affordable shops, small eateries, and wonderful chai tea houses. These market streets stretch down and toward the old Spice Market and the market sprawl which has sprung up surrounding the Yeni Mosque. While significantly smaller than the Grand Bazaar, the Spice Market (also called the Egyptian Bazaar) is a long L shaped building which dates back to the mid 1600s. It serves as home to a number of traditional spice vendors with multi-colored spice displays, as well as a number of dessert and lamp stands. You’ll find that the Spice Market is fun to walk through, but tends to be extremely pricey and feels somewhat touristy.
Istanbul is an incredible market city, overflowing with vendors and a wonderful mixture of goods. No matter what you’re looking for, you’ll find a street market in Istanbul with vendors eager to share their wares with you. Make sure to set aside at least a day or two to explore the city’s wonderful markets and as you do so, make sure to venture beyond the main markets and into the city’s more authentic districts.
Enjoy your visit! Amazing scents, sights, and sounds await!