With centuries of historic remains scattered amid its modern streets, and more still continually being uncovered, Istanbul is a museum unto itself. But the city also has astonishing museum collections – of ancient relics and modern art, of craftsmanship old and new – in institutions both intimate and grand.
Here are our picks for 10 of Istanbul’s most fascinating museums.
Istanbul Archaeology Museums
Best museum for history buffs
Set in a leafy part of the former palace grounds, the Istanbul Archaeology Museums (three buildings in one complex) hold an awe-inspiring array of relics from numerous civilizations dating back thousands of years. Its collection of more than one million objects ranges from ancient Sumerian cuneiform tablets and intricately carved Hellenistic stone sarcophagi to a snake’s head from the Hippodrome’s Serpentine Column and a chunk of the massive chain that used to block enemy ships from entering the Golden Horn.
Best museum for decadent displays
Topkapı Palace, the grand former home of the Ottoman sultans that’s replete with brilliantly colored tiles, gleaming marble and gilded mirrors, has been designated a museum in its entirety. But like a lavishly decorated set of nested boxes, it also contains an array of eye-popping collections. In the Treasury, you’ll find jewel-encrusted daggers, an 86-carat diamond and a throne inlaid with mother of pearl. In the former Palace Kitchens, there’s an array of fine Chinese porcelain. The Outer Treasury has enough blades, guns and armor – spanning hundreds of years of weapons design – to outfit an army.
Museum of Turkish & Islamic Arts
Best museum for craftsmanship
Masterful examples of calligraphy, carpets, ceramics, carved columns, illuminated manuscripts and inlaid wood fill the rooms of this beautiful 16th-century palace, formerly the home of the high-ranking Ottoman official İbrahim Paşa. With well-selected and displayed holdings from the 8th to the 19th centuries, the Museum of Turkish & Islamic Arts is a fine place to see how a variety of Islamic art forms developed across the broader Middle East.
Best museum for old Istanbul scenes
Just steps away from bustling İstiklal Caddesi you can find a serene, green Istanbul – in the scenes of the city that belong to the Pera Museum’s rich collection of paintings from the 17th to early 20th centuries. This permanent exhibition of works by European and Ottoman/Turkish artists is accompanied by smaller but well-curated displays of Kütahya tiles and ceramics and Anatolian weights and measures, as well as temporary shows of contemporary art.
Museum of Great Palace Mosaics
Best museum for imagining the Byzantine past
Much of Istanbul’s Sultanahmet neighborhood lies atop the ruins of the sprawling Byzantine palace erected by Constantine the Great. Hints of its former magnificence can best be glimpsed in the Museum of Great Palace Mosaics, built above a 250 sq meter (2690 sq ft) mosaic depicting hunting and mythological scenes. As impressive as the mosaic is, even more amazing is that it’s believed to be less than a tenth of the entire decorative floor piece that once existed in the palace.
Best museum for textile aficionados
An impressive collection of Anatolian carpets dating from the 14th to 20th centuries and representing different techniques, styles and uses hangs from the walls of the Carpet Museum, housed in a former soup kitchen next to the Aya Sofya. Their fine craftsmanship is made even more compelling by the panels decoding the meaning of different motifs woven into the rugs.
Best museum for contemporary art
Blast out of the past and into the present at Istanbul Modern, the country’s preeminent museum of modern and contemporary art and a top spot to get acquainted with the works of established artists and up-and-coming talent from Turkey. Currently housed in a historic apartment building near İstiklal Caddesi, the museum is expected to move into its new Renzo Piano-designed building in Tophane in late 2021 or early 2022.
Rahmi M Koç Museum
Best museum for families
Planes, trains and automobiles are just a fraction of what you’ll find in this vast museum on the banks of the Golden Horn that’s devoted to transport, industry and communications. The wildly eclectic collection includes elaborate dollhouses, classic cars, ships in bottles, hats belonging to former Turkish leaders and scale models of Istanbul’s historic ferry terminals. Many of the exhibits at the Rahmi M Koç Museum are interactive, making it a great place to bring kids.
Galata Mevlevi House Museum
Best museum for Rumi fans
This dervish lodge in the Galata neighborhood serves as a museum of the traditions of the Mevlevi, a Sufi religious order founded by the followers of the poet and mystic Celaleddin Rumi. Displays at the Galata Mevlevi House Museum include exhibits on Sufism, arts practiced in the lodge such as glassblowing and bookbinding, daily life in the lodge, musical instruments the dervishes played, and examples of calligraphy, ebru (paper marbling) and other classical arts. Mevlevi ceremonies, including the whirling dance for which the order is best known, still sometimes take place in the octagonal wooden hall at the center of the museum complex.
Museum of Innocence
Best museum for literary types
Is it a museum or something that belongs in one? That’s one of the questions you might ask yourself as you make your way through the Museum of Innocence, a house in the Çukurcuma neighborhood that serves as a kind of companion piece to Nobel Prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk’s novel of the same name. Even if you haven’t read the book, the objects on display – purportedly collected by Pamuk himself at antique and junk shops – paint an intriguing picture of life in mid- to late-20th century Istanbul.
Is it worth getting the MuseumPass İstanbul?
The MuseumPass Istanbul, sold by the Turkish Culture and Tourism Ministry, offers combined admission to 13 museums over a five-day period for 360TL ($26). But it’s wise to check that list of institutions – and do the math – before buying, as many popular museums are not covered.
If you’re planning to visit Topkapı Palace and its Harem, along with a couple of Istanbul’s other priciest sights such as Galata Tower, buying the pass may be worth your while. Another bonus is being able to skip the ticket lines, which can be long at top attractions in peak season. Purchase the MuseumPass online or at the ticket booth of any of the included museums.