What to buy in Turkey
Shopping in Turkey is a dream – if you know where to look. Four years ago, I spent two days in Istanbul and came home laden with spices and home wares, so with the festive season looming, I was very excited buy some good gifts for others (and myself), and cunningly added two days in Istanbul onto our Coastal Turkey Road Trip.
So, what is actually good to bring from Turkey? Where can you find good quality at reasonable prices? How to avoid the tourist traps?
Well. Take a cup of tea and count your money, here comes my little Turkey shopping guide.
To begin with… I bought 80% of what I wanted in Istanbul. The other large city we stopped was Izmir, which has a pleasant bazaar and great shopping centres, but Istanbul has good accommodation, nice food, tons to see and a great public transit system that’s easy to understand, so for shopping, Istanbul remains my favourite city in Turkey.
Food and Drink
Turkish delight (lokum) is perhaps the most famous, and most portable Turkish sweet. There are a few famous producers, such as Haci Bekir or Koska in Istanbul. You won’t need to go far to find a local producer. The best way to buy is to try and then buy according to your taste. This way I found some really nice ones, whose names I unfortunately forgot. But also, in more touristed areas some sweet shops will try to sell you a kg box and rip you off while doing it – might be best to keep an eye on the scales. The only lokum that made it home was this small sealed package which was gifted to us by the Hotel Niles. Because once the box is open, the sweets get eaten!
We bought loads of nuts, dried apricots and toasted corn as snacks, and everything we bought was really good. There are shops in even the smallest town that sell dried goods, and as they are always loose, you can usually try them before committing to buy. We bought home these sun-dried tomatoes, bought in a shop in Köyceğiz. Non touristy towns and bazaars are usually the best to buy quality at fair prices.
When in Istanbul, a good place to buy is in the Eminönü area outside the Spice Bazaar. Just enter the warren of streets to the west of the Spice Bazaar, and you won’t need to go far to find loads of tiny shops with dried goods and spices.
I always come home from trips with tons of spices. It’s not that there are no spices in Germany, but some are harder to find, and they often come ground. So, when in Turkey… I stock up! This time, I bought a lot of cumin, some chili flakes, and a lot of sumac. I am just finishing up the whole sumac I bought in Istanbul back in 2015, and the whole berries kept exceptionally well. So here’s a fresh batch. As with dried fruit, I found the best place to buy them was outside the Spice Bazaar in Eminönü. You may have to visit different shops until you find what you want, and prices vary sometimes. Many shops also have interesting spice mixes they sell by the kilo, none of them very expensive. Some places vacuum pack the spices for free.
Turkish coffee isn’t everyone’s cup of… coffee, but for those who like it, what better place could there be to pick up an ibrik (the small copper or steel pot to boil coffee) and some fresh coffee? As my friend says “you get everything you would ever want to buy in Eminönü”, this unpretentious shopping area between the Suleimaniye Mosque and the Spice Bazaar has multiple kitchen and dining ware shops, where you get ibrik in different qualities, as well as the famous Mehmet Efendi Store for freshly roasted coffee. It’s in the same area as many spice shops, and you can find it easily by the heavenly smell and the crowds outside. Most of what they sell is finely ground Turkish coffee, but you can ask for beans and espresso roast.
Health and Beauty
Ooooh – little did I know what wonderful things you can find in Turkey! Since getting itchy skin from poorly cured souvenir soap from Tripoli, I was reluctant to use Aleppo soap. Also, it’s bloody expensive, as a recent trip to an organic store in my hometown showed, but I was persuaded what good soap it is. Originally bought as shaving soap for my husband, it was quickly used for everything – including washing hair.
Imagine my delight when I found Aleppo soap in Turkey. Not only, this – a lot of different natural olive oil based soaps are made in Turkey locally.
Here are two pieces of Aleppo Soap – they cost 15-20 TL and may not always come from Syria but, given the proximity of Syria to Turkey and the civil war in Turkey, some of the production facilities have moved to neighbouring countries. I also got some pieces of very cheap “village soap” for 5-8TL from various local bazaars. Unlike Aleppo Soap with its distinctive medicinal smell, they smell very mildly and “clean”. The first piece is in use and makes a nice lather without stripping the skin too much.
Go to any chemist in the country and they will probably sell Paksa or Dalan brand soap. I love the smell of cucumber, and I like black soap – I had to restrict myself a little as the suitcase was nearing its 20kg limit. All their soaps are natural but some contain animal ingredient like sheep, donkey and goat milk, but it is usually declared.
More soaps – apart from the ubiquitous but wonderful lemon, I got hooked on the medicinal laurel and sulphur smell… and their vibrant colours.
The natural soaps cost 5-7TL and make wonderful small gifts. And really, you can buy them almost anywhere in chemists or bazaars.
I was umm-ing and aah-ing about visiting a hammam, but then chickened out. I am not keen on walking alone, naked and without my specs in a totally unknown place… a shame, because the Istanbul hammams look so nice and I heard a hammam visit is relaxing and does wonders for your skin. Also, I had been to a hammam before, in Tbilisi and Fez, and I must say I felt pretty weird, semi-nude, all by myself, and struggling along in French/Russian with the very friendly ladies there.
So I’ll stick to Ottoman-style baths for now you can visit clothed with your nearest and dearest where textiles are mandatory, like the excellent Kiraly Baths in Budapest.
But I’ll take a hamam accessory any time! Like these exfoliating gloves. They are called kese and you get them in very cheap version from nylon, or in wool and silk, in various market stalls and the hamam itself. The kese below cost 5TL for the cheap and 35TL for the wool and silk version, bought from a stall outside the Grand Bazaar.
A trip by ferry down the Golden Horn and visiting the pilgimage site of Eyüp Sultan produced some more unusual souvenirs. Little did I know that some Muslim pilgrimage sites have entire bazaars outside where you can shop your heart out! This one outside the Mosque Complex was bright, with lots of cafes and an emphasis on soap and scent of all kinds. I got this Pakistani solid block of synthetic musk here because I love the smell. It usually lives in my wardrobe – but it can be applied like solid perfume.
Speaking of perfume… Istanbul is the capital of cheap yet wonderful scent. In every Turkish supermarket you can buy Cologne for very little money. My favourite is Rebul, an Istanbul company which makes great everyday scent. The “Aqua” smells very much like a designer scent of a similar name yet a 200ml bottle cost about 6 Euro. They now make pricier scents under the “Atelier Rebul” brand, which I haven’t tried as I have my favourites in the higher priced segments and prefer the singular notes of the super cheap Rebul Cologne.
You get gorgeous things for your kitchen and dining, if you’re in the market for it. Taking over an entire kitchen cupboard full of cooking implement and dinnerware from two sets of grandparents meant I am set in this department. Again… Eminönü is a good place to look. I highly recommend taking a walk from Suleimanye Mosque and Gardens (highly visits worthy mosque, oook out for the tombs in the garden, too, one of which incorporates a fragment from the Kaaba) downhill towards the Golden Horn, bring money and some large bags.
However… I finally found a stone mortar and pestle in medium size.
And, because they were so beautiful these stone snack bowls had to come. What I really wanted was a marble soap dish, but they were nowhere to be seen. I think they are marble, possibly alabaster. The guy who sold them to me said I can wash them by hand. I’ve given them a careful rinse with dish soap and didn’t destroy them, so fingers crossed!
I only found this kind of stuff in Didyma, a small village on the Aegean where the main attraction is a ruin of an Apollo temple, sat in the middle of the village. There was a cluster of these marble/alabaster workshops around the site, so I presume they are local. I paid 125TL for the three bowls and the mortar and pestle, which comes to a very reasonable 20 Euro.
Normally, I bring a piece of jewellery from very trip, and don’t get me wrong! Turkey is a great place to buy jewellery, especially gold. This time, I stuck to altogether cheaper souvenirs.
After trying various candy and colognes in a roadside souvenir shop near Denizli, I felt compelled to at least buy something small. So I got an Nazar pendant for our house. The “Nazar” is a very common charm for warding off the “evil eye” that you can buy anywhere. I actually got a few more glass ones in Izmir bazaar – they’re great for wrapping gifts, and I have known to put them in the Christmas tree…
Here is my haul from the “Bead Bazaar” inside Izmir’s Kemeralti Market. It’s basically a street or two within the bazaar shortly before you enter the historic covered Kizlaragasi Han. Instead of buying an already strung necklace, I am going to try to make my own. The beads were so cheap I am convinced they are glass and not gemstone. Who cares. Beads are great.
Now what’s missing in this post is jewellery. I love jewellery and often bring a small piece from a trip. And I love Turkish jewellery. I really liked the Trabzon-style gold jewellery and Byzantine style jewellery that was for sale in the Covered Bazaar and around, but compared to current gold and silver prices, the asking prices were multiples of the current precious metal prices.
So I bough just two small hamza pendants to be incorporated into gemstone necklaces. They’re gold plated silver with probably crystal, and cost about 150 TL in Kizlaragasi Han Bazaar – the atmospheric old covered Market inside Izmir’s Kemeralti Bazaar.
If you are interested in buying jewellery. I suggest you look in two places: For silver and stylish gold-plated silver, the Arasta Bazaar, one or two shops in particular, are a good place to start. I like the variety of designs – from blatant Pomellato rip off to Byzantine style incorporating old coins. It’s a great place to study the style and prices. For gold, the Sandal Bedesten in the Grand Bazaar can be a good place, but bear in mind the majority of shiops in the Grand Bazaar is tourist orientated and may not offer realistic prices. Always have current gold prices in mind and calculate what comes on top of the gold price.
I love decent quality textiles, and Turkey os a big cotton grower and producer of ready made clothing, so I was hoping for some great finds.
I got them!
Super cheap cotton
This was one of my first buys. A traditional pattern large cotton blanket. The price was fixed at 35 TL, which is 5 Euro. I didn’t bother haggling, especially as this was in a bazaar shop outside the touristy bit in Izmir. It made from cotton and is super soft and pretty. We use it as a throw to protect our sofa from cat claws.
Before my cotton bargain, I bought this beautiful scarf with traditional tulip pattern, which I paid 150TL for. I think it is way too much – the scarf feels nice, like silk, but it probably isn’t silk. The tassels have little burns at the end, indication there is something synthetic in the fabric. Ah well! Lesson learnt to look around first. I love the traditional tulip design though.
I then got a really good lesson in textiles while visiting the Arasta Bazaar behind the Sultan Ahmet Mosque (“Blue Mosque”) in Istanbul. If you don’t like huge crowds or getting lost in the Bazaar, it’s a nice place to shop! Shops vary in quality, but there are some high-class outlets among them. Anyway, I was admiring some scarves there, and the shopkeeper pulled me in, and pulled out loads of scarves. Again, I found it hard to resist. Even cheaper items look really good and are of good quality!
The scarf on the let is a good example. It does say “silk” on the label, but I was told it’s actually viscose. Still, the hemming is stitched, although quite decently, and the print is crisp and bright. It feels and looks like silk, and easily passes the wedding ring test. In a nut shell, it is very similar to the silk scarf on the right, which has somewhat messy hand-rolled hems and cost about six times as much. In a lot of souvenir shops the viscose item will be sold as real silk. If in doubt… you can always perform a flame test if they let you although it’s not so useful to distinguish between silk and viscose fibres.
And with that, the scarf haul isn’t ending… one thing I can say for sure, in terms of practicality, I will never need to buy another scarf. But what can you do when you walk down the road and see multiple scarf shops doing end of season sales? These genuine silk scarves are square, about 90x 90cm and they appear to be worn mainly as hijab. They were 50TL each.
And this one,in a cheerful candystripe design,was 60TL.
Before I visited Turkey, I didn’t have on my radar that Turkey is a massive producer of ready to wear clothing. I hate fast fashion, and I usually buy on the more expensive end, and often that includes fair and organic fashion. I left that road in Turkey, I admit it.
At first, I really just wanted to get my husband to buy some new clothes. He hates clothes shopping and hates spending money on clothes even more but his old clothes are currently in the state of falling apart. So, a multi level store run by the Turkish brand Mavi in Izmir was the solution. One of the first Turkish words I learned is “Indirim”, meaning Sale, so I steered him to the “Indirim” floor, and carried a load of jeans and casual shirts into this changing room. It was a great success. I noticed that Mavi clothes are quite well made, so I decided to buy a cotton shirt as well – it’s long sleeved, long, baggy cut – the perfect travelling shirt.
After the great jeans success, we ventured into a Mavi Store on Istanbuls Istiklal Caddesi to look for a winter coat for my husband. It took three minutes to find one. Then I took a deep breath and asked the shop assistant for women jeans in my size (big) that don’t show builders bum. “You need the Kendra” he said and fished a pair of dark blue jeans from a high shelf. It took me one minute to decide this is the most perfect pair of jeans I’ve had for a while. Snug yet not sausage skin tight, super comfy thanks to the lycra, good looking and… costing 25 Euro. I’m sold. I’m slightly annoyed I didn’t take another pair in a slightly different colour. I’ll amend this if they don’t wash as desired, but right now, they’re the best jeans I ever wore! Most Mavi styles tend towards skinny, but the variety of styles os so great, there should be a fit for everybody.
Organic Cotton from Jennifer’s Hamam
I first came across this small shop in 2015, when I was staying in the Sultanahmet area. Pestemal, the Turkish hamam towel, had been all the rage for a few years and I wanted to buy a couple. Jennifer’s Hamam came up again and again on review sites and discussion boards. Either clever marketing or the stuff really is that good, I thought.
So I bought a couple of towels and I love them.
Time to return this year! You might be a bit shocked when you first hear the prices because you can buy pestemal way, way cheaper elsewhere. However… everything at Jennifers Hamam is made form organic cotton, and made on hand looms by cottage industry weavers, the designs are traditional and unlike most designs you see elsewhere.
The shop is very welcoming, you can try and pull out items and compare the quality for as long as you want. I really like the atmosphere, and there is no push to buy.
Large standard size pestemal start at around 70TL and go up to just over twice that, depending on quality of the weave. The hand towels on the picture above were also 70TL.
These were “medium quality” organic pestemal. I think they were about 120-130TL.
Here are two organic cotton scarves, they were about 110TL. You can wash them in the machine, of cours,e and they get more absorbent and softer with every wash.
There is something for every one’s budget! Seriously, I have no affiliation with the shop whatsoever, I paid full price, and I certainly don’t tell anyone that I write a blog. This recommendation comes from true belief that this is some of the nicest quality cotton you can get in Istanbul.
Other good souvenirs
You shouldn’t stop here – the above are just things that I bought and recommend! Other useful souvenirs I have come across are
Tea glasses – the tulip shaped clear or embellished glasses that Turkish tea is drunk from. They are usually small but you sometimes get larger ones with Soviet-style tea class holders.
Carpets – of course! One of Turkey’s most popular souvenirs! Best to know your carpets a bit before setting out to buy one… there are actually some well reputed shops in and around the Grand Bazaar, like Imperio Otomano, EthniCon and Sisko.
Iznik Ceramic – much pricier than what you find in souvenir stalls, traditional Iznik tilea re made from Quartz and are much harder and vibrant than porcelan tiles. There is a really nice shop in Arasta Bazaar that sells only the real stuff and I recommend you start looking there if you’re interested in Iznik ceramics but don’t plan to visit Iznik itself.
Where to stay in Istanbul
On my previous two trips , I always stayed in Sultanahmet or close by. For two nights on this trip, we stayed near Sultanahmet as well, because it is so easy to walk to great shopping area as well as the most famous sights.
We stayed at Hotel Niles in Fatih for our first two nights. It’s a rather small hotel in a bustling bazaar area.
At the end of our holiday we stayed for one night at the Pera Palace Hotel. What can I say? I rarely stay in luxury hotels, but the Pera PAlace quickly became my new favourite. Why? It has bundles of histiry and charme which, fortunately, wasn’t killed off by the recent restoration.
I used a 2015 Lonely Planet Guide to Turkey. It is pretty good on history for archaeological sites, although minor sites either do not feature or have little information. It is okay as far as hotel recommendations go, we found reading recent reviews and checking places out ourselves proved more reliable. The 2017 edition is currently the most up to date of the “practical” guides, only Fodors has a newer edition.
In the past I also liked the “Secret” books although they cannot really replace a guide book. “Secret Istanbul” was a little disappointing, because it really really takes you to super obscure places and the pictures leave a lot to be desired. Still… it pointed me towards the mystery prayer carpet in the Ataturk Room of the Pera Palace Hotel, so it was money well spent.
Disclosure: You will find some affiliate links to Booking.com in this post. If you buy anything through them, I will receive a small commission at no extra cost to you, which will help with the cost of running this website. But honestly, if you don’t, it’s fine! I have a fine job! I bought and paid for everything on these photos myself, except for the sweets – which were a gift.
Last not least…
a handy map with all my recommended shopping places in Istanbul!