From art museums designed by renowned architects to neighborhoods famous for their street art, international art fairs and art walks, biennials and festivals, İstanbul’s thriving art scene is an undeniable magnet that heralds the best of human creativity
As the capital of former empires, İstanbul has been a hub of creativity for centuries. The intricate mosaics of the Eastern Romans, the Ottoman era’s miniatures, illuminated manuscripts and İznik tiles, the pioneering paintings of Osman Hamdi Bey… The cosmopolitan Turkish city has been no stranger to the many facets and beauties of almost every artistic discipline and continues to grow, fostering new talent and celebrating renowned names.
The Historical Peninsula
Undoubtedly, the best place to begin exploring this bustling treasure trove is the Historical Peninsula. Some of the city’s must-see landmarks are within walking distance, from the iconic domes of the Hagia Sophia to the grand minarets of the Sultanahmet Mosque, also known as the Blue Mosque. Meanwhile, the former residence of the Ottoman sultans, Topkapı Palace, gives visitors the chance to discover the splendor of the empire’s court and the beauty of the harem, the sovereign’s private chambers. While the recently renovated İstanbul Archaeological Museums continue to pay tribute to the masters of antiquity, a five-minute stroll from these halls will take you deep underground to the 6th-century Basilica Cistern —a cavernous marvel that has welcomed several Hollywood blockbusters, including “From Russia with Love” and “Inferno.” With recent art installations adorning this hallowed site, the mysterious beauty of this aquatic subterranean setting is bound to leave a lasting impression on all who venture below. The Grand Bazaar, being among the most renowned tourist attractions, offers a bountiful shopping experience, one that whisks you back in time. Founded in the 15th century —as one of the world’s largest and oldest covered markets with 55 streets, 20 entrances and more than 4000 shops— the bazaar offers limitless choices for every budget, from colorful souvenirs to seminal rugs and unique hand-crafted jewelry.
A Thriving Capital of Art, Design and Culture
At the entrance of the pedestrian thoroughfare that is İstiklal Boulevard, Taksim Square is the city’s cultural heartbeat once again, thanks to the renovated Atatürk Kültür Merkezi (AKM – Atatürk Cultural Center), a vanguard palace for the performing arts. The center’s main Opera Hall, designed in the shape of a giant sparkling-red globe, welcomes a host of operas, symphonies and performing arts extravaganzas.
Each year, the neighborhood is also animated by the Beyoğlu Culture Route Festival, spreading over 80 important cultural heritage sites, including the İstanbul Cinema Museum & Atlas 1948, Grand Pera Emek Stage, St. Antuan Church, the Pera Museum and the Tophane-i Amire Arts & Culture Centre, as well as the city’s state-of-the-art cruise terminal, Galataport, which houses several exclusive fashion stores and a good selection of food and beverage outlets by Boğaziçi (the Bosphorus). Right next door, you’ll find the Renzo Piano’s newly designed İstanbul Modern, the city’s pioneering museum of contemporary art that has reopened its gates recently. Another art behemoth is the brand-new İstanbul Painting and Sculpture Museum by the Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University, which houses some of the most important examples of Turkish art from the late Ottoman to the modern periods. More than 200 paintings by Turkish artists from the 1870s are displayed on the walls in the sumptuous halls of the National Palaces Painting Museum, inside the nearby Dolmabahçe Palace’s former Crown Prince Residence. To enjoy more art along the Boğaziçi, head to Emirgan to discover the Sakıp Sabancı Museum’s rich and versatile collection, and the view of the city from the museum’s beautiful garden is surely not to be missed.
In the newly burgeoning neighborhood of Dolapdere, pioneering contemporary art galleries and museums like Arter have firmly established their new presence inside modern structures. One of the latest openings in the city is the Rami Library. The former 18th-century Rami Barracks have been reincarnated as the city’s largest and 24/7 open library —the first sustainable of its kind in the country— with millions of volumes for all ages and imaginations.
And on the shores of the Golden Horn, Tersane İstanbul, the former imperial shipyard of the Ottomans, is coming to life again with a project that aims to be the new center of art and culture in the city. İstanbul becomes even more vital in its artistic life, with the endless events hosted by Contemporary İstanbul, the city’s leading annual art fair staged at Tersane İstanbul, bringing together about 60 international art galleries. Another eagerly awaited event on the city’s cultural calendar is the İstanbul Biennial, which is held every two years with a rich roster of exhibitions and events highlighting some hidden gems, historical spots and unexpected venues scattered all around the city.
Across the Boğaziçi on the Asian side, Kadıköy offers a myriad of attractions for the art enthusiast as well. The Yeldeğirmeni neighborhood is like a giant street art museum with several building-high murals that were completed by local and international artists as part of the Mural İstanbul Festival. Müze Gazhane (Gasworks Museum), an attractive cultural campus converted from a historic Ottoman gasworks, is a magnet for city dwellers, hosting free concerts, exhibitions and workshops regularly.
From the smallest neighborhood art gallery to sold-out exhibitions by some of the most renowned names in the art world, İstanbul is a true magnet for culture buffs in the region, as it continues to create more and more spaces where art can be celebrated and perpetuated.