Istanbul: in the world’s most famous souk

The souk of Istanbul is the most famous in the world. It stretches out over the hill on the way to the Grand Bazaar, which is its nerve centre. The further up you go, the more you enter the real market.

It’s easy to get lost here because the Bosphorus is right there and serves as a geographical reference. The first streets are the most touristy, the ones selling trinkets and spices for foreigners. The further we climb the hill that leads to Sultanahmet, the fewer tourists we encounter and the more fun the journey becomes.

The hill leading to Sultanahmet is a huge market where walking becomes difficult. I intentionally get lost and find everything.

From Spice Street to the Grand Bazaar

The spice street is famous for its mixed colours and aromas and a major tourist attraction. It’s hard to resist the explosion of the senses, with the best shops displaying spices, teas, herbs and sweets on a logical scale of colours.

As I look up the hill, it seems impossible to fit more people in. The street is a vibrant bustle of people coming and going. From small cafés, men and boys come out at a rapid pace. They hold trays of tea to hand and manage not to spill a drop as they face the crowd.

At the souk of Istanbul
Spices and dried fruits

The further up the hill you go the more the crowd is local. One of the things magical about this souk is that it’s not just a place with dollars and euros in mind. Of course, it is too. But this is Istanbul’s trading hub, big enough to hold several mosques and police stations inside.

The Grand Bazaar, at the top of the hill, is absolutely magical. The building allows commerce in all weather conditions and has been running uninterrupted since its construction in 1455.

The Grand Bazaar of Istanbul

To pass through the door of the Grand Bazaar is to enter another world, which I first encounter on the journey between Cape Roca and Vladivostok.

This is where I find Kalpakçilar Caddesi, the goldsmith’s street, one of 61 in the covered space. It is also here that a man sitting in his small shop tells me very calmly in French, in a well-modelled voice and in a confiding tone:

– Come here, I have something to tell you…

Always very calm, he told me he was 60 years old and had been working for 50 years in the Grand Bazaar.

– I only sell good things. This bracelet, for example, could be very good for your mother or your wife.

I don’t know why, but rarely do salesmen become insistently unpleasant with me. I always answer them with a smile and a “no, thank you”. But when the approach is good I can’t resist stopping. I say straight away that I can’t or don’t want to buy anything, but I let them tempt me, in a game with no losers, like all those of consensual seduction.

The conversation flows, the man starts by trying to sell me the necklaces and earrings, but soon realises that I won’t buy them. Then he changes the register of the conversation and asks me where I come from. Conversation, in these parts, is an art form.

In a corner there is a buzz of noise as if it were a heated discussion between a large group of men. I move away sensibly, but I look at the goldsmiths and notice that they make no gesture to defend their merchandise.

Grand Bazaar of Istanbul
The Grand Bazaar of Istanbul has been in operation since 1455

The volume increases, but given the absence of reaction I choose to approach. They all have phones in their hands and point frantically at each other. The suspicion is confirmed by a young man who launches a “stock market!” without interrupting his vigorous stride: they are buying and selling shares. Because here everything can be bought and sold.

It’s easy to get lost in the souk because it’s easy to find your way again. As it is on one of the seven hills of Istanbul, you only have to go down towards the Bosphorus to find yourself back in the geography of the city.

There’s everything at the souk in Istanbul

I choose to get lost intentionally. I leave the Grand Bazaar and continue up the hill, turning right and left depending on the shop windows I find. There are streets covered with cloths to placate the inclemency of the sun. And everywhere there is a reason to smile or to marvel at the diversity.

Here, a display case advertises Viagra for the needy. Over there, the tailor shows off his suits on little bearded mannequins. Over there, shop windows display assault rifles, but air rifles.

And everywhere, the bustle of visitors contrasts with the indolence of the shopkeepers. Some people lean against their merchandise, looking at passers-by. As we’re right at the top of the hill, the traders don’t approach potential customers. Instead, they play a game of patience.

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