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Istanbul has way more museums than you could ever possibly get around in your first visit to this vibrant city. Instead of compiling an overwhelming list of ALL of them I’ve made a list of the best museums for your first couple of times.
These are the most visited museums that will give you an excellent overview of Turkish culture. I’ve also listed some of the other museums in passing that might appeal if you have a special interest in their subjects.
About Your Visits
In terms of visiting, most museums in Istanbul close by early evening (usually earlier in winter than in summer). There are a few that are open a bit later and I’ll list them at the end.
I’ve linked to each museum below so you can see the most up-to-date opening times for the ones you’re interested in visiting. FYI, the Tombs/Turbes Museum closes temporarily during prayer times throughout each day.
Many of the museums are open every day but some close on Mondays. They might also close during public and religious holidays but double-check. All the places I wanted to visit were open on New Year’s Day albeit at slightly different hours than normal.
I’d recommend using the GoogleMaps app to find your way to each of them if you’re not being taken by tour.
Also, a lot of the museums don’t allow photographs to be taken inside or in certain parts of the inside. Look out for notices with a camera icon crossed out to make sure you’re only filming/taking photos where allowed.
Official Museum Pass Istanbul
If you’re going to a few of the museums included in the official Museum Pass then I would recommend getting it. It costs 700 TL and last 5 days from your visit to the first museum. I bought mine from the little booth by Hagia Sophia but you can also buy them from these other museum locations.
The pass is called an e-pass but it’s a physical plastic card. It’s useful to have as it saves you money over the museums and in some places you can jump the queue/skip the line because you already have your ticket.
In other places, everyone has to go through security first so it doesn’t matter whether you have a ticket already. At the museum entrances you either scan the code on your card in a turnstile. Or you hand it to an attendant who scans it on a handheld machine for entry.
The official Istanbul Museum Pass includes this list of museums:
- Galata Tower Museum
- Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts
- Galata Mevlevihouse
- Great Palace Mosaics Museum
- Museum of the History of Science and Technology in Islam
- Istanbul Archaeology Museums
- Hagia Irene Monument Museum
- Topkapi Palace Museum
- Topkapı Palace Museum Harem Apartments
- Rumeli Fortress Museum
- Turbes Museum
- Adam Mickiewicz Museum
The Turbes Museum listing confused me but it’s the Sultan Ahmet Tomb beside the Blue Mosque. Entrance is free for everyone so if you’re deciding to go for the card based on cost be aware you don’t need to pay for that one anyway.
Istanbul Tourist Pass
There’s another pass that I looked at which is the Istanbul Tourist Pass. It covers entry to the museums above plus a comprehensive list of other attractions. (Including a number of the other museums mentioned in this post.)
The all-inclusive pass does look attractive as it also includes guided museum tours to many of the best places. You can also choose various durations for the pass from 1 – 10 days.
However, the price reflects the additional services included and is considerably more expensive than the official pass. As an example, the 5-day Istanbul Tourist Pass is 150 euro.
In the end, I decided not to go for this one. The reviews on Google Maps were very mixed and a lot of people were saying they wasted a huge amount of money because of how the tours were scheduled.
Because a number of them are on at the same time it seems like it can be hard to get around enough of them to make it worthwhile. But you can see their schedule here for yourself.
As a side note, the company also offer an unlimited travel card. The prices seem extortionate compared to what I paid with the official travel card that I topped up whenever I needed it. Plus taxis are really cheap so be wary if you see it advertised.
A Note about Hagia Sophia
Be aware that the Hagia Sophia museum status was revoked so that Hagia Sophia could become a working mosque again. Because of that, there’s no entry fee which is why you might be surprised not to see such a famous place included in the pass.
Although you don’t need to queue for a ticket there are generally still long lines for access. Everyone has to go through security at the entrance so it can take a while.
Must-Visit Museums in Istanbul
Topkapi Palace Museum And Harem Apartments
Located in Sultanahmet, I understand this impressive palace is the most visited museum in Turkey. And although there can be long queues for entry it’s definitely worth prioritising.
The palace is made up of a group of buildings and structures which includes work from throughout the Ottoman period. So once you access the grounds there are several sections to explore.
If you have the museum pass I mentioned above you can access all areas without paying any extra fees. If you just have a ticket to the palace you have the option to pay to access either Hagia Eirene Church and/or the Harem Apartments.
Other displays are included in the palace ticket price. You can feast your eyes on intricate tiling, a large clock collection and the insanely decorative weapons collection.
The palace grounds are lovely to spend time in and there’s a restaurant and a cafe where you can get refreshments. Walk to the edge of the gardens for fantastic views over both Bosphorus Strait and the Marmara Sea.
Top Tip: Within the grounds, you can queue up again to get a free audio guide if you’re not with a tour guide. On the basis of the Google Reviews, I didn’t bother.
People were saying the info was the same as that written on the panels throughout the palace. I much prefer to read than listen and I gleaned enough from the panels. So bear that in mind if you’re the same as me.
Great Palace Mosaics Museum
The Museum of Great Palace Mosaics is quite a small museum but an interesting one to pop into especially since it’s just behind the Blue Mosque in Sultanahmet. The exhibits reminded me of the mosaics from the House of Dionysos on Delos island.
Some of the mosaics are wall-mounted. Others are on the floor and you can view them from the walkway above. The museum is just off Kabasakal Street where you can top up on souvenirs too if you need to.
Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts
I really liked this museum not least because of the resident cats and fewer people than at some of the other sights! It has a lot of items relatable to daily life. In fact, the purpose of the downstairs hall is to showcase day-to-day life in 19th century Istanbul. That was my favourite part – shoes, jewellery and other items.
Housed in Ibrahim Pasha Palace the museum collections also include important historical artefacts from the Eyyubid, Mameluk, Timurid and Ottoman periods.
There’s an impressive carpet/rug collection (including rare 13th-century Seljuk carpets you won’t see anywhere else), beautiful examples of Islamic Calligraphy, samples of intricate woodwork and important lanterns, glass, silver and stoneware.
Top Tip: When you first go in it’s easy to miss the sign for the start of the museum. It’s on your right, as you come up the stairs to the courtyard.
Follow it and go up the stairs to the upper level of the museum. If you’re not careful you’ll go straight to the lower floor hall across the courtyard without seeing the rest of the collections.
Istanbul Archaeology Museums
Istanbul Archaeological Museum is actually a museum complex of three museums: The Archaeology Museum, The Museum of the Ancient Orient and The Tiled Kiosk Museum/ Tiled Pavilion Museum.
When I visited in 2023 the ancient orient museum was closed for restoration works. You can check up on how that’s progressing with the official site.
Apparently, there are over a million historical artefacts on display, which is pretty impressive. And I did find the marble statues on display quite imposing.
They seemed much larger than a lot of the ones I’ve seen in Greece. Anyway, there were interesting to walk amongst and I was quite taken by all the jewellery that was displayed too.
Top Tip: Look for signs directing you straight through to the turnstiles if you already have the Museum Pass ticket. Note the three museums are in the same entrance/garden so stay and look at everything that’s open.
Hagia Irene Monument Museum
Hagia Eirini/Irini (Agia Irini) is a Byzantine church within the walls of the Tokapi Palace and it’s the second biggest church in Istanbul. Originally built in the 4th century Hagia Eirene was burnt to the ground in 532 then rebuilt and enlarged during the Byzantine period in 548.
Interestingly it wasn’t turned into a mosque after the conquest of Istanbul. Instead, it was used as an armoury to store weapons. Over the years it alternated between being used as an armoury and being presented as a weaponry museum. Indeed it was the first building in the country to be used as a museum.
Compared to the palace it sits beside, Hagia Eirene is quite simple but it’s typical of the style at the time. I liked the contrast and found it a calm and grounding sanctuary.
Basilica Cistern Museum
The Basilica Cistern is rather spectacular and as such, it’s another popular museum in Sultanahmet. Close to Hagia Sophia, this museum’s not included in the museum pass but it’s worth paying to go in.
The Cistern was built by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I (527-565) and during the Byzantine period supplied water to the Great Palace and beyond. Since its creation, the Cistern has been restored many times most recently in 2022.
The structure was reinforced for earthquake protection and sculptures and lighting installation were added to a most atmospheric effect. It also houses concerts and other events that you can find on Passo. (You’ll need to set up a free account to buy tickets through that site.)
If you choose to sign up with a guide or buy an online ticket you can skip the queue. Check apps like Viator, Get Your Guide and Airbnb Experiences to find guided tours. This was my favourite place to visit and I highly recommend going in.
Museums for Next Visit / If You’re in the Area
Galata Tower Museum
Although iconic, the tower is perhaps one of the museums of Istanbul that could be left for a repeat visit. I went because I was staying right near it and because it was included in my museum pass. But it felt a bit on the claustrophobic side and I’m not sure it massively added to my understanding of the city’s history or culture.
If you don’t already have a ticket or museum card you need to queue up at the tram car outside to pay. Then you join the queue for actually getting into the tower. You can go straight to that line if you already have your ticket.
Once inside, you’ll go straight up several floors in the lift. After that, you can wander around as you, please. There’s a steep spiral staircase that takes you up to the open viewing area outside. Then there are narrow tunnelled staircases taking you down to the various floors with exhibits and information on each.
Galata Mevlevi Lodge, a building said to be one of the most important structures from the times of the Ottoman Empire, is nestled off busy Istiklal Street in Beyoğlu. Historically it was home to the religious order who based their lives on the teachings of the Rumi, the Islamic poet and mystic.
If you’re in the area then it’s worth stopping into. However, if you’re based in the Old City with limited time, I’m not sure it’s worth a specific trip unless you have a special interest in the Mevlevi Sufi Islam sect.
Museum of the History of Science and Technology in Islam
This museum has been created to showcase the works and inventions of Islamic scientists between the 9th and 16th centuries. There’s a short video giving an overview of why it’s important to acknowledge the work of these people which is useful to watch.
The museum has 12 other sections where you can see devices and tools from various subjects like medicine, geography, astronomy, clocks, war technology, geometry, architecture, chemistry and optics. The wall panels here contain a huge amount of information and there’s a lot to take in.
Rumeli Fortress Museum
Construction work means that in January 2023 the vast majority of the site is blocked off with no access to the public. Although you can still enjoy the grounds it’s ideal to wait until the restoration work has been completed before your visit.
Istanbul Airport Museum
I haven’t actually been to this museum but I’m slipping it in because if you have some time to kill at the airport why not stop in here? The museum exhibits hundreds of artefacts from several museums across Turkey in its permanent collection “Treasures of Türkiye: Faces of the Throne”.
The airport museum also aims to host different temporary exhibitions every year. This museum is accessible from the international departures area.
Museums for Families
If you need a bit of light relief from your whistle-stop tour of Istanbul head to one of these museums.
Museum of Illusions Istanbul
This is a fun museum that you might want to visit if you have kids who need a change from all the historical sites. It’s in a little courtyard off Isiklala Street so add it to your itinerary for the north side of Istanbul. Leave yourself around an hour to enjoy it and take loads of photos.
Madame Tussauds Istanbul
Another fun museum on the modern side of the city is Madam Tussauds. The entrance is right on Istiklal Street. You’ll find lots of international celebrities as well as Turkish figures. As with the Illusions Museum, you can take loads of pictures and Madame Tussauds provide props for you to use in your selfies!
Rahmi M. Koç Museum
This industrial museum has consistently good reviews and if you’re into technology or transport you’ll be in absolute heaven. There’s enough to keep (and your family) entertained for half a day.
It’s housed in rather a historic building too so there’s no end of things to catch your eye. It’s a bit out of the city on the Asian side. The easiest way to get there is probably by taxi.
If you’re a fan of art these are the museums to check out:
- Istanbul Modern Art Museum – this is set to reopen in Karakoy in 2023. Check social media for
- Istanbul Museum of Painting and Sculpture
- Pera Museum
Other Specific Interest Museums of Istanbul
Museum of Innocence – this wasn’t on my radar but if you’ve read Orhan Pamuk’s novel of the same name you may well like to pay a visit. I find the story a little disquieting myself but if you enjoyed the book this place may well feel like a nostalgic journey to you.
Naval Museum – this is a large museum you’ll find conveniently placed beside the Bosphorus and Dolmabahçe Palace
Istanbul Toy Museum is another well-laid-out museum on the Asian side that’s worth a trip if it appeals
Istanbul Museums Open at Night
My list of things to do in Istanbul at night includes visiting several museums. The ones that are open later in the day include:
- Pera Museum – open until 7pm and then 10pm on Fridays
- Istanbul Archaeological Museums – open until 8pm in summer / 6:30pm in winter
- Istanbul Museum of Painting and Sculpture – open until 8pm on Tuesdays
- Museum of Illusions Istanbul – open until 8pm
- Madame Tussauds – open until 9pm
- Galata Tower – open until 10pm in winter and 11pm in summer
Just check the last entry/box office opening times before you go.
Travelling to Other Parts of Europe?
If you’re visiting other European countries as well as Istanbul then find the best museums of Europe here.