When you think of the world’s most popular tourist attractions, what comes to mind? Is it major landmarks like the Eiffel Tower, Taj Mahal and Niagara Falls? You might be surprised to learn that the single most-visited tourist attraction does not have such an easily recognizable name. Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar recorded 91.2 million visitors in 2013, and the always bustling shopping venue is set to beat that mark when 2014’s data is tallied.

Called Kapalı Carşı in Turkish (which literally means “covered market”), the Grand Bazaar can trace its roots back to the 15th century. It was built during the height of the Ottoman Empire and was first used as a textile market. By the early 1700s, the structure had already taken the form it has today: dozens of covered “streets” with domed ceilings and arching supports. The number of shops has remained unbelievably consistent over the years. There have always been 3,000-4,000 different vendors under the bazaar’s roofs.

When you consider its disaster-filled story, it is astonishing that this market is still in existence. The Grand Bazaar’s timeline is filled with fires and earthquakes. Blazes were a very common occurrence until stricter rules about open flames were put in place in the 1700s.

Several major earthquakes have nearly knocked down the bazaar. The last one, in 1894, damaged the walls and pillars so much that it took almost five years to repair.

Bring on the tourists

shoppers look at spices at the Grand Bazaar

Tourists fill the streets of the bazaar and are expected to haggle over prices with the merchants. (Photo: itsmejust / Shutterstock.com)

It wasn’t until the 1980s that Kapalı Carşı started to realize its tourism potential. During this decade, the original designs of the building were restored and graffiti and layers of advertising posters were removed to enhance the classic feel that people see when they visit today.

Electricity, heating and lighting projects are ongoing. Some infrastructure upgrades are vital because long-time renters have removed bricks and parts of pillars to make more room to displays. This has raised concerns about the structure’s ability to handle a major earthquake.  

Between 200,000 and 500,000 people visit the five-dozen “streets” every day. Signage is modest at many shops, and some have no signs whatsoever (a holdover from ancient times when it was considered bad form to advertise in Middle Eastern culture). The lack of landmarks can make it hard to navigate. Some people choose to window shop and compare prices before they make a purchase, but they find that they are unable to locate the cheapest shop again.  

Besides the exotic wares and the historic atmosphere, most Grand Bazaar visits are defined by encounters with enthusiastic (and aggressive) salespeople. Some vendors will come out of their shops in order to try to lure you over to buy something. Some will follow you for a long distance, trying to make a sale. The most-skilled sellers will greet you in a dozen different languages, trying to get the right one. For some people, these sales practices are part of the buzzing atmosphere that defines the bazaar. For others, though, the constant inquiries and sales pitches detract from the centuries-old magic. 

Like most traditional markets, bargaining is commonplace at many of the shops inside the Grand Bazaar. You are expected to haggle (albeit politely). Some shops specifically advertise “fixed prices.”

What's for sale

Turkish dishes for sale at the Grand Bazaar

Colorful Turkish plates and dishes are for sale at the Grand Bazaar. (Photo: Jez Elliott / Shutterstock)

With more than 3,000 shops, you can find pretty much anything at the Grand Bazaar. Traditional wares like intricately woven rugs, hand-painted textiles and jewelry are the target of souvenir seekers, though clothing and cookware are equally prevalent. Antiques and secondhand goods are also quite popular. Vendors specializing in antiques are very shrewd, so you probably won’t find any underpriced treasures.

Other Grand Bazaar shops are very eclectic, selling everything from handmade soaps and homemade perfumes to clothing items that have been embellished with beads and other decorations. There are rumors that the world’s best fashion designers come to shops like these to find inspiration for their new clothing lines. Many of the older shops (some have been in the same spot for more than a century) still have craftspeople who work right there. This is especially the case for jewelers.

Food and drink

cafe in the Grand Bazaar

Visitors soak in the atmosphere while enjoying food and drink at the Grand Bazaar. (Photo: Steven Ugur OKUCU / Shutterstock.com)

Most tourists who visit the Grand Bazaar purchase food and drink before they buy anything else. Many kiosks sell tea and coffee, and some shopkeepers will even offer you a cup during the negotiation process. Casual restaurants and snack vendors also abound. These spots give you a chance to sit and soak in the grandeur and history without having to dodge other shoppers and salespeople.      

Success has brought some changes to the bazaar. As its popularity with tourists continues to grow, rents rise. This is forced some vendors to move outside the market (this is where the real deals can be found). Some brand-name boutiques have even started to show up along the streets.

It remains to be seen if the 90 million tourists turn this historic bazaar into some sort of retail theme park or if it will stay what it has always been: a timeless market where commerce is ruled by tradition instead of tourist dollars.

Related on MNN:

Inside Istanbul's Grand Bazaar
Dating back to the 15th century, this bustling market is the world's most visited-tourist attraction.