Istanbul is home to a wide variety of excellent museums. While many of its galleries and pavilions are rightfully well established in art and history spheres, the city also offers a great selection of the unexpected for those looking to go beyond the popular museum mainstays.
Istanbul, a city with millennia of history behind it, is today home to some of the world’s best museums. In recent decades, the city has also built up a reputation as a hotbed of modern art. Several museums have opened their doors to the public, adding to the already dizzying array of exhibitions. Whether it’s ancient artefacts, contemporary sculpture or high-concept literature you’re interested in, Istanbul’s museum scene really has something for everyone.
Sultans, concubines and courtiers all lived in the beautiful Topkapı Palace between the 15th and 19th centuries when it was the seat of the Ottoman Empire. Constructed in 1453 by Mehmed the Conqueror, the palace is a standout feature of Istanbul’s skyline. The palace museum, which stands on the historic peninsula that overlooks both the Golden Horn and the Bosporus Strait, gives visitors a glimpse into royal life in the Ottoman era. It contains several halls and pavilions lined with exquisite İznik tiles, and displays a massive array of artefacts including imperial jewels, arms and weapons of Umayyad and Ottoman origin and even relics attributed to the Prophet Muhammad. Go straight to the harem section where the sultan’s concubines lived, as it closes earlier and gets crowded quickly, before having a wander around the four courtyards that include the treasury. Allocate half a day to this museum, as it’s easy to get lost wandering through the ancient palace halls.
One of the most impressive structures in the world, the Hagia Sophia Museum was once a Byzantine church, 916 years before the conquest of Istanbul by Sultan Mehmed II. It was later converted into an Ottoman mosque before becoming a museum in 1935. Inside, visitors will find giant discs with Islamic inscriptions hanging next to dazzling Christian mosaics built into the domes and walls. Located in the Sultanahmet district (across from the Blue Mosque), it is a must-see, meaning it’s also one of the most crowded, so go early. While public museums in Turkey usually close on Mondays, Hagia Sophia recently began admitting crowds on this day as well to accommodate even more visitors.
Housed in a converted 19th-century mansion on the shores of the Bosporus Strait, the Sadberk Hanım Museum is a little-known cultural treasure that contains an impressive collection of artefacts (some 18,000 pieces) from the Anatolian civilisation. Dating from prehistoric times to the Byzantine era, some of the collection’s most beautiful pieces include woven Ottoman textiles and a world-class selection of İznik tile art going back to the 16th century. Relatively unknown even among Istanbul residents, the museum is a great way to take in some history and get away from the crowds. Sadberk Hanım is open on weekdays only.
Dedicated to modern and contemporary art, the Istanbul Modern has been an important part of the city’s art scene since 2004. While the institution’s Karaköy exhibition space undergoes a major renovation (expected to be completed in 2021), visitors can head to the beautiful Union Française building in Beyoğlu, where it has taken up temporary residence. It’s a minute’s walk from the renowned Pera Palace Hotel in the heart of downtown, and previous notable exhibitions have included British sculptor Tony Cragg’s Human Nature (2018-2019) and Fantastic Machinery (2013), which showcased the work of artists such as Jean Dubuffet and Robert Rauschenberg. Make sure you go early to beat the crowds.
Located at the Neve Şalom Synagogue Complex in Beyoğlu (just a short walk from Galata Tower), this museum is a living chronicle of Turkey’s Jewish population, containing photographs and videos that detail the long contribution Turkish Jews have made to the country. The museum itself is separated from the neighbouring synagogue by a glass barrier, allowing visitors a glimpse into modern Jewish practices. The museum café is known for cooking up excellent Sephardi cuisine for visitors to try. For security reasons, you may be asked to show your passport at the entrance. The museum closes on Sundays.
Situated in the green coastal neighbourhood of Emirgan, the popular Sakıp Sabanci Museum houses one of Turkey’s best collections of historical art and continually hosts contemporary, world-class exhibitions such as 2018’s Ai Wei Wei on Porcelain. The museum is set in gorgeous garden grounds, and the collection includes calligraphy compositions and manuscripts (including a notable example from Sultan Mahmud II), as well as paintings by Osman Hamdi Bey and other prominent figures from the 1850s to the 1950s. Visitors can stop by the internationally acclaimed museum restaurant run by the Culinary Arts Academy of Istanbul for a midday break. You can take advantage of free admission every Wednesday.
Founded by Turkish poet Sunay Akın, the Istanbul Toy Museum is a great place for families and history lovers to see toys dating back to the 1700s. The museum takes visitors on an unexpected historical journey through the time periods in which the toys were produced, from World War II to modern day. Located in the laid-back residential neighbourhood of Göztepe on the Asian side of the city, the museum regularly offers children’s activities and other creative events. Like most museums in the country, it is closed on Mondays.
Designed by Achille Manoussos in 1893, the building housing the Pera Museum is an integral part of Istanbul’s architectural heritage. Situated in the heart of the central Taksim neighbourhood, it has hosted several past exhibitions featuring artists like Rembrandt, Frida Kahlo, Picasso and more. Pera’s permanent collection includes a fascinating weights and measures section, which contains commerce-related objects from various Babylonian, Roman and Anatolian civilisations. The museum’s painting collection features one of the most famous works in the Orientalist tradition, Osman Hamdi Bey’s The Tortoise Trainer (1906-1907). Closed on Mondays, the highly popular museum is free to visitors on Fridays from 6pm to 10pm.
Right next to the Hagia Sofia is one of the most magical buildings in all of Istanbul. The Basilica Cistern is a large underground water reservoir. The cistern holds 336 columns, with two of them shaped with Medusa heads. As legend has it, Medusa is one of the gorgons of Greek mythology and was used to protect this great building. At the Basilica Cistern, you have an opportunity to dress up as a sultan or a Turkish princess and have your photo taken against this mystical, stunning backdrop.
This museum is actually made up of three units: the Istanbul Archaeology Museum, the Ancient Orient Museum and the Tiled Kiosk Museum. They are all worthwhile, but visitors should start with the first, which contains over a million artefacts from every corner of the Ottoman Empire. Important pieces include the sarcophagus of Alexander the Great and objects from pre-Islamic Arabia, Egypt and Mesopotamia. Located in the heart of the tourist district next to Gülhane Park, the museum is one of Istanbul’s best and most popular. Closed on Mondays, there is no parking available, so take the T1 Kabataş-Bağcılar tram line to get there quickly.
Nobel Prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk opened the Museum of Innocence in 2012, a few years after his novel of the same name was published. The novel details life in Istanbul over a 50-year period, and focusses on wealthy protagonist Kemal Bey’s love for his distant cousin, a beautiful shopgirl called Füsun. The museum presents the everyday items that its main characters used, wore and collected in the story, including a collection of over 4,000 cigarette butts smoked by Füsun. For those who have read the book, its final pages contain a ticket that serves as a valid museum admission pass. Located in Central Beyoğlu, the museum enables visitors to see Istanbul from the lived perspective of its inhabitants, and is a truly unusual experience.