The Art and Culture of Istanbul: Museums and Galleries not to miss!
Few cities in the world can rival the history, culture and vibrancy of Istanbul. From its ancient history both Greek, and Roman to the becoming the capital of the Roman/Byzantine world as Constantinople, the city has been a center of art and culture for well over a millennium. Let us not forget it is in fact the gateway between east and west. Its strategic location between two continents has connected peoples from north of the Black Sea, to the far reaches of the Mediterranean, creating a melting pot of art, and culture.
When visiting the historical center off Sultanahmet Square, you can marvel at the ruins of the ancient Hippodrome built by the Roman Emperor Constantine, to the early examples of Christian Byzantine splendor like Hagia Sofia. Just across the magnificent square you find one of the best examples of Ottoman Architecture of the 17th century, the magnificent Blue Mosque. But Istanbul has much more to offer, even more than its famous bazaars, Palaces of the Sultans, colorful neighborhoods and wonderful street food.
Today we’re focussing on art and culture and sharing our top ten Museums and Galleries. Not an easy choice to narrow down the many, but we’ve tried to make it easy by organizing in categories showing that this incredible city really does have something for everyone!
For Ancient Art and Archeology lovers:
-Istanbul Archeological Museums
During the late 19th century the first museum of the Ottoman Empire was opened then known as the Müze-i Humayun, the Imperial Museum. Beginnings of the collection date all the way back to the time of Mehmet the Conqueror, and an early interest in the collection of ancient artifacts. The museum today is organized in three separate buildings located on the grounds of a common garden also exhibiting ancient marble pieces including marble columns and sarcophagi, some impressive ones in beautiful purple porphyry. The collection is divided up the Archaeology Museum, the Tiled Kiosk Museum, and the Museum of the Ancient Orient.
There are over one million pieces on exhibit coming from all over the Ottoman world. Some of the highlights include the famous Sarcophagus of Alexander, depicting a battle scene with Alexander the Great on horseback still retaining some of its original color from its former painted glory. The Sarcophagus of the Mourning Women is also a magnificently carved and preserved piece.
The Tiled Kiosk Museum, is the oldest building which dates to 1472, built by Mehmed the Conqueror. This beautifully decorated building houses and array of tiles and ceramics from the Selcuk and the Ottoman periods. The building, believed to be designed by unknown Persian architect, is made up of a 14 column facade and inlaid tile design. The Museum of the Ancient Orient, was originally designed as an academy of fine arts in 1883, but incorporated into the museum after 1917. The displays here focus on ancient Greek, Roman and Byzantine pieces.
-Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum
Just a short walk from Sultanahmet Square, you will find the Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum, housed in the Ibrahim Pasha Palace. The palace as seen today, was part of a restoration from the time of Suleiman the Magnificent for the grand vizier. It is an important example of Ottoman architecture.
Today it houses over 1700 pieces of Islamic art and historical treasures, collected to preserve and protect the art, and culture previously found in mosques, tombs, dervish lodges and other locations. Opened in 1914, this is the last museum founded during the Ottoman Empire. It has since been meticulously restored, the last reopening was in 2014. It houses a wonderful array of medieval metal works, glass, ceramics, inlaid woodwork and an amazing collection of carpets. Giving the visitor a greater understanding of life in the Ottoman world, is the Ethnography section along with a interesting collection of women’s clothing.
For Modern Arts Lovers:
Although the Istanbul Modern opened its doors for the first time in 2004, a new building on the same location designed by the Italian architect Renzo Piano’s Building Workshop, was just opened May of 2023. This wonderful structure, situated on the Bosphorus’ Karaköy port, is in the historic neighborhood of Galata. This fascinating museum houses predominately work from Turkish artists but also artists from around the world. You will find a photography gallery, international exhibitions, permanent and temporary exhibition space.
Its location on the Bosphorus makes the outdoor promenade an excellent location for photography of the skyline of the old city, and the Anatolian side. You will find a library focussed on all aspects of modern art, a cafe and restaurant.
The Pera Museum is a private museum funded by the Suna and Inan Kiraç Foundation, located in the Beyoğlu (Pera) quarter of the city. The museum is in the site of the historic Bristol Hotel, which was in use from 1893 to the1980’s. It was transformed into a the headquarters of Esbank until 2002 when it was restored again by the architect Sinan Genim, transforming it into the today’s museum. There are a series of permanent collections such as the Orientalist Painting Collection, a Tiles and Ceramics Collection and Collection of Anatolian Weights and Measures.
The foundation works with other international museums and private collections like, New York School of Visual Arts, Tate Britain, JP Morgan Chase Collection, St. Petersburg Russian State Museum and many others for joint projects. The museum also houses Pera Film which has monthly programs promoting awareness of national and international films including, shorts, documentaries, animation and video. The museum also houses a museum shop and an art deco café.
Close to the Galata Bridge and Galata Tower and Museum you can find one of the city’s most interesting Museums. Well worth the visit just for the architecture. The building was the former home of the Ottoman Bank, first opened in 1892 and designed by the French-Levantine architect Alexandre Vallauri. This unique space was opened in 2011 and houses not only the Ottoman Bank Museum Collection, but an Auditorium, library and research areas, a top notch international book shop, Robinson Crusoe 389, and a Michelin star restaurant with gorgeous views!
For history buffs:
-Panorama 1453 Museum
As history buffs (most especially lovers of Roman history) know, the year 1453 is when the last remnants of the old Roman Empire were replaced after the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans. On the 29th of May, 1453 the forces of the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed the Conquerer, breached the city walls. This museum which opened in 2009, is dedicated to that period. Among other exhibited items, it houses a 360° painted mural which puts the visitor in the center of the battle between the Byzantines and Ottomans.
For the more scientific mind:
-Museum of History of Science and Technology in Islam
Situated in the beautiful gardens of Gülhane Park, not far from the Topkapi Palace is a museum well worth the stop after visiting the Sultan’s Palace and treasures. This is for the lovers of science and technology and the curious at heart. A gem of a museum that introduces you to the accomplishments of Islamic scientists by examining their many tools, and devices used from the 9th to the 16th century. The museum covers everything from chemistry, math, physics, medicine, geography, astronomy to optics. Highlights include a collection of maps, globes, sundials, mechanical clocks all sure to fascinate. The grand Elephant Clock found in the entrance hall of the museum is an interesting example of a water clock, and the celestial Globe is not to be missed.
The Istanbul Aquarium, located in the Anatolia side of the city, is one of the largest and diverse of its kind, boasting over 17,000 water and land species and over 60 tanks. A wonderful experience for lovers of animals and nature! The route brings the visitor from the Black Sea to the Pacific. Interactive visuals, games and effects help the visitor to connect and understand better the regions they’re exploring. There is even an Amazon Rainforest, with its very specific temperature and humidity levels it is home to many fascinating creatures and also plants native to Costa Rica, giving you a feeling as if you’ve traveled to another part of the globe!
Fun for Families & Young at Heart:
A fun and innovative way to understand the history of Istanbul and some of Turkey’s most important areas can be visited in a park covering an area of 60,000 square meters. Adding to the experience of the architecture in miniature are the figures in 1/87 scale, over 10,000 of them. You can wander the park and view the city as life took place from the 1600’s to the 19th century. There are also other zones of Anatolia represented included replications of two lost Wonders of the Ancient World, the Temple of Artemis and the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus. There are also restaurants, gift shops, children’s playground and parking.
Grab your child (or inner child if you don’t have one!) and jump into the magic of childhood at the Istanbul Toy Museum. This private museum was founded by the beloved Turkish poet and author Sunay Akin. It is no surprise that someone who makes a living is bringing others into their fantasies is the museums founder. The museum opened its door in 2005 on April 23 (the date the Turks celebrate Children’s Day). It is located in the author’s family villa, restored and then beautifully laid out by a stage designer, thus creating a magical atmosphere for admiring the over 4,000 antique toys. The toys come from all over the world and the oldest dates back to 1817. The museum also has activity programs and a beautiful cafe which can be used as a space for parties and children’s birthdays.