Perhaps it was the renown of the Grand Bazaar that put Istanbul on the map of the world's great shopping destinations. But it's the hunting grounds of Old Istanbul, the elegant boutiques of Nisantasi, the burgeoning of homegrown designers, and the revival in traditional handicrafts and artwork that have kept it there.
Local Lingo -- Walking through a bazaar or past a restaurant entrance may elicit a "buyurun" or "buyurun efendem," both of which are expressions of courtesy. Buyurun has no English equivalent; it's used as an invitation to "Please feel free" (to look, to come in), or as a "You're welcome," much like the Italian prego. Efendem is a highly polite gender-neutral form of address that also means "Pardon?"
What Should I Buy?
The first thing that comes to mind when plotting a plan of attack for acquisitions in Istanbul is a rug, be it a kilim or tribal carpet. Carpets, kilims, and a whole slew of related items that have lost their nomadic utility comprise an indescribably complex industry, but it is unlikely that you will get very far before being seduced by the irresistible excess of enticing keepsakes.
Most people are unaware that Turkey manufactures some of the best leather items in Europe, comparable in quality to those sold in Florence, Italy (and in some stores in Florence, the merchandise is Turkish). Because leather items are individually produced in-house, quality and fit may vary, but the advantage of this is that you can have a jacket, skirt, or trousers made-to-order, change the design of a collar, or exchange an unsightly zipper for buttons at prices far less than what you'd pay back home.
The entire length of Kalpakçilar Caddesi in the Grand Bazaar glitters with precious metals from the Nuruosmaniye Gate to the Beyazit Gate. But Turkish-bought gold and silver are no longer the bargains they used to be, as the cost of precious metals -- particularly gold -- continues to skyrocket. However, cheap labor in China and India might still keep Turkish jewelers from pricing themselves out of the market, so all hope is not lost.
Some of the world's best meerschaum comes from Turkey. This heat-resistant sea foam becomes soft when wet, allowing it to be carved into playful pipes that would make a collector out of the most die-hard nonsmoker. An afternoon in a historic hamam will expose you to some of the most beautiful traditional white copper objects, available as kitchen and bathing utensils, although keep in mind that you can't cook with this toxic stuff unless the inside has been coated with tin.
As far as antiques go, shopkeepers seem to be practiced in manufacturing bogus certificates of origin that will facilitate your trip through Customs, but beware: The certificate may not be the only counterfeit item in the shop. Collectors should keep in mind that it is prohibited by Turkish law to export anything dated prior to the 20th century without the proper authorization from a museum directorate.
Less traditional items can easily fill a suitcase, and with clever Turkish entrepreneurs coming up with new merchandise on a regular basis, you won't get bored on your second or third visit. Pillowcases, embroidered tablecloths, ornamental tea services, and brass coffee grinders are just some of the goodies that never seem to get old.
A Note About Bargaining
That old measure by which you offer the seller half of his initial price is old hat. They've caught on to our shopping savvy, and in fact they don't care. Plenty of stupendously wealthy Russians and groups of cruise-ship passengers with weighty wallets provide easy targets. Still I've heard that a good rule of thumb is to offer about 25% less than you're willing to pay. In my experience, you must hold off your counteroffer for as long as you can get away with it. This method will meet with counteroffers and varying responses, and after a few times you might succeed in talking the price down. If the shopkeeper stonewalls, remember there's another one selling the same stuff next door. You'll get the hang of it.
Another bargaining tool: Narrow down your choice to two pieces. Snub your first choice and put it down (with plans to come back to it later). Negotiate on your second choice -- undoubtedly one of the finer samples in the shop, and therefore one of the pricier items on sale. Once you've established that it's out of your price range, turn to your first choice with a disappointed "and what about that one?"
Your VAT Refund
Foreigners (and Turkish citizens with residence abroad) are entitled to a VAT (value-added tax) refund, worth 18% of the total amount of merchandise acquired during any one purchase. One word of caution, though: There's an ongoing scam where a merchant will ask you to sign an invoice (written in Turkish) that actually states you have already received your VAT refund at the point of purchase. Imagine handing over your paperwork at the airport (including the receipt with your signature) only to learn that you have essentially waived your own right to the refund without knowing it. Simply put: Don't sign anything you can't read.
To receive a refund, present the merchandise and receipt to the Customs inspectors on your way out of the country (but within 3 months of purchase). Refunds are issued in the form of either a Global Refund check, redeemable at the Is Bankasi branch on the Arrivals level, or as a credit to a credit card account. The Customs Tax-Free office at the airport in Istanbul, located in the International Departure Terminal, is open 24 hours a day. They take a commission, though, so that 18% gets reduced to about 12.5% -- hardly worth the wait unless we're talking about major-ticket items.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.