Deemed the European Union’s Capital of Culture in 2010, Istanbul is marked by religious, historical, and economic importance and intrigue at every turn. The Turkish metropolis — one of the few transcontinental cities in the world — has played host to pivotal moments throughout history as various empires have battled for such valuable land, leaving the city brimming with historic value and cultural insight. Today, the city’s past — both good and bad — can be experienced in any of the its world-class museums, mosques, or palaces, but here are few that stand out from the rest.

Hagia Sophia

Photo by @photo.bookk

The Hagia Sophia, Greek for “holy wisdom,” is one of the oldest buildings in Istanbul and a perfect monument to the city’s cultural and religious evolution. Built in 537 A.D. as a Greek Orthodox basilica, it was held for a short period by Roman Catholics during the 13th century before becoming a mosque following the Ottoman conquest in 1453.

The old church is one of classic (and stunning) Byzantine architecture. Its design was highly influenced by the Romans with its pillars and arched windows, but it retains its own modern (for the time) flair, exemplified by the museum’s domed roof — an unprecedented feat for its era. Within the walls you’ll find a range of detailed mosaics and marble decor, accentuated by the beautiful natural light that shines through the dome’s myriad windows.

Address: Sultan Ahmet Mahallesi, Ayasofya Meydanı, 34122 İstanbul
Hours: 9 a.m. – 7 p.m. (April 15 to October 15); 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. (October 15 to April 15)
Entrance Fee: 40 TL ($6.50 USD)

Halı Müzesi

One thing you shouldn’t overlook when experiencing Turkish culture is its relationship with Anatolian carpets and rugs. Halı Müzesiut is a small, but detailed museum dedicated to the craft of carpet creation, a unique facet of Islamic art. Strolling through the museum (which has carefully curated over 400 carpets) will transport you through the history of various materials — silk, wool, and cotton — and techniques used by different regions in and around Istanbul, their intricate weaving skills and styles on full display.

Address: Cankurtaran Mh., 14, Soğuk Çeşme Sk., 34122, İstanbul
Hours: Tuesday – Sunday, 9 a.m. – 6 p.m. (April through September); 9 a.m. – 4 p.m. (October through March)
Entrance Fee: 10 TL ($1.50 USD)

Istanbul Archeology Museums

The Istanbul Archeology Museums are sure to impress even those who simply pass by. Founded by painter Osman Hamdi Bey, designed by architect Alexander Vallaury, and built in 1891, the building’s Neoclassical stone pillars, cobbled walkways, and precisely manicured gardens are a visual testament to the city’s rich history and affinity for the arts. The eponymous archeology museum is said to hold more than a million artifacts that belonged to various empires and eras. It even includes the sarcophagi (ancient coffins) of Alexander the Great and King Tabnit. What’s more, the facility is actually a three-part complex, the other two pieces —  the Ancient Orient Museum and the Museum of Islamic Art — being impressive collections and galleries in their own right.

Photo by Ben Roberts

Address: Cankurtaran Mh., 34122, Istanbul
Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday
Entrance Fee: 20 TL ($3.25 USD)

İstanbul Modern Art Museum

As its name indicates, the Istanbul Modern Art Museum is much younger than other sites mentioned on this list, aiming to showcase a fresh side of one of the world’s fastest growing cities. Originally constructed inside an old harborfront warehouse in 2004, the museum is now on the move, currently housed in a historical building in Beyoğlu until its permanent home is finished. Where will that be? The museum’s new location will be part of Istanbul’s waterfront makeover in the Galaport area, a project expected to cost over one billion dollars. So, though you can’t see the final product just yet, it’s safe to say that the wait will be worthwhile. For now, visit the temporary address, which has no shortage of attractions, boasting a well-rounded collection of photography, sculptures, and paintings, as well as a library and cinema.

Address: Asmalımescit Mahallesi, Meşrutiyet Caddesi No: 99, 34430, İstanbul
Hours: Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday: 10 a.m – 6 p.m.; Thursday: 10 a.m – 8 p.m; Sunday: 11 a.m – 6 pm.
Entrance Fee: 20 TL ($3.25 USD)

Topkapı Palace

Located within walking distance of the Istanbul Archeology Museums complex, the Topkapı Palace is an astounding fortress that dates back to the 15th century. The palace was originally used as a homebase for Ottoman elite, though it gradually fell out of importance as the empire crumbled away. Following the city’s political shakeup, the palace was officially claimed as a museum in 1924, and it was added to UNESCO’s Historic Areas of Istanbul in 1985.

Photo by Toby Crane-Buck
Photo by @mytraveltag

Today, visitors are treated to a some of the largest collections of Ottoman artifacts in the world, including weapons, manuscripts, clothing, and religious relics that span 13 centuries. Depending on the time of year, you may be able to catch one of the many festivals and reenactments that are celebrated throughout the palace’s chambers, courtyards, and treasuries.

Address: Cankurtaran Mh., 34122, Istanbul
Hours: Wednesday – Sunday: 9 a.m. – 6:45 p.m. (April 15 to October 15); 9 a.m. – 4:45 p.m. (October 15 to April 15)
Entrance Fee: 40 TL ($6.50 USD)

Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum

Located in popular Sultanahmet Square, the Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum is, in many ways, a vessel into the cultural heart of the city. Here you’ll find a calm atmosphere that elegantly exhibits Turkish artwork such as ceramics, calligraphy, and antique carpets — all of which will quickly catapult your thinking toward the past. These displays are found in a 16th century palace that was once home to İbrahim Paşa, the city’s first Grand Visier and offer a chance to view how tightly art was once tied to religion.

Address: Sultan Ahmet Mahallesi, Meydanı Sok. No:46, 34122, İstanbul
Hours: 9 a.m. – 7 p.m.
Entrance Fee: 25 TL ($4 USD)

When visiting Istanbul, it’s impossible to ignore the history that permeates through every street. Thankfully, the city has done a fantastic job ensuring that this history is accessible to all, so be sure to catch a glimpse of it during your stay, and let us know which museum you enjoyed most!

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Brad Donaldson is a writer and editor proudly based out of Halifax, Nova Scotia. Although his roots are in Canada, his desire to see more of the world frequently takes him away from home. His work, both as an editor and writer, has appeared in local newspapers and publications.