There are special main attractions in Istanbul that nearly every visitor to this mad metropolis will visit: the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sofia, and, of course, the Grand Bazaar. Istanbul’s famous covered market is impressive, labyrinthine and comprehensive. It’s easy to spend a day there and feel like you’ve had a real taste of Istanbul’s market culture.
While the Grand Bazaar (and its smaller cousin, the Egyptian Spice Bazaar) are wonderful, both are not where the true market energy of Istanbul resides. For that, you have to go to the neighborhoods. And you have to know when.
Istanbul has an old culture of markets, sprawling open-air bazaars that appear once a week and consume the streets before disappearing, until the next week.
One of the most well-known bazaars on the European side is the Tarlabasi Sunday Market. Tarlabasi is an old run-down neighborhood just next to Taksim Square, mostly well known for its large population of Kurds, migrants from Eastern Anatolia, drug dealers, and transvestites. It has a reputation for sketchiness by night. But come Sunday, the main thoroughfare that descends into the heart of Tarlabasi is filled with men selling the freshest produce, or piles of shoes, or plastic toys, or salty white cheese. This is Tarlabasi at its most welcoming; it’s normal to see exchange students rubbing shoulders with old Turkish ladies doing their weekly shopping, or old men haggling over the price of lemons.
The market takes over all the streets and goes on into early evening.
On the Asian side, my favorite market is the twice-weekly Sali Pazari Market in Kadikoy. “Sali Pazari” translates to Tuesday Market, though it actually occurs on Fridays as well. This market is set up in a giant open lot, and the maze-like feeling comes less from the natural geography of the area (as in Tarlabasi) than from the massive amount of tents as stands that are packed into the open space.
There is a logic to Sali Pazari– the produce section gives way to spices and olives and cheeses, which eventually turns to flowers and gardening tools, which turns to other mechanics, and so on and so forth. On a sunny day, there’s nothing like wandering the market in the sunshine and tasting all the olives.
Nearly every neighborhood has a market nearby, and each is inevitably infused with the character of its neighborhood. The weekly bazaars are the best place for people-watching, for cheap deals, for practicing your haggling skills—there’s really nothing like them.
This is where the real Istanbul lives, not the city of tourists or of ancient history, but the city that lives and breathes and buys bread RIGHT NOW. When it comes down to it, this sprawling metropolis is just a bunch of neighborhoods, with locals buying homemade red pepper spread or freshly cured olives from a vendor at their weekly bazaar.
The weekly markets are the beating heart of Istanbul, the places where everyone can come together and feel like they belong. It’s better than going to the supermarket any day of the week.
This article was brought to you by the Ciragan Palace Kempinski in Istanbul.