Most visitors will undoubtedly notice that the majority of Istanbul's museums are old monuments: attractions such as the Hagia Sofia, Topkapi Palace, or the Basilica Cisterns—while certainly offering plenty in terms of cultural enrichment—don't exactly offer cool hallways to wander or quiet places to relax.
Because Istanbul specializes in smaller, more intimate museums and offers little in the way of monumental national art galleries, these following sites are a wonderful way to spend a few peaceful hours during an otherwise busy day.
Sakip Sabanci Museum
Located north of the city centre along the Bosphorus, the Sakip Sabanci Museum houses beautiful works of calligraphy and hosts some spectacular special exhibitions.
The building itself is also a stunning work of art that has passed through some notable hands throughout the course of its nearly two-hundred-year history. Serving first as a residence for high-ranking governors in the nineteenth century, the building finally ended up as the private residence of a prominent Turkish businessman, whose son's name the museum now bears.
The permanent exhibition at the Sabanci consists of the family's private collection, a truly impressive array of famous calligraphic works, illuminated Korans, and Turkish paintings. The grounds of the building are also worth a wander: with its ivy-covered fountains, bright green landscaping, and beautiful view of the Bosphorus, it seems nearly to be located in another city and time altogether.
© Sakip Sabanci Museum
The Pera Museum, located in Beyoğlu, is housed in what was once the Hotel Bristol, built during the last years of the nineteenth century. The building has undergone a huge renovation: while its beautiful and elaborate exterior has remained the same, the interior has been transformed into a modern art gallery.
The Pera's permanent collection is a tribute to civilizations, both past and present, of modern-day Turkey: objects from the permanent collection date from prehistory to the modern era, and include ancient Anatolian weights and measures, a collection of coffee paraphernalia from the nineteenth century, and The Tortoise Trainer, Osman Handi Bey's most famous painting.
The museum is also in a prime location; situated extremely close to the Pera Palace hotel, built specifically to host travellers on the storied Orient Express, it's worth grabbing a drink at the hotel's downstairs bar or quiet patio after your museum visit.
© Pera Museum
The Museum of Innocence
Created by Nobel-prize winning author Orhan Pamuk, this unusual museum and the book after which it was named were conceived of simultaneously. The novel, published in 2008, is set in the 1970s through to the early 2000s and, through the eyes of two families from very different social classes, gives a glimpse into the Istanbul from years past.
The Museum of Innocence is a painstakingly detailed tribute to this book, and provides yet another medium for experiencing Istanbul life and culture in the decades leading up to the present era. Although it is certainly not a requirement to have read the book to enjoy the museum, audio guides are provided for those who wish to learn more about the exhibits and the novel, it certainly is unmissable for any readers or fans of Pamuk, a hugely celebrated author in Turkey.
The Istanbul Modern (see main photo)
Istanbul's modern art museum has an appropriate industrial feel to it: located behind a mosque in a nondescript lot of land in Karaköy, the museum is housed in a converted warehouse. First opened just over ten years ago, the Istanbul Modern primarily features the work of contemporary Turkish artists, although its lower floor is dedicated to a stream of special exhibits, as well as a cinema and a library.
Perhaps the most striking feature of the museum's interior is a false ceiling made of suspended books at the museum's entrance: constructed with wire and using books of all colours, it's a surreal, vibrant, and beautiful display. Be sure not to miss the museum's café; the large windows open out to a panoramic view of the Bosphorus, although occasionally it will be closed for special events.
The Turkish Military Museum
Recognised as one of the best of its kind in the world, the Turkish Military Museum is the perfect place to spend a few hours if you're looking to see artefacts and memorabilia from one millennia of Turkish military history.
The breadth and detail of its collection is truly impressive: included in the museum is a 15th century chain used in the siege of Constantinople and an entire room dedicated to Ataturk, who studied in the building when it was still a military academy.
In addition, the museum also provides an enlightening counterpoint to well-known battles, such as Gallipoli, told from the Turkish point of view. Perhaps the most memorable experience from your visit there, however, will be the performance put on by the mehter, the world's oldest military band, who play at the museum each afternoon between 3 and 4pm.
A Turkish school girl looks at the displays at the Istanbul Military Museum © Joe Armao