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From Ancient to Contemporary: 5 Top Istanbul Museums

From Ancient to Contemporary: 5 Top Istanbul Museums

With thousands of years of history under its belt, it’s no wonder that Istanbul boasts more than a few fine museums. Though many are relatively modern institutions, some are housed in buildings that are museums in and of themselves, repositories of the city’s rich past and witnesses to some of humanity’s most pivotal moments. Among them you’ll find an array of exhibits, artifacts, and topics spanning some of the world’s greatest empires, from the days of mighty Rome and the decadent Byzantines to the Ottoman Empire and subsequent birth of the modern Republic. Adding these museums to your Istanbul vacation itinerary will give you a better appreciation of the city’s position as a bridge between past and present, East and West.

1. Kariye Museum (The Chora Church)

You may have to pick your jaw up from the floor as you enter the shimmering interior of the Kariye Museum, also known as the Chora Church. The Byzantine religious building, whose interior is entirely covered with intricate mosaics and colorful frescoes, has been cemented as one of the best-preserved structures of its kind in all the world. Emperor Constantine himself originally commissioned the breathtaking structure, and in spite of several reconstructions and an Ottoman-era conversion to a mosque, it’s certainly survived and flourished. Whether you spend your visit gazing at the richly decorated golden dome, or simply wandering the aisles of this ancient place of worship, the Kariye Museum certainly stands out as one of the city’s best.

2. Rumeli Fortress

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The sturdy, imposing Rumeli Fortress stands stoically above the waters of the Bosphorous. This maze-like structure of crenellated walls and rotund towers represents a relic of Istanbul’s turbulent past, built as a base by Sultan Mehmed II in his lead-up to the conquest of the city. The museum itself displays all sorts of artifacts and historical objects pertaining to the fortress’s military service and its role in the Ottoman takeover of what was then Constantinople. Marvel at the museum’s outdoor portions, go for a wander around the fortress grounds, and don’t forget to climb up to the top of the watchtowers along the wall. From there you can enjoy spectacular views over the strait and parts of Istanbul, and imagine how this place looked way back in the 1400s.

3. Mosaic Museum

Another shout-out to Istanbul’s Byzantine period, the Mosaic Museum shows off an impressive selection of scenes and motifs depicting all sorts of daily life in that era. What was then the city of Constantinople was chock full of these colorful displays, adorning courtyards, bathhouses, and residences alike. The top-notch condition of most of these mosaics will inspire awe for the huge effort made to preserve them. Try envisioning yourself in place of the characters shown in the different scenes – though maybe fighting a bloodthirsty tiger with a spear isn’t at the top of your list.

4. Istanbul Modern Museum

Of course, there’s far more to Istanbul’s museum scene than its ancient treasures. Turkey survived and grew through countless periods of change and upheaval during the 19th and 20th centuries, and the Istanbul Modern Museum reflects much of that in its collection of artwork. Include in your travel itinerary planner a stop by the museum, the first modern art institution in the entire country, and have a wander through its quirky and well-decorated halls, which combine unorthodox works with a sleek modern layout. Don’t expect to find too many non-Turkish artists featured here, as the facility seeks to show off native talent first and foremost.

5. Sakip Sabanci Museum

No museum-hopping excursion to Istanbul is complete without at least a quick visit to the Sakip Sabanci Museum. Perhaps the city’s most complete collection of religious and state artwork of the Ottoman period, you’ll find all sorts of relics of the former capital’s imperial legacy. Among the highlights are intricate calligraphy works spelling out passages from the Koran, with their sweeping brush strokes and arabesques. There’s certainly plenty for those less literarily-inclined, as well. Explore the rest of the museum to discover official imperial documents, paintings commissioned by the former Ottoman elite, and even some porcelain works from lands as far off as Germany, France, and China.

Past and present collide

Turkey’s cultural capital certainly has a solid claim as one of the world’s most diverse urban centers, boasting countless monuments, attractions, and landmarks more than two millennia in the making. The selection of world-class museums in your Istanbul travel itinerary might spoil you for choice, and represents perhaps one of the greatest ways to experience the city’s living history. Don’t miss out on tracing Istanbul’s development from ancient times to modern day at these fascinating museums.

Originally from Seattle, Washington and currently based in the Republic of Georgia, Alex Whan is a freelance writer who’s traveled extensively from Europe to India.