Like no other city in the world, Istanbul is one vast bazaar. Markets consume the place and you can feel the very rumble of commerce across the Bosphorus's giant road bridges. Autumn, before it gets too cold, is really the perfect time to take in its incomparable dancing skyline and do well what tourists often do badly in Istanbul: shop.

Like no other city in the world, Istanbul is one vast bazaar. Markets consume the place and you can feel the very rumble of commerce across the Bosphorus's giant road bridges. Autumn, before it gets too cold, is really the perfect time to take in its incomparable dancing skyline and do well what tourists often do badly in Istanbul: shop.

Last time I was there it was sweltering, smelly and the bazaars seemed so confusing I felt like an unwanted extra from The Thief of Baghdad. This trip I was determined to take retail therapy in my stride and find, in a city of surprising gifts, a suitable wedding present for a friend.

If you're lucky enough to know even a friend of a friend in Istanbul, jump at the chance of a personal guide, because not even the taxi drivers seem to know where they're going. Not that that matters when you're at a complete standstill. "Traffic problem," shrugged mine as we failed to climb an inch up one of those seven hills. That is the other side of Istanbul: polluted, grimy, impossibly busy.

Despite the frenetic pace, it is easy to orientate yourself physically in Istanbul and, if you haven't been before, start in Sultanahmet, the old quarter. Most people do a day's culture-vulturing before they start wandering through Istanbul's lanes and here, within javelin distance of each other, you can take in Istanbul's most celebrated sites: the Aya Sofya, the Blue Mosque, the Topkapi and the Hippodrome.

In search of my present I met up with Andrew, a friend and former resident, for a glass of tea in the best water pipe joint in town, Corlulu Ali Pasha on Yeniçeriler Street. It's a charming old Medresesi - one of the mosque-cum-school and social complexes that flourished here. Closed down by Atatürk, it has been converted into a carpet emporium and is the only place to take up smoking again, albeit on a "hubblebubble" or nargilé. It's a perfect place for sitting back, bubbling cool, apple-flavoured smoke and contemplating the intricacy of the weave.

"There's no great magic to buying carpets," suggested Andrew, who was collecting a £5,000 antique rug he was having mended. "If you like it and the price seems fair, buy it." But it takes specialised knowledge to choose between the carpets - sumaks, cicims or kilims - and you'd do well to read up a little and to take your time. Practise walking away too, because you're bound to find something else you like. And don't be afraid to test the price - if a shopkeeper doesn't want to sell you something, he won't. Old hands often ponder overnight and come back the next day.

Just up the hill from Ali Pasha is the mecca of merchandising: the covered Grand Bazaar. Just follow the flow of pedestrians into the maze of alleys and side streets. Despite the tourists it has remained authentic: the largest covered bazaar in Turkey with around 4,000 shops. At closing time metal gates slam shut on this gold mine.

The best idea is to slope down away from the newer, gimmicky quarter at the top corner. Andrew swept me down to one of the few places you can buy a real fez, banned by Atatürk as a symbol of Ottoman recidivism, and worn only in their fake cardboard versions in restaurants. The charming owner Murat Hashas - ask anyone because you'll probably get lost - proudly showed us a Sufi's fez, which opens like a woollen rugby ball.

Low on cash, we fled in search of a cash machine and popped out to nearby Beyazit Square. Opposite the former Ministry of War, now housing Istanbul University, the mosque was being restored after the recent earthquake. Next door is an unmissable market, one of Istanbul's oldest and a book bazaar in Byzantine times. Many of the owners are still members of the Dervish sect. You can turn yourself into an Ottoman expert with a pile of English tomes at Dilmen bookshop.

Still giftless, we returned to the Grand Bazaar and climbed a stairway back in Aziz's shop. A Kurd who came to the city with nothing, Aziz has become something of a local celebrity in antique carpets, and sitting among a welter of beautiful Uzbek wall hangings, mosque candlesticks and giant teapots we had yet another cup of tea. If you are going shopping you can't, nor should you, avoid tea. But brewed all day, shop tea is at its nastiest by sunset. If you can't stomach the tannin ask instead for apple or lemon.

Here, too is a fantastic place to buy a nargilé. Down the ragged steps into the square and up again is a wholesaler which imports them from Iran. These are not the garish Disneyland variety, but clear glass, with the quality indicated by the carpeting on the pipe handles.

Most tourists stay in the old quarter but on the western shore, over Galata bridge and the Golden Horn, there's another great place to start shopping - Istiklal Street, the most important thoroughfare in the new quarter.

By now I'd bought a camel herder's coat and two fezzes, but still hadn't solved the wedding present problem. Andrew and I concerted our efforts and found two beautiful carpet pillow cases and a little gold coin to pin to the bride. I hope the bride and groom will like our gifts, but even if they don't, they can take comfort from the fact that I had a great day buying them.

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