Shopping in Istanbul: From Street and the Grand Bazaar To Chic and Armaggan NAR

It's been eight years since I was in Istanbul and I found a lot has changed; yet some things remained the same. The streets are still narrow, twisting and steep and the city maintains its allure, mystery and charm. Istanbul is a bustling city 24/7 and makes the Big Apple look like it fell off the tree. Change can be found in new, sophisticated, upscale stores; however, everywhere the people are welcoming, kind and as cordial as I left them eight years ago.

Our New Book

I arrived in Istanbul refreshed on a cool, comfortable gray morning, located my luggage, did the usual customs procedure, and grabbed a taxi to my hotel. This was a strange and wonderful adventure in itself. My taxi driver must have thought he was in an action flick as we sped up old narrow brick streets following a twisted maze, cars honking for any old reason or none at all. Images of small stores displaying groups of beautiful quality leathers flashed past my window.

From Street  and the Grand Bazaar To Chic and Armaggan NAR
Then, the long line of cars we were following suddenly stopped, but no one honked; they just waited. And waited. Gradually a group of about one hundred men gathered in the middle of the street clutching their prayer rugs and I heard the spiritual "call to prayer" that rang out across the entire country. They unrolled their prayer rugs and began the ceremonial prayers. It lasted about a half hour and then traffic resumed. I was only a block away from my destination, The Momento Hotel.

People Watching

I enjoyed sitting at a cafe table outside the hotel watching the local scene. My hotel was in the wholesale district as I discovered when I tried to purchase only one pair of leather boots instead of a thousand. After a bit of gesticulating, I understood. From then on, gesticulating became a vital addition to my verbal communication. At my little table I could watch the machinations of everyday life, but what I witnessed was amazing, sort of a Dr. Seuss' Mulberry Street in Istanbul.

I saw men of all ages pulling and pushing five-foot high loads of heavy goods on dollies up and down the steep sloped streets followed by cars and trucks tailgating them. People ran with a purpose in every direction, intent on their private missions. Men are everywhere, about a hundred men for every two women and they are usually tourists, loaded down with shopping bags.

The Grand Bazaar

Across the street stood the arched entrance to the Grand Bazaar, obscured by the myriad of vendors. It is one of seven entrances located around the city bearing no sign or banner announcing its whereabouts. Be prepared to be hounded by vendors; they are very persistent and temptations are everywhere. The Grand Bazaar is a maze of sixty narrow paths chock full of three hundred stalls selling--everything. Luxury brand names jumped out at me from Gucci to Dior. This sensory overload made my head spin and my decision-making faculties were suspended preventing me from making any purchases. It's exhausting.

My perplexing countenance was so evident that a waiter left his restaurant, took me by the hand and sat me down at a table. I didn't resist, in fact, he could have led me anywhere and I'd have complacently followed. He was very kind and suggested a few items on the menu. I ordered eggs and a few foreign items and it was just what I needed.

Fortified, I dove into the Grand Bazaar with renewed vigor. I bought and bought and bought some more. I found a vendor selling beautiful perfumes and bought my favorite, Chanel #5. He wanted $50 for it; it normally sells for $80, but I negotiated him down to $30! I was thrilled and in the groove and went on to buy watches, Uggs, Guess leather boots, jewelry, hats, Pashmina scarves and more. My total expense was only $150.00. I learned how to say "no" to stalking salesmen, how to bargain and how to make buying a win-win experience.

The Grand Bazaar closed at 7:00 pm and it was 6:45pm so I joined the exodus of customers exiting laden with huge bags. One young man followed me wearing brand name perfumes stacked on one arm and was particularly persistent that I buy another Chanel #5 perfume. Nearing the exit his price dropped from $25.00 to $2.50. It was then I realized with chagrin, what a bargain I didn't get as I looked over my shoulder and saw the guy who sold me the first bottle laughing with glee at my naivete. I bought the $2.50 bottle anyway. I figured I got two Chanel's for the price of one: still a bargain.

Old Town in Istanbul is like a 5-ring circus, with sideshows and everything happening at once. The atmosphere is energized with a purpose: Sell, sell, sell. The Grand Bazaar epitomizes shopping; just remember to negotiate to get your price because everyone loves a bargain, even if it's not real.

Chic Shopping

I joined our press group and we went upscale to the Nuruosmaniye District just steps from the Grand Bazaar to the new Armaggan/ NAR store. It was purported to be in the vanguard of innovative shopping; we had to check it out. It was after hours, so we had the whole place to ourselves with a guide. As soon as I walked through the doors, I sensed something different: a huge open space like a hotel lobby with separate sections displaying varied products; a brown blown glass chandelier covering the ceiling; gleaming marble floors leading to a grand spiral staircase. It was more like an art gallery than a department store.

Each of the five floors featured different products from silk scarves to jewelry, ladies fashions and home accessories. What makes Armaggan different is that everything is hand crafted by artisans throughout Turkey and the results are truly superb and not cheap. I checked the ticket on a dress made of gold thread -- cost, $3000, but it was stunning.

The jewelry was exquisitely designed and breathtaking in its beauty. I saw a helmet/mask of an Ottoman warrior made of gold, gleaming jeweled swords and golden tassels. The other floors featured gorgeously designed carpets, towels, and ceramics.

One floor was even an art gallery showcasing Turkey's most prominent artists exhibiting paintings, ceramics and sculptures. While Armaggan products and designs are reminiscent of the Ottoman Empire, Nar is the culinary part of the store located on the fifth floor.

Nar Lokanta serves Anatolian cuisine using Nar Gourmet's product line of olive oils from the Ayvalik region on the Aegean coast—the finest olives in the country. We were served a banquet of Turkish classic and regional mezzes (small dishes) that were delectable. A verdant leafy vertical garden hung adjacent to our dining table. It looked like a rain forest and stretched six stories emitting a fine mist: It was so dramatic and refreshing.

But wait -- there's more.

On the floor below the restaurant is YESAM Culinary Arts Center where students are taught the fine art of cooking dishes that are part of Turkey's lost culinary heritage: YESAM revives Ottoman dishes and cooking methods. We were fortunate enough to have two of their candy chefs demonstrate their process for making hard candy. It was fascinating to watch as they formed, stretched, rolled and snipped the candy into pieces. Timing was everything or it would harden too soon.

It was truly a glamorous, chic store that was an art exhibit all to itself. It made the stores on Rodeo Drive look dated. I couldn't afford the jewelry or clothes, but I did go home stocked with fruit-flavored vinegars and olive oils, jars of jams and fruity molasses and of course, those little squares of confectionary splendor, Turkish Delight.

Even though the two shopping meccas are only a few blocks from each other, they are light years apart in experience. Only in Istanbul can you haggle in a 16th century Grand Bazaar or choose to shop luxuriously at the Armaggan/Nar in the future of the 21st century.

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Karen Hamlin is an award winning journalist and a native New Englander who moved south to Florida and now lives near Washington DC. Karen specializes in dropping into new situations and taking the reader along for the ride. First prize winner of the 2003 and 2004 North American Travel Journalists Association competition, Karen's peripatetic travels have taken her through most of Europe, the Caribbean, the South Pacific, China and the Middle East. Karen is a member of the North American Travel Journalists Association, International Travel Writers Alliance, and Washington Independent Writers. Now a veteran world traveler, she writes for national and regional magazines.

Published April 14th, 2014

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