Shops in Istanbul are officially open Monday to Saturday, 9am to 6 or 7pm, meaning that some shops open slightly later (9:30 or 10am) and even close for lunch. In practice, though, it is rare that a shop in the tourist-heavy Old City will be closed on Sundays. Shops along Istiklal Caddesi and in the passageways (the Galatasaray Fish Market, for example) are open on Sundays.
Art & Antiques
Objects dating to the Ottoman era make up a popular category for roving antiquers. As a rule, all items displayed can be legally purchased and exported to your home country (unless the piece is unique, in which case you need documentation from a museum director to buy it). Objects dated prior to the Ottoman period are considered fruit from the poisonous tree. Where carpets are concerned, the cutoff is 100 years -- you'll need a certificate from the shopkeeper stating the age, origin, and authenticity of the carpet. (This is standard practice, anyway.) So if you're serious, your first stop should be the neighborhood along Çukurcuma in the extremely hilly neighborhood below Beyoglu and Taksim.
When in Istanbul, my days are filled with powwows with carpet dealers proud to show me the thank-you letters received from Washington, D.C., insiders; foreign dignitaries; and vacationing journalists. I could easily list a handful of stores where I go regularly for a cup of tea, but that wouldn't be fair to the shop owners that I have yet to meet. And just because I gave my business card to someone as a courtesy in passing doesn't mean that I endorse his (and in the rarest of cases, her) shop. In fact, just because I mention a shop in a previous edition of Frommer's Turkey or Frommer's Istanbul doesn't necessarily mean I endorse them now. But if you take away only one piece of information from this page, it should be that profit margins on carpets can be huge, and that the breadth of that margin is really up to you. And because carpet-selling is such a major moneymaker in Turkey (in fact, so is selling ceramics and jewelry), everybody you encounter on the street has only one thing on his or her mind: sales. Toward this end, random locals will approach you on tourist-heavy streets offering information, access, or even romance. Accept the attention (or not) with a grain of salt; just be forewarned and forearmed.
So where do you find an honorable carpet seller? What's honorable? Accepting a smaller profit margin? Why should they if you're perfectly willing to pay? Ensuring that you're not sold a fake? Actually, the challenge for the potential buyer is not so much about avoiding fakes and scams, it's about not getting scalped. This doesn't diminish the value of the carpets, nor does it mean that all carpet sellers are dishonest. In fact, Istanbul is full of carpet salesmen whose singular goal is to sell the finest-quality, most beautiful specimens for the absolute highest price they can get. This is, after all, a business. And it's your business to be an educated consumer.
My dilemma is that as soon as I recommend a carpet seller, you will automatically be at a disadvantage, because 1) you and many others will move heaven and earth to buy at this location, thus tipping the scales of demand in favor of the seller, and 2) the seller will therefore lose the incentive to compete. The result? You lose. So what's a shopper to do? Recognize that buying a carpet is an extremely labor- and time-intensive activity, and rest assured that these salesmen will find you. Your best, and only defense, is to go armed with the best information you can get, and to recognize in advance that no matter what you do, you're going to pay more than you should.
Carpet Price Comparison -- With consumer prices rising in Turkey, carpet vendors have been traveling far and wide to collect the less expensive Turkic carpets from Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Özbekistan, Afghanistan, and the other -stans. Before you fork over thousands of dollars or pounds on one of these admittedly stunning pieces, compare prices at places like IKEA and at Worldstock, Overstock's site for global handicrafts (www.overstock.com). Some sellers even list on eBay, so you may want to do a search for recently sold merchandise to get the best reflection of the market price.
Deconstructing the Turkish Carpet -- Turkish tribal rugs are divided into kilims, which are flat, woven rugs, and carpets, which are hand-knotted using a double or Gordian Knot, a technique unique to Anatolia that results in a denser, more durable product than the handmade single-knotted carpets found in other countries. Kilims are probably more recognizable, as they are inexpensive and sold abroad.
Four types of carpets are currently produced in Turkey. Wool-on-wool carpets represent the oldest tradition in tribal rugs and are representative of a wide range of Anatolian regions. The earliest examples display geometric designs using natural dyes that were reliant on local resources like plants, flowers, twigs, and even insects, so that the colors of the carpets reflected the colors of an individual region. Blues and reds are typical of designs originating around Bergama, which derive from the indigo root and local insects. Reds seem to be dominant in carpets made in Cappadocia. The oranges and beiges of the Üsak are also becoming more popular among consumers.
Today the business of carpet weaving has been transformed into a mass industry. Weavers have for the most part switched over to chemical-based dyes, although the tradition of organic dyes is experiencing a rapid renaissance.
The second type of carpet is the highly prized silk-on-silk samples, which developed in response to the Ottoman Palace's increasing desire for quality and splendor. Silk was a precious commodity imported from China that few could afford. In the 19th century the sultan established a royal carpet-weaving center at Hereke that catered exclusively to the palace. Today silk-on-silk rugs continue to outclass all others, using silk from Bursa woven into reproductions of traditional designs. (Note: Silk threads cannot hold natural dyes.) Silk rugs are also produced in Kayseri, but these have yet to attain the high aesthetic standards set by the Herekes.
A more recent development in carpet production has been the wool-on-cotton, which, because of the lower density of the [cotton] weft, accommodates a higher ratio of knots per inch, and therefore more detail in the design. Carpets of this type come from Kayseri, Konya (Lakik), and Hereke. Cotton-on-cotton is an even newer invention, duplicating the resolution and sheen of a silk rug without the expense.
Sales tactics include an emphasis on Anatolian carpet and kilim weaving as a high art. This certainly applies to rare and older pieces, which command hefty sums. But modern samples -- albeit handmade copies of traditional designs -- are created from computerized diagrams. (This last caveat does not apply to the more recent trend of designing patchwork rugs made from old village textiles.)
Finally, unless you're an expert, you should avoid buying antique rugs, which cost significantly more, and will present some challenges with Customs. The bottom line is that only antiques experts are equipped for a proper appraisal.
Caveat Emptor! Carpet-Buying Tips -- "Where are you from?" seems an innocuous enough question from a carpet dealer, but answer it, and you're on your way to being scalped. Questions like "Where are you staying" actually tell the salesperson about your economic status, as do "What do you do?" (How much money do you earn?), "Where do you live?" (Hey what a coincidence! My cousin lives near you!), "How much time will you be staying here?" (How much time do you have before you have to make your final decision?), "What are you looking for?" (Do you even have any idea about carpets?), and "How long have you been here?"(How much have you already learned about our sleazy ways?).
First rule of thumb: Lie about where you're staying. Take note of the name of the humblest pension near your actual hotel, and file it away for future use. Also, for the Americans, they know that our countrymen are among the biggest spenders of any nationality visiting Turkey (particularly those disgorging from the cruise ships) and easily one of those with the least bargaining prowess. This is where fluency in a foreign language may come in handy. Above all, do your homework and know what you like before you arrive so you don't waste precious bargaining time overpaying for the "best sample in the shop."
Visitors traveling in groups with a guide will inevitably wind up in the guide's friend's shop, possibly even in one with a girl knotting rugs for show. And any sales pitch worth its salt will begin with a minicourse on Turkish carpets (some of which is actually true). Over tea, of course. Although these are interesting from an educational and cultural point of view, just remember: The carpet you buy is only as expensive as the amount you are willing to pay. Oh, and your tour guide, your tour company, and, yes, the bus driver, are each going to earn a hefty commission off of your purchase. (Actually, the same commission system applies to almost everything you buy.)
Yes, buying a carpet in Turkey can be a very daunting task. But this is not meant to diminish your admiration of the pieces, only to arm you for the negotiations, which ultimately will get you an exceptional souvenir of a wonderful country and its wonderful crafts.
The Istanbul Handicrafts Center has a choice collection of precious ceramic and porcelain reproductions from Kütahya and Iznik.
Department Stores & Chains
So you've packed for warmer weather and the winds from the Caucasus have arrived a bit early. Head for these chains, located along Istiklal Caddesi, though you'll find them in major shopping areas throughout the country. If you've got champagne taste, you may want to keep your eyes open for some of Turkey's higher-end fashion franchises such as Sarar, Ipekyol, and Abdullah Kigili.
Something Smells Fishy -- Beware of anything labeled caviar. Turkey is notorious for its illegal trade in smuggled caviar, as well as for representing this lower-quality replacement fish roe as high-quality caviar using counterfeit labels copied from reputable brands.
Olive Oil: Anatolia's Black Gold -- Turkey's olive oil really doesn't get the kind of respect it deserves -- an absence of effective marketing has deprived the rest of the world of one of the country's most treasured resources. But that is changing, by the looks of the gourmet shop in the airport's duty-free area. If you've been bewitched by the flaxen temptress at the bottom of your meze bowl, pick up a bottle at any local convenience-type store. The grocery-store chains carry some basic brands like Komili as well as some more premium brands like Amphora, Taris, and Olivos.
Malls & Shopping Centers
You'd really have to have a lot of time on your hands in Istanbul to wind up at one of these shopping centers, but sometimes the lure of the fluorescent lighting and the chill of overtaxed air-conditioning is just too much to resist. The Akmerkez Mall, in Etiler, was actually voted the best shopping mall in Europe several years back; but a decade later, it's slated for major renovations just to keep up with the ever-growing pool of über-deluxe competition. Istinye Park is an urban re-creation of a village catering to those accustomed to the stratospheres of commerce, and Astoria boasts not only commerce but luxury wellness with its on-site Anantara Spa, luxury fitness facility, and adjunct Kempinski Residences. Certainly more convenient is the center-city, Bloomingdales-esque City's, an indoor emporium of top brands (Gian Franco Ferre, Roberto Cavalli, D&G, Jean Paul Gaultier) in the tony neighborhood of Nisantasi. The outdoor Kanyon is only a couple of years old, a Guggenheim-esque swirl of tasteful Turkish franchises and one-of-a-kinders in the smart neighborhood of Levent, opposite yet another shopping mecca, Metrocity. Other shopping malls include Capitol Shopping Mall in Üsküdar, Carousel Shopping Mall in Bakirköy, and Galleria Shopping Mall near the airport. Olivium is a mostly outlet mall located halfway between the airport and Sultanahmet, where you can find various middle-of-the-range name brands at discounted prices.
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.