Posted by: Ciaran | October 21, 2009

Changing places – Istanbul

Do you have a favourite street vendor of all time?  No, thought not.  Well I do, and it’s all because of the absorbing city of Istanbul.  My favourite street vendor ever was a dear little woman sat outside the fish and meat market selling a quite brilliant assortment of things: some sandals, a pair of loafers, and a Black & Decker sander.  I have no idea what market she was looking to hit.

The city’s shops and markets are arresting.  Everything seems quite neatly segregated – I walked down one street by the Bosphorus which seemed to sell various items of road furniture.  One shop had cones, the next those big lights you see workmen using on the motorway; it’s a city of niche markets.

The mazy inside of the Grand Bazaar

The mazy inside of the Grand Bazaar

But perhaps the best ‘market’ is the huge underground Grand Bazaar, which is a gauntlet of eager vendors peddling leather and ceramics and offering you tea: one boy of about 15 who offered me a drink said ‘Would you care for a tea sir?’ in an accent that would not have been out of place at Buckingham Palace. 

The sales techniques are hard and aggressive; never more so than in the spice market, where a greasy middle-aged gentleman forced what looked like ginger into my hand.   “You try, my friend!” he shouted as he patted me on the back.  Only as I lifted it to my mouth did I see the sign over his shoulder: ‘Turkish Viagra, six times a night’. 

I decided that this was probably a good time to move on and explore the city further.  Because it is on the border between Europe and Asia the whole city feels split, and there are some noticeable divides: the contrast between the flash riverside apartments and some of the less salubrious inner-city side-streets is striking.

The cascading roof of the Blue Mosque

The cascading roof of the Blue Mosque

But the architecture is overwhelmingly beautiful, and in particular the Ottoman splendour of the Blue Mosque is worth a visit.  Go inside during daylight and you can enjoy the sunlight beaming through the dozens of stained glass windows and casting a multi-coloured glow over the inside, which is spectacularly designed with paintings all over the high domed ceiling and golden inscriptions on the pillars.

It is not far from the Hagia Sophia, the Byzantine church which is now a museum.  In case you want to brave the queues and go inside, make sure that you’ve got plenty of Turkish Lira with you and don’t fall into my trap of thinking that everywhere would accept the Euro too (though most shops, taxi drivers etc. do).

The Hagia Sophia

The Hagia Sophia

If you like to think that you’re a bit of a literary buff then make sure that you see Maiden’s Tower, or Leander’s Tower as it used to be known.  There are several rather extravagant myths surrounding it, but the most widely known is the story of the two young lovers, Hero and Leander.  It’s an easily-missed attraction in the Bosphorus Strait, away from the hustle and bustle of the city centre.

The Maidem's Tower in the Bosphorous Strait

The Maiden's Tower in the Bosphorous Strait

It’s been a bit over-commercialised with a cafe and a restaurant, but it does make a pleasant retreat from the city.  It also featured in the closing scenes of The World Is Not Enough.  No word, though, on whether Pierce Brosnan was a fan of the Turkish Viagra.  But I’d like to think that while he was there he met his favourite street vendor ever too.



  1. Really enjoyed this post. Istanbul is high on my list of cities to visit next. Oh, and to answer the question that begins this post, I’ve mapped out some of my favorite street vendors in Hanoi in this guide:



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