Istanbul is Turkey's biggest city as well as its principal seaport. It was formerly known as Byzantium and later on Constantinople and served as the capital city of the ruling Empires of the time. Today it is known to be an old town surrounded by ancient walls on a historic peninsula between Europe and Asia. It has been one of the world's most coveted cities throughout much of its timeline and has managed to survive through various changes in power, religion and culture.
Outside of the historic old city walls is a modern town with new buildings and current infrastructures, although ancient monuments and landmarks can be seen scattered throughout it even today. Many of them are collectively designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
You can't visit Istanbul without being intrigued by its impressive history and cultural identity, which is why visiting all of the local museums can be pretty exciting. Listed below are some of the most popular ones that you should stop by while you are in the city. Before you head out to buy your tickets, go to the nearest luggage locker in Istanbul to take advantage of their suitcase and bag storing services.
The Pera Museum was designed in 1893 and is a great place to visit in Istanbul. Its displays boast an impressive collection of paintings that date from the 17th century to the early 20th century. They have permanent exhibitions displaying artwork by talented artists from Turkey and around Europe, as well as traveling shows that make an appearance now and then for limited periods of time.
Some of the temporary exhibitions have shown artwork by Picasso, Rembrandt and Frida Kahlo, to name a few. Other popular displays show Kütahya tiles and ceramics, as well as a section about weights and measures. Some of the objects on display are from ancient Roman, Anatolian and Babylonian civilizations.
Topkapi Palace Museum
The Topkapi Palace is a beautiful structure that once served as the seat of the Ottoman Empire from the 15th to 19th centuries. It was constructed back in 1453 by Mehmed the Conqueror and today it has become a landmark and recognized figure in Istanbul's skyline. The building is a great display of Ottoman architecture as well as what life was like for royalty at that time.
Aside from the impressive exterior, the interior of this palace museum has İznik tiles and artifacts like imperial jewels, relics of the Prophet Muhammad, and weapons originating from the Umayyad and Ottoman. A common favorite is the Harem exhibit which brings you to the part of the castle where the Queen Mother, concubines, wives and children of the Sultan lived. There is much to explore here even outside the building, like the four courtyards and treasury. It also offers great views of the Golden Horn from the outside.
Istanbul Archaeological Museum
The Istanbul Archaeology Museum is found not too far away from the Topkapi Palace Museum mentioned above and is definitely one of the city's best attractions. It was founded back in 1891 and is the biggest and most important museum of its kind in all of the Turkish Republic. The museum is split into three separate parts; the Archaeological Museum, the Museum of Ancient Near Eastern Art, and the Museum of Islamic Ceramics.
The three sections of the Istanbul Archaeology Museums boast a collective total of 15,000 artifacts from an array of periods and cultures. Come here to experience the history of the Mesopotamian, Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian, Egyptian, Roman, Greek, prehistoric, Assyrian and Byzantine times.
Museum of Great Palace Mosaics
You will find this Istanbul museum at the Arasta Bazaar located close to the Blue Mosque. The museum is home to some incredible mosaics dating back to about 450 to 550 AD which was during the Byzantine period. In the mosaics, you will see depictions of everyday life, pictures of nature and mythological creatures.
These mosaics were found in the ruins of a Byzantine palace that was built during the time of Constantine the Great, and the museum itself is built on top of one of them. The floor of the museum, which is about 250 square meters big, is thought to be only one-tenth of the entire original piece.
Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum
This is one of Istanbul's greatest art museums with some incredible exhibits for you to discover. The building that houses the museum is the former residence of a high ranking Ottoman official named İbrahim Paşa and dates back to the 16th century.
Several forms of Islamic art have developed across the Middle East over the centuries, and this museum is a great display of it. Come here to see historical artifacts from the 18th and 19th centuries including calligraphy, ceramics, carpets, manuscripts and more.
Hagia Sophia Museum
One of the world's most impressive buildings is the Hagia Sophia Museum which is a former church built a total of 916 years before Sultan Mehmed II conquered Istanbul. It was solely used as an Ottoman mosque until 1935 when it was turned into the museum that it is today, and people still worship here now.
When you visit you will find Christian mosaics along the walls, domed ceilings as well as Islamic inscriptions written on giant discs hanging on the perimeter of the room. It is one of the city's best history museums and is always packed with local citizens and tourists so try to avoid the busiest hours.
Istanbul Modern Art Museum
This modern and contemporary art museum was built not too long ago in 2004 and since then it has been an important part of the local art scene. It displays work by international artists like Jean Dubuffet, Robert Rauschenberg and more.
Some of the most popular exhibits include Human Nature and Fantastic Machinery which were both created by Tony Cragg, a British sculptor. It is one of the most popular tourist attractions so we recommend heading there early to arrive before the big crowds and leave yourself some extra time to get through it all.
Istanbul Toy Museum
Are you looking for things to do with kids in Istanbul? The Istanbul Toy Museum was founded by a Turkish poet named Sunay Akin and is surprisingly much more interesting than you might think. Both kids, adults and history lovers of all ages will enjoy exploring the museum which exhibits toys all the way from the 1700s to present day.
It is quite interesting to see how toys have changed throughout the different time periods and there are some distinct differences in how they were produced compared to times during World War II and today, for example. The museum also puts on children's activities and events that are fun for the whole family.
The Basilica Cistern is located close to the Hagia Sophia so if you want to visit both you can do them in a day. This building houses an impressively large underground water reservoir that has a total of 336 columns, and two of them are designed with Medusa heads. This is because, according to legend and Greek Mythology, Medusa used to protect the Basilica Cistern.
This is a fun activity for everyone and while you are here you will get the opportunity to dress up for photos. Choose between a sultan costume or a Turkish princess dress and pose in front of the landmark for a picture. Make sure you bring a camera!
Istanbul Military Museum
The Istanbul Military Museum first opened its doors in 1726 making it the oldest and first museum in all of Istanbul. At the time it was located in the Church of St. Irene and today it houses over 10,000 artifacts for you to observe, with everything from military armor to weapons, either Turkish or foreign, and other related objects.
The museum is made into 17 rooms that each follow a separate theme. For example, there is an exhibit on military tents, guns, Atatürk, the First World War and more. If you visit between 3pm and 4pm you might be able to enjoy a concert put on by the Janissary Band complete with musical instruments and costumes from the Ottoman Empire.
What are the Best Free Museums in Istanbul?
There aren't many museums in Istanbul that offer free admission, although there are a few. The Pera Museum is one of them and you can stop by and check it out free of charge every Friday between 6pm and 10pm. If you can't make it during this time you can visit during the rest of their open hours, although you will have to pay.
The Hagia Sophia is a different story, since this historical building offers free entry every day of the week. This is because it is still used as a mosque and, as an active place of worship, it is open to the public 24 hours per day. Come by to see the impressive old church anytime during your stay in Istanbul, but be aware it might be busier during religious holidays. For more things to do for free in Istanbul, see this list made by Bounce.
Which are the Best Museums in Downtown Istanbul?
If you are planning to visit more than one museum in a day then it can be convenient to find ones that are located close together. The Topkapi Palace Museum is found in the downtown center of the city and is easy to get to.
Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum
Found not too far away is the Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum which makes the perfect second stop on your itinerary. Come see the extensive collection of artwork and learn about Istanbul's history in the downtown area of the city!
Museum of Great Palace Mosaics
This is one of the city's most fascinating museums and is definitely worth a visit. It is located in the center of the city making it easy to get to, so you have no excuse to not visit while you are in town.
Are There any Cheap Museums in Istanbul?
Istanbul Military Museum
Some of Istanbul's museums can get expensive, but luckily for you, there are quite a few that are very affordable. It is always a good idea to save money when you can and if you don't want to spend a lot on tickets for museums then this is a great option for you. Entry to the Istanbul Military Museum costs only 6 Turkish Liras!
Buying a Basilica Cistern museum pass will cost you a bit more, but compared to many of the other museums in Istanbul it is quite affordable. You can pay just 30 Turkish Liras to see the incredible underground reservoir and huge Medusa heads so don't miss out!
Istanbul Toy Museum
The Istanbul Toy Museum is fairly cheap at just 12 Turkish Liras for a regular ticket, which means that you can save some money and put it towards other attractions and activities, like visiting more museums. Come see the permanent exhibition of toys from throughout the ages at this Istanbul museum!
The Most Impressive Istanbul Museums
Once you land at Istanbul Airport and step foot in Ithis wonderful city, you will realize that it is the only city of its kind and nowhere else is quite the same. It is full of interesting places to visit and things to see, and one of the most rewarding experiences is to visit local museums. These establishments can teach you a lot about the city, whether you are interested in Turkish history, artworks from around the world, ancient artifacts or Turkish culture.
Most of the museums only have permanent collections although there are some that welcome traveling shows and temporary exhibitions that pop up a couple of times per year. This can be fun since you can stop by the previously visited museums again and again to see something completely new.
If you have the time and the money you should try to visit as many museums as possible during your stay in Istanbul. However, if you have to choose only a few then the ones listed above are some of the best. There are places suitable for people of all ages and interests, so no matter what you like you are bound to find somewhere interesting to visit.