Istanbul is the kind of place which favors bold exploration, as we learned after a day spent in the maze of streets around the Grand Bazaar. The city is filled with quiet, secret spots… if you can muster up the courage to go down that darkened hall, into that empty courtyard, or up those crumbling stairs.
Of course, I’m not recommending that anyone skip off willy-nilly into Istanbul’s abandoned buildings. We ventured into a couple places that I would never go into were I by myself, or were it after dark. But a cautious exploration of the old hans around the Grand Bazaar can be very rewarding.
Our day began in the Subuncu Han, near Eminönü Plaza. This han itself doesn’t have much to recommend it, just a bunch of jewelry stores surrounding a tiny courtyard, but there was a great locals-only spot for lunch on the second floor. Instead of sitting down in one of Eminönü’s döner shops for an overpriced lunch geared toward tourists, we munched on excellent and very cheap lahmaçun (Turkish pizza) with a few guys who work in the han.
We progressed steadily from Eminönü towards the Grand Bazaar, every once in awhile escaping the crowds to duck into another han. We found gold and silver-smiths at work in the Leblebici Han, and watched a couple men train flocks of trick pigeons in the Büyuk Yeni Han. And in the gray, French-influenced Stamboul Yeni Tcharchi Han, we were the only people at all. A young guy witnessed our hesitation about venturing down an long, dark tunnel-like hallway in the Sair Han, and encouraged us to proceed without fear. At the end, we found a nargile workshop. The most well-hidden nargile workshop in the world!
Inside a couple hans, we were able to get onto the roofs for amazing views of the city. The first was at the northwest corner of the Sair Han; before going inside, you can scale a flight of stairs directly to the roof. But the better view was at the massive Büyük Valide Han. Here, we were approached by a key-wielding man who knew exactly what we wanted. “Go on roof, yes?” A small five lira tip later, we were up on top, looking over the city and the Golden Horn.
It was an incredible day out. If you’re interested in doing something similar, check out a great book called Istanbul’s Bazaar Quarter, by Edda Renker Weissenbacher and Ann Marie Mershon: a comprehensive guide to the Grand Bazaar and the streets which surround it, with four self-guided walking tours.