Many people travel to Istanbul for its ancient sites and historic attractions. While you shouldn’t miss icons like Sultanahmet Camii (the famous Blue Mosque’s official name) or the Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque, Istanbul also offers a vibrant contemporary art and culture scene.
There’s much to see this year. The long-delayed reopening of Istanbul Modern, the city’s reconstructed modern art museum on the Karaköy waterfront, is finally scheduled for 2023. Designed by Renzo Piano Building Workshop, the museum will showcase modern and contemporary art, photography, architecture, design and new media. As the latest addition to the Galataport district, Istanbul’s new cruise port, the museum joins international boutiques and a variety of restaurants and cafés, including Muutto Anatolian Tapas Bar, where you can sample creative contemporary Turkish fare in a smart, open-air space.
Beyond this long-awaited museum, there are many other stops that contemporary art lovers can add to their Istanbul itinerary. Base yourself at The Ritz-Carlton, Istanbul, a Four-Star property overlooking the Bosphorus, where cobalt-blue ceramics decorate the rooms, and staff can organize art-focused tours. Or choose the Five-Star Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul at the Bosphorus, where changing displays of artworks by local creatives add contemporary flair to the public spaces of this 19th-century Ottoman mansion.
Begin your art tour by exploring the experimental works on display at hyper-modern Arter, which relocated in 2019 to a striking structure that glitters in the sun of Istanbul’s Dolapdere district. The gallery’s collections comprise more than 1,400 works by roughly 400 artists, which go on display in changing exhibitions throughout the year, each with an English-language brochure available for visitors.
Exhibits include “I Am Still Alive” by the late Turkish conceptual artist Cengiz Çekil (through September 24); “I Sometimes Imagine I’m a Fish with Legs,” featuring large-scale sculptural works by Czech installation artist Eva Koťátková (through August 27); and “Breadth of Vision: Homage to Erik Satie” (until August 27), showing work by Elina Brotherus, a photographer and video artist who divides her time between Finland and France.
Arter also hosts contemporary music concerts; check its website for a schedule of upcoming events. You can take a break from your gallery wanderings with coffee or a snack in the museum’s Bistro by Divan, a window-lined space that opens onto a courtyard.
Arter previously resided in an ornate early 19th-century building on Istanbul’s main shopping and strolling street, the pedestrian-only Istiklal Caddesi. When the gallery relocated to its new space, Mesher took its place in the city center, where the building’s heritage features provide a backdrop for avant-garde photographs, sculptures and video installations. Follow the beautiful, curved marble stairs that lead from floor to floor of always-unexpected exhibits.
With galleries in both the Beyoğlu and Galata neighborhoods, Salt mounts multi-disciplinary exhibitions highlighting art’s intersection with social or economic history. A recent show, “The 90s Onstage,” focused on Turkey in the 1990s, with photos, videos and other works that illuminated the culture of that era.
Salt Beyoğlu is just down the street from Mesher along Istiklal Caddesi, while Salt Galata sits near the landmark Galata Tower in nearby Karaköy. Both locations are free to visit.
AKM Atatürk Cultural Centre reopened in 2021 in an impressive modern building facing Taksim Square. The structure houses several exhibit spaces and expansive performance halls where the Istanbul State Symphony Orchestra, Istanbul State Opera and Ballet, and other musical groups regularly take the stage.
The AKM Gallery shows works by contemporary artists, but don’t miss the fascinating Turkish music gallery. This multimedia exhibition space takes you through the history of music in the region, with audio and video recordings of notable performers. The music gallery also carries an extensive collection of traditional Turkish musical instruments.
The center has several cafés, including glass-enclosed Vakko L’Atelier, where you can enjoy coffee, chocolate or pastries. Wrap up your visit with a stop at the AKM Design Shop, which sells jewelry and other pieces by Turkish artists, for an artistic souvenir of your Istanbul art adventures.