Istanbul is most famous for its superstructures. Jaw-dropping historical attractions like the Hagia Sophia, Topkapı Palace and Blue Mosque have captured the imaginations of travelers for hundreds of years.But visitors who only see the most famous Istanbul attractions are missing one of the city’s greatest draws: a plethora of unbelievably rich and quirky museums. Istanbul museums delve deep into diverse aspects of the city’s multi-layered past and there is something for nearly every interest: you can explore the vaults of great Ottoman banks, see some of the world’s most prized carpets, climb aboard a military submarine, blur fiction and reality with one of Turkey’s most famous contemporary books or walk in the footsteps of the Sultans.
If you are planning to visit a number of Istanbul museums and tourist attractions in a short space of time the Müze Kart Museum Pass (Valid for 5 days from first use and costing 85TL) is a great way to save money and time. It gives you free entrance to almost any attraction you might want to visit, allows you to skip ticket lines, and also offers discounts at several Istanbul museums.
Sultanahmet is the historical heart of Istanbul and home to some of the best attractions in Turkey, including two of the largest and most visited museums in Istanbul; Topkapı Palace and Hagia Sophia. Just around the corner from both of these is the Istanbul Archaeology Museum. This cultural gem (actually three museums in one: the Archaeological Museum, the Museum of the Ancient Orient, and the Museum of Islamic Art) is crammed full of artifacts from Turkish, Hellenistic, and Roman cultures. There is no better place in the world to learn about the clashing and intermingling of cultures that has happened in the near east over for thousands of years.
The most prized treasure of this Istanbul museum is the Alexander Sarcophagus – an immense stone coffin adorned with scenes from the life of Alexander the Great (confusingly, it isn’t actually Alexander’s sarcophagus; it just features him). Other highlights include a clay tablet with the oldest written love poem as well as an original copy of Hammurabi’s Code – an early example of a written legal system that dates back to the 18th century BC. History and archaeology buffs should put aside at least half a day to enjoy this treasure trove of artifacts from antiquity.
Location: Alemdar Caddesi, Osman Hamdi Bey Yokuşu Sokak. Open every day 9:00am-5:00pm.
Ticket Price: 15TL
The gates of Topkapı Palace | Photo by Nicola Huxley
Close to the Sultanahmet tram stop, in a former palace of İbrahim Paşa the grand vizier to Süleyman the Magnificent, is the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts. This beautiful building is now home to a collection of some of the finest carpets, mosaic tiles, and calligraphy exhibitions in the world. The carpets are sourced from the most important palaces in the Ottoman caliphate, are world-famous among enthusiasts. Even if you don’t have a taste for fine carpets the level of artistry and handiwork in these pieces will blow you away. Especially, If you’re heading to the Grand Bazaar to buy a carpet, you have to stop by here and see the best of the best.
Location: Sultanahmet Mhahellesi, Meydanı Sokak No:46. Open every day 9:00am-5:00pm.
Ticket Price: 20TL
It isn’t all art and handcrafts; Turkey has an illustrious history of printing and book-making. If you’re looking for something a little different,the Press Museum is a short stroll along the T1 tram line from Sultanahmet towards the Grand Bazaar. This eclectic collection of 19th- century lithography machines, typewriters, telex machines, and other printing paraphernalia is a reminder of the immense importance of this neighborhood in Turkey’s print history. There is also an unexplained, but charming, collection of miniature dolls from around the world in the entrance hall.
Location: TGC Basın Müzesi Divanyolu Caddesi No:76. Open weekdays 2:00pm-5:00pm.
Ticket Price: FREE
Along the City Walls
The mosaics in the Chora Church make it a can’t-miss Istanbul museum.
The Chora Museum is often overlooked by travelers because of its location away from most of the other main historical sites of Istanbul. This is a huge mistake. First constructed by Emperor Justinian in the 5th century, Chora houses a series of mosaics that are among the finest examples of Byzantine art in the entire world. As a link to early Christianity, this church-turned-museum is one of the most archaeologically important buildings in the city. Ongoing restorations mean that some sections are often closed off, but even so, it deserves a spot atop anyone’s list of things to see in Istanbul.
Location: Kariye Müze Kariye Camii Sokak, Edirnekapi. Open every day 9:00am-6:00pm. Closed on Wednesdays in the winter.
Ticket Price: 15TL
The ancient defensive walls of the old city, which run from the Sea of Marmara to the Golden Horn, run close to the Chora Museum and are also home to the Panorama 1453 Museum. (Merkez Efendi Mahallesi Topkapı Kültür Parkı, Zeytinburnu. Open every day 8am-5pm. Entrance: 10TL) This museum actually marks the spot where the Byzantine defense of Constantinople from the Ottomans was finally broken. It is an informative, if slightly nationalistic, study of Sultan Mehmet II’s successful conquest of the city. Achieved in 1453, it earned him the title “Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror” and marked the end of the Byzantine empire. For military history buffs interested in the rise and fall of the world’s greatest empires, this is a must-see.
Location: Merkez Efendi Mahallesi Topkapı Kültür Parkı, Zeytinburnu. Open every day 8:00am-5:00pm.
Ticket Price: 10TL
Although Beyoǧlu is better known for its nightlife and restaurants than its museums, it’s home to some of the more quirky and unexpected museums in Istanbul. The Pera Museum is surrounded by super-chic streets that hint at the incredible private collection of art within. This Istanbul museum is housed in the former Bristol Hotel and has a robust collection of both local and internationally acclaimed art, regular cinema screenings, and impressive exhibitions.
Location: Meşrutiyet Caddesi No:65. Open Tuesday-Sunday 10:00am-6:00pm. Free admission 6pm-10pm every Friday and for students on Wednesday.
Ticket Price: 20TL
Just down the hill from the landmark Galata Tower is the Ottoman Bank Museum. Located in the basement of the former headquarters of the Imperial Ottoman Bank in Karaköy, it gives fascinating insight into the empire’s leading financial institution. The bank’s underground vaults are undoubtedly the highlight, hoarding a visual treasure trove of timeworn photographs, historical maps, handwritten records, and all types of miscellaneous artifacts. You still enter the vaults through a series of thick metal doors, narrow steps, and corridors, where the musty smell of ancient books greets you from cupboards containing handwritten patent records and bundles of discontinued bank notes. The building is now operated by SALT with regularly-changing contemporary art exhibits, an excellent bookshop, and a serene library room on the floors above the bank museum. It also houses the locals’ favorite upscale restaurant, Neolokal which features great views across Karaköy to the Golden Horn.
Location: SALT Galata Bankalar Caddesi No:11, Karaköy. Open Tuesday-Sunday 10am-6pm.
Ticket Price: Free
Orhan Pamuk is arguably Turkey’s brightest contemporary literary star and the Museum of Innocence is a unique homage to his prize-winning book of the same name. Tucked away on a small street in the bohemian quarter of Cihangir, this intimate space houses mementos and artifacts “collected” by the book’s protagonist. If you’re interested in visiting this utterly unique mix of fact, fiction, literature, and history you can buy tickets at the door, but any true Pamuk fan knows that each copy of the book contains a ticket good for one entrance in the 83rd chapter.
Location: Cukurcuma Caddesi, Dalgic Cikmazi 2. Open Tuesday-Sunday 10:00am-6:00pm.
Ticket Price: 25TL
Sunset over the Golden Horn | Photo by Nicola Huxley
The Golden Horn
This stretch of water between Galata Bridge and the neighborhood of Eyüp has a number of museums dotted along its shores, the best known of which is the Rahmi Koç Transport Museum.
Trains, planes and automobiles are the order of the day here and the number of iconic vintage models from all over the world is impressive. There are also motorcycles, boats, washing machines and a decommissioned military submarine open to visitors (admission and numbers are limited). For boys who love their toys and girls who love their gears, as well as anyone who appreciates classic engineering, there are hours of ogling on offer at this Istanbul museum.
Inside the control room at Santral Istanbul | Photo by Nicola Huxley
Location: Hasköy Caddesi No: 5. Open Tuesday-Sunday 10:00am-6:00pm (winter) 10:00am-8:00pm (summer) Entrance:
Ticket Price: 12.5TL. Submarine tour 7TL
Farther up the Golden Horn is Miniatürk, a model park with scale replicas of Istanbul and Turkey’s most famous sites and buildings. (Location: Sütlüce Mahallesi, İmrahor Caddesi. Open every day 10:00am-6:00pm. Ticket Price: 10TL) Following the Golden Horn to its head brings you to the waterside grounds of the Bilgi University’s Eyüp campus, where you will find Santral Istanbul.This exhibition space-come-science museum is set in the city’s former electric power station. The contemporary restoration of the building itself is as interesting as the physics’ based exhibits. On the top floor is the un-refurbished control room with a long bank of knobs, switches and levers that are all begging (and permitted) to be played with.
Location: Eski Silahtarağa Elektrik Santrali, Kazım Karabekir Caddesi No:2. Open everyday (except public holidays) 9:00am-6:00pm.
Ticket Price: Free with a Free shuttle bus service from Kabataş
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