For museum lovers, Istanbul offers an amazing mix of museums that caters to many tastes and curiosities. There are world-class museums such as Istanbul Modern and the historical sites preserved as museums so that future generations can get a glimpse of the past. Here is the 9 Must-See Museums in Istanbul!
It has a fascinating range of museums that are unique to the city/country such as the Bank museum (Turkey’s first bank), Tulip museum (visit it in April inside the Emirgan Grove), the Quincentennial Foundation Museum of Turkish Jews near Galata, Great Palace Mosaics Museum (mosaics from the Byzantine/Roman era), the postal museum and a railway museum (the Orient Express) in Eminönü, the Chora Museum, Harbiye Military Museum, Divan Literature Museum and the Museum of Innocence (by Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk), just to name a few!
There are a few great art museums as well such as the Pera Museum and the Istanbul Modern (which is currently being renovated as part of an urban development plan for Karaköy). On the other hand, some unusual museums include the Museum of Illusions, the Mevlevihanesi Museum (or the museum for the Sufi dervishes) minutes away from the Galata Tower. Take your time to visit some of these themed museums. There are still other museums housed in pavilions or former homes of famous Ottoman nobility (such as the ones in Caddebostan) or Turkish rockstars such as Barış Manço that have been preserved for fans and curious tourists.
There really are an incredible number of museums in the city, so do make a plan to visit a fair few of the following, as well as some of the unusual ones mentioned above!
1. Hagia Sophia Mosque
Rebuilt by Justinian the Great to outshine all other religious buildings, Hagia Sophia or the Holy Wisdom as it was known, with a large dome, has stood in the same spot for thousands of years.
Together with its massive dome and its mosaics, the structure has a pulpit and a mihrab built by the Ottomans. Hanging chandeliers and unique mosaics make it a unique religious shrine. It served as the seat of Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Later, it was also used as a catholic church and a mosque.
The 1500-year-old Byzantine building’s mosaics are very popular among tourists and it’s also a World Heritage Site. Today, it is Istanbul’s most visited mosque!
2. Topkapı Palace Museum
An enormous complex of buildings, pavilions and kiosks make up the Topkapı Palace. It served as the seat of power and the official residence for the Ottoman Sultans for hundreds of years. It is a designated UNESCO World Heritage site and a part of the old historical district of the city.
The views from the palace are unrivalled as it was built at the point called Seraglio Point, where the Marmara Sea and Bosphorus Strait meet.
The grandeur of the palace and its kiosks is a reminder of the impact that the Ottoman Empire and its culture and history had on the world.
A day is well spent here admiring the many courtyards, kiosks, rose and tulip gardens and the invaluable artefacts inside. It’s a trip back in history. Be sure to check the Harem quarters as well but also provides some insight into the personal quarters of the royal family, their servants and concubines.
3. Istanbul Archaeology Museums
There are a few museums inside the Archaeology Museums in Istanbul — hence the term ‘museums’. One called Çinili Kösk was built by Sultan Fatih Mehmed and now houses the tile museum. The main building is where the archaeological finds are displayed, while the third building houses the Museum of the Ancient Orient.
The collections in all the three comprise a few sarcophagi, carved statues, famous Iznik tiles and ancient documents, for example.
Relics from all parts of the Ottoman empire that were dug up during its reign are on display here, and the main building itself was erected by Osman Hamdi Bey, one of the most important painters and architects of the late Ottoman era.
A fascinating sarcophagus depicting Alexander is on display here under a glass case, an artefact from Sidon in present-day Lebanon. In the Tile museum, you’ll find a beautiful ‘mihrab’ or niche that shows the direction of prayer with its brilliant blue tiles — from the Karamanid dynasty in Anatolia, perhaps the only surviving piece from that dynasty. On the other hand, you’ll also find artefacts from Babylon and Mesopotamia.
The accompanying small landscaped garden is also worth a stroll as it acts as an open-air museum with marbled columns and many tombs, for instance.
4. Galata & the Ottoman Bank Museum
Housed in a historical building on a well-known street called ‘Bankalar Caddesi,‘ Galata is a modern art and cultural institution in the original location of the now-defunct Ottoman Bank.
The building housed the Ottoman empire’s Imperial bank. It has now been restored to house the current art space with a cafe and a library.
To preserve the heritage and history of the building, SALT Galata offers contemporary art exhibits, historical/heritage research and preservation through SALT Research and SALT Online (Archival research and preservation). Preserving Istanbul’s past through photographic evidence and documentation, it provides a unique look into the history of the country. This is in conjunction with a museum section that showcases financial history and artefacts of the original bank, including old banknotes, workers, lockers and safe systems built by London’s safe manufacturers of the time ‘Chatwood’.
5. Sakıp Sabancı Museum
A private fine arts museum courtesy of the Sabancı University and the Sabancı family overlooks the Bosphorus from Atlı Köşk also called the “Mansion with the Horse”. It’s a beautiful escape from the hustle and bustle of the city in a relatively unknown corner of Istanbul.
More importantly, the museum has an amazing collection of calligraphy, Turkish paintings, furniture, decorative arts such as porcelain and vases and the arts of the book. A visit to this museum is a must, as it’s one of Istanbul’s top art museums comparable to any from around the world.
Furthermore, this year marks the museum’s 25th year in operation. As such, it has loaned some of its calligraphy and paintings are on display internationally at Bahrain’s National Museum for part of this year.
A beautiful pavilion is the museum’s main building where it holds its collection and temporary shows by international and Turkish artists. Spend some time in the beautifully landscaped garden here as well.
Contemporary artists such as Anish Kapoor and Ai Weiwei have been showcased here. Ai Weiwei’s work featuring porcelain was the first exhibition ever by the artist in Turkey. On the other hand, this classy museum also has expositions on Monet, Picasso, Rodin and Miro, for instance.
6. Rahmi M. Koç Museum
The Rahmi M. Koç museums are a series of museums scattered around the country, but the one in Istanbul showcases a range of automobiles, communication technology and transportation or what the museum calls “industrial archaeology”.
There are historical scientific instruments, communication devices, steam and diesel engines, special collections by important collectors. You’ll find the Wright Brothers’ Glider Model among other fascinating things here, for instance.
It’s a great museum if you’ve got kids! Moreover, functional cafes and restaurants with historic decor, antique objects and teapots can be found here. For instance, you can enjoy the atmosphere in a cafe near the antique automobiles collection, or grab a simit aboard the Fenerbahçe ferry cafe.
The museum also has submarine tours aboard the TCG Uluçalireis (on loan from the Turkish Navy). Tours on the Golden Horn on one of the oldest steamboat in the world, a tug boat and fishing boat are also available.
7. Istanbul Museum of Modern Art
Istanbul Modern’s old location in Karaköy was a magical and grandiose space with a waterfront cafe. Nonetheless, a new and improved building by Renzo Piano in the same spot is due in 2021, part of the Galata port redevelopment and art enthusiasts and museum fans are waiting in anticipation.
For now, the art museum lies in a temporary space in the historic Union Française building in Asmalı Mescit in Beyoğlu. Some of the Museum’s collection are on view on the 2nd and 3rd floors, while the first and ground floors are reserved for temporary exhibitions of modern, contemporary art and retrospectives. Furthermore, the 4th floor has a photography gallery presenting an exploration of the evolution of photography.
8. Panorama 1453 History Museum
Established by the Istanbul Municipality in 2009, this history museum is entirely dedicated to showcasing the Ottoman King Mehmed II and his efforts at conquering Constantinople in 1453.
The museum is a cyclorama with accompanying audio and murals displaying both Ottoman and Byzantine troops and the siege on the walls of Constantinople.
9. Carpet and Kilim Museum
Located in the same complex as the Hagia Sophia and the Sultanahmet square, the Carpets museum has an amazing baroque gate. It leads you into the history of carpet weaving in the empire, and its importance for the country as a whole. Amazing examples of fine Anatolian carpets and kilims gathered from across the land are displayed here, some from the 14th and 15th centuries. Unique designs, some symbolic and some regional showcase the art of handwoven carpet weaving in Anatolia. This museum is a must if you’re a carpet and history enthusiast!