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Istanbul Bazaar
Istanbul
04.19.12

How to get the evil eye—and avoid ugly stares as you explore the city once known as Constantinople. From bargaining for Turkish rugs to saving on museum admissions, we’ve got you covered.

The Evil Eye

The blue and white glass bead amulets known as nazar boncuk (evil eye) are found EVERYWHERE in Turkey. Sold as trinkets, charms, jewelry, wall hangings, magnets and souvenirs, they are hung in houses, offices, cars, entryways, building foundations and even on newborns and animals. It is also thought that anything new or likely to attract compliments may bring on envy, resentment or bad energy. The talismans are believed to provide protection from evil forces or spirits—the blue eye reflecting ill intent back to its source. Different tales accompany its origin, its powers and the reason for the color blue. One thing is certain, when an amulet cracks, the eye has successfully warded off an evil attack, and it’s time to get a new one.

What To Wear

Istanbul as a whole is as cosmopolitan as New York City. Stylish casual attire will help you blend in among sophisticated city slickers—but always lean toward conservative, e.g., long cotton dresses. Evening dinner outings at nicer restaurants tend to be more formal. Ditch the casuals and don a dress, skirt or slacks with an elegant top—and men a jacket—bearing in mind that modesty is still the best policy in Turkey. Plunging necklines and bare arms are seldom seen. Mosques require modest dress for both men and women, meaning no shorts or sleeveless tops. Shoulders, thighs or upper arms should be covered (the Blue Mosque provides robes if dress is deemed inappropriate). Women should have a scarf handy to cover their hair. In general, comfortable walking shoes are mandatory to see the sights; select a sandal variety during summer. Pack lightweight fabrics for summer’s heat, and remember to dress conservatively in Muslim neighborhoods and outside Istanbul.

Carpet Co-ops

Turkish carpets and rugs -- hand knotted or flat woven -- are one of the most well known hand-crafted art works in the world and a favorite souvenir of Turkey. With an endless array of design, size and color schemes pouring out of showrooms, stalls and street shops at all price points, doing advance homework about carpets is highly recommended. Prices depend on: quality (number of knots per sq. cm.), materials used (dyes, fabrics), condition, age of the carpet and demand—the older a carpet, the higher its demand. High knot numbers and carpets made purely of silk command the highest prices. Carpets should also be inspected to ensure they are without tears or holes. Visit a carpet-making cooperative to get educated and gain appreciation for the craft and the labor involved (some carpets take years to make), even if you are led to a showroom afterward. A stop at Istanbul’s Carpet Museum is also enlightening.

Everything’s Negotiable

Bargaining is part and parcel of exchanging goods in Turkey, and not just at the bazaar. Western travelers may feel intimidated or ill at ease haggling for a price. Although buyers’ and sellers’ engage in countless tricks and ploys, the key is to remember that it’s a game. Before you engage, remember to:

  • Relax
  • Have a sense of humor about it
  • Never be afraid to walk away

Start low, and remember that if a merchant becomes hostile or appears indignant—it’s all part of the drama. Stressing out about getting the best price won’t help your position. The “best price” is never the best price, after all. Be evasive about what you want to pay and feign interest without committing to a price. Sidestep baited questions like “What do you expect to pay for this,” meant to elicit a price offer from you. As a rule, once you’ve made an offer, it is obligatory to honor it if the seller agrees.

Wayfaring Taxi Fares

Taksi (taxis) and dolmush—Turkish jitneys, shared taxis or minibuses on pre-determined routes—are found throughout Istanbul. Official taxis are yellow, have a taksi sign on top, come clearly marked with visible company logos and employ digital meters. Don’t get in the taxi if there is no meter, and get out if the driver won’t run it, claims it’s broken or turns it off at any time. Since taxis have separate night tariffs (50% more), some drivers may use night fares on unsuspecting tourists even in daytime. Look for "Gündüz" (day) on the rate display. Alert the driver if you see "Gece" (indicating night) in the daytime. Because meters may be located inconveniently, it is not considered rude to lean over and look at it periodically—locals watch the reflection in the passenger window. Upon arrival, round the fare up to a convenient number since cab drivers aren’t tipped—unless perhaps they are loading or unloading baggage. If you run into any issues, have the hotel help you with brokering a solution.

Istanbul Museum Pass

Now available to tourists rather than just locals, the Museum Pass Istanbul Card allows single entrance to any of six museums in a three-day/72-hour span at a cost of 72 Turkish Lira (approx $39 U.S.). You can skip standing in lines for tickets at the sites and head directly to the turnstiles. The pass is available for purchase at Tourist Information Offices, four- and five-star hotels and mobile card stores in Istanbul—or online for an extra fee. Entry is allowed at the following six museums:

  • Chora Church/Museum
  • Haghia Sophia
  • Islamc Mosaic Museum
  • Istanbul Archaeological Museum
  • Museum of Turkish & Islamic Arts
  • Topkapi Palace (excluding the Harem)

Carry Cash

Travelers are advised to carry a mixture of cash (in small denominations), an ATM card and major credit cards in Turkey. Most stores won't accept traveler’s checks, and banks and post offices with very long wait times are the only places to cash them. Although hotels, restaurants and stores in Istanbul widely accept credit cards, a premium often gets tacked onto prices (can be 10% or more!)—so cash is more economical. The local Turkish Lira (TL) will be necessary at markets, bazaars, street vendors, sightseeing attractions and for tipping, taxis and public transportation, most of which don’t take credit cards. Euros and dollars work best for exchanging currency. Dövis (exchange offices) charge no commission for cash currency exchange and offer the best rates, except at airports and around tourist attractions. They also have more convenient business hours than banks, staying open at night and on Saturdays. ATMs are also easy to find in Istanbul and accept major credit cards and bankcards linked to the Maestro, Cirrus or Plus networks.

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