Adriaane Pielou walks the streets of Turkey's cultural capital to find out what its malls and local boutiques have to offer a most discerning shopaholic.
Istanbul proves a shopper's dream
"And one last thing," says the Marti hotel concierge. Despite working for the newest hotel in Istanbul, he seems to have old-fashioned, rather fatherly views about a foreign woman travelling on her own. "Don't get a taxi. They'll cheat you, for sure. Use the Metro, OK? There are big signs: 'Metro'. OK? You see?". He draws a cross on a city map to show the hotel's location, near Taksim Square in Beyoglu. Then, although I'm here to look at the city's newest shopping places, he adds a cross for the famous Grand Bazaar ("All ladies like the Grand Bazaar!") before selling me a 10 Turkish lira (Dh20) Istanbulkart, a smart card to which I can add credit to use on the buses, trams, funicular and Metro. Finally, he looks at me worriedly as if it's unlikely he'll ever see me again. I thank him politely - I rather like this cosseting - and walk out into the rain with a grin. Free at last.
While the concierge may have his doubts, I have none. When it comes to shopping, hunting alone is definitely best. Especially when you are in the mood for serendipity. There are three shopping areas I want to explore: Nisantasi, the expensive residential neighbourhood that's become home to Gucci, Hermès et al; Istinye Park, the newest and most glamorous of the malls that have sprung up in the suburban north; and Galata, where a number of new local boutiques have opened near the banks of the Golden Horn, at the bottom of the city's main shopping street, Istiklal Caddesi. If there's time, I'll get the ferry across the Bosporus to the Asian side and explore Bagdat Street and all its local-label boutiques such as Vakko, Mudo and Yargici.
Rain makes Istanbul feel rather cosy. I quickly find myself at the top of Istiklal where it joins Taksim Square, currently a gigantic building site thanks to the continuing construction of a new bridge and an underpass. At 9.30am Istiklal is almost empty, and has changed a lot since I was last here 10 years ago. Looking up, I see 19th-century buildings still top the shopfronts, but most of the old shops that I remember have given way to new arrivals: a chic mall, home to a Guess, Gap and Tommy Hilfiger, and a branch of luxury-labels-stuffed Brandroom. There are also endless outposts of international labels such as Topshop, Mango, Benetton and Diesel.
But somewhere in the jumble, a few of the old specialist shops survive. I can't resist Panter, a pen specialist. "The best fountain pens have an Italian body and German nib," the enthusiastic owner is soon explaining. I love the calligraphy sets, with a feather pen and a glass nib plus inkwell for 70 lira (Dh140). The Denizler Kitabevi bookstore nearby, established in the 18th century, is even more of a treasure trove with its old books, maps and prints. The owner's daughter is sitting on the floor with one of the cats who seem to rule this city - walking here, I saw one on every other doorstep.
Across the street, in Avrupa Pasaji, one of the 19th-century arcades running off Istiklal between fusty antique shops, the Bag Shop is selling 1,200 lira (Dh2,432) woven-leather shoppers in the style of Bottega Veneta but are made in Turkey and look just like the real thing. The 400 lira (Dh814) copies made in China look just that. I decline, and wander via fresh fish stalls - mussels baking nicely in the sunshine that has replaced the rain - back on to Istiklal. At the bottom of the street, in the criss-crossing warren of little streets around Galata - named after its landmark tower - from where you can see the water of the Golden Horn glittering at the bottom of the hill, I lose myself for almost two hours in Turkish-label boutiques.
At Ottomanline, Mamut is selling striped hammam towels in unbleached cotton, a must - 25 lira (Dh52) for the super-absorbent ones. Down a side street devoted to electrical stores and lighting shops I find Simge Avize & Aydinlatma selling modern copies of antique, coloured-glass Turkish lamps for between 80 lira (Dh165) and 200 lira (Dh410). I hesitate, uncertain about whether I can contemplate cramming a table lamp, hanging lamp or floor lamp into my luggage ("Don't worry, madame, everyone ships everywhere in Istanbul," the assistant reassures me). Best of all is BNG, a fantastic working women's clothing shop. The rails are hung with beautifully cut stretch jersey dresses in black, navy or beige, all murmuring "buy me, why don't you? You know it makes sense". And at around 200 to 300 lira (Dh405 to Dh610), they seem amazingly good value. I recover from all the excitement at the tea shop at the nearby Pera Palace, the famous 19th-century hotel where Agatha Christie wrote Murder on the Orient Express, now beautifully restored and managed by Jumeirah. Historic heaven.
Back on Istiklal, a Turkish teenager shows me how to load 10 lira (Dh20) on to my Istanbulkart - it's 1.95 lira (Dh4) per trip - and catch a tram across the Golden Horn to the Grand Bazaar. Entering gate seven, and tempted to leave a trail of breadcrumbs like Hansel and Gretel so that I can find my way out again, I plunge into the world of 4,000 accosting shop-owners. "Lady, why you look? I'm here!" grins one, beckoning me to check out his painted dishes (actually rather beautiful). I haggle, starting from an asking price of 20 lira (Dh43), determined to pay no more than 60 per cent of that (according to conventional wisdom) for a real bargain. Next to a pop-up MAC shop (the bazaar might be nearly 600 years old but it's clearly staying current) there's a branch of the self-explanatory Turkish brand Silk & Cashmere that would be well worth investigating if all the assistants' attention weren't being taken up by a wealthy-looking Middle Eastern couple. Farther down, the sight of little fur capelets with Swarovski fastenings at Adamo makes me feel torn between hatred of the cruelty of the fur industry and admiration for their beauty. Fortunately, they're US$7,000 (Dh25,710) so my dilemma is short-lived. "Fixed price?" I ask the hatchet-faced assistant. He shrugs.
I have a recommendation for a carpet and kelim shop (www.siskoosman.com), but never get that far. After asking the price of the exquisite shartoosh shawls in Zaida, I just give up. "Ah, it is so hard to say, some have embroidery, some not, perhaps 700 lira [Dh1,420], perhaps 1,200 [Dh2,435], perhaps 200 [Dh405]," says the assistant, unhelpfully, running a hand over a drift of the world's softest fabric made from the down fur of the endangered Tibetan antelope and so fine a shawl it can be passed through a wedding ring. Argh.
I go back to the hotel via a tram ride up Istiklal that, at 5pm, looks like London's famously manic Oxford Street on Christmas Eve. Next I surprise the concierge by still being alive, have a very good session in the hotel's beautiful hamman (an hour's treatment in a private room costs 295 lira [Dh605]), dinner on room service and an early night - the single traveller's heaven.
And for the next day? I resolve to aim for Nisantasi again; I want the ease of fixed prices and I will have them.
By now, I feel totally au fait with Istanbul's public transport system, and Nisantasi proves easy to find. It's just a five-minute walk from Osmanbey Station, which is just one Metro stop from Taksim. Every luxury label you can think of seems to have opened a store here, on Tesvikiye or Abdi Ipekci: Hermès, Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Burberry, Emporio Armani ... At the chic department store Beymen, I hunt for the stars of Istanbul Fashion Week: Ece Gozen, Ozgur Masur and Cengiz Abazoglu. And the small Turkish-label boutiques prove a real find. In Flower, black suede ankle boots with red soles - now where have I seen that before? - are very tempting at 499 lira (Dh1,011). Next door, at Karmen, delicate handmade earrings cost around 100 lira (Dh210). In City's Mall, I'm drawn to English Home, selling pretty Turkish-cotton bed linen. Just inside the Hak Pasaji arcade, I linger over beautiful handmade leather walking shoes of the sort worn by elegant French and Italian women of a certain age (175 lira [Dh355]). The nuts, dried fruits and Turkish Delight - 16 to 40 lira (Dh35 to Dh80) per kilo - at Guven Kuruyemis on the corner here, are top quality. Best stock up, I think, adding yet another box to my haul.
Walking back to Osmanbey station, I detour into the side streets and find myself in the fabric area, with shop after wholesale shop selling Turkey's famous Bursa silk and soft mohair suiting cloth made from angora goats reared on the Anatolian plains, not to mention leather so supple and thin that it's more like silk (bought by Prada and Dolce & Gabbana). Ruloteks is divine; and at Yonteks, I find unbelievable fake fur. It's truly indistinguishable from those capes at Adama except for the price: US$25 (Dh92) per metre. "Made by Chinese slaves in China at factories run by Italians using Japanese technology," explains the genial Armenian owner.
Farther along Suleyman Nazif Sokak street, the handmade 299 lira (Dh610) red patent Mary Janes at Nr.39 - all the stock is made on the premises by three craftsmen - are so beautiful they're almost worth buying as sculptures. The wedding shoes, confections of cream and white leather, suede and satin, make me feel quite faint with desire. In July, Nr.39 is moving, says the owner, to the other side of the Golden Horn and the area of Balat, where her boyfriend has bought one of the 17th-century houses for $100,000 (Dh367,310) and will sell it in a few years "when it has become the SoHo of Istanbul".
Now that's serious shopping, I think, and feel quite re-energised the next day for an attack on Istinye Park, the city's most luxurious mall, located rather inconveniently in the suburban north of the city. Impossible to get to without a taxi, though, so I will have to get the concierge to organise that, I think, walking - weary but happy - back to the hotel that night. I'm almost tempted to ask him for pocket money, too.
Follow us @TravelNational
Follow us on Facebook for discussions, entertainment, reviews, wellness and news.