Istanbul: a thoroughly modern city

Where ancient grandeur meets contemporary design

Istanbul: a thoroughly modern city © Istanbul Modern
By Fiona McAuslan

While former glories abound throughout Istanbul, it's not a city in thrall to its past: today's Istanbul is a thriving hub of design culture. As contemporary galleries, boutique hotels and slick restaurants open up around the main shopping drag, Istiklal Caddesi, there's every sign Turkey is beginning to hold its own on the contemporary design stage.

Contemporary art & design

Istanbul's historic heart is Sultanahmet, a dense square mile thick with Byzantine and Ottoman history. The big three – Haghia Sophia, Sultanahmet 'blue' Mosque and Topkapi Palace – invite immersion into Istanbul's glorious past. But there are plenty of galleries showcasing Istanbul's contemporary design and arts scene.

The Pera Museum

Istanbul's leading art museum, the Pera Museum (+ 90 212 334 99 00/ hosts contemporary art exhibiitons alongside its permanent collection of tiles and ceramics from the Kütahya region, where pieces dating from the thirteenth century have been found.

The Istanbul Modern

At the vanguard of the new contemporary movement is the Istanbul Modern (+ 90 212 334 73 00/, the city's museum of modern art. Established in 2004 with more than a nod to London's Design Museum, this former warehouse presides over the city's still functioning docks. The conversion is a triumph: the view over the Bosphorus strait is the star exhibit.

Artwork in the permanent collection is changed annually. Following criticisms of a lacklustre collection, late 2008 sees a welcome change of direction as current displays focus on modern experiences rather than setting out an overview of Turkish art history. Key works impart a powerful sense of Turkey's heritage and passage to secularism. This autumn's temporary exhibitions are similarly strong with evocative black-and-white photography by Sitki Kosemen, Ergun Turan and Sureyya Yilmaz Dernek.

Galeri Nev

Galeri Nev (+90 212 231 67 63/ in the atmospheric art deco Misir Apartment  features cutting-edge artwork from rising Turkish and international artists. Notables include Nazif Topcuoglu's unsettling staged photographs of violent schoolgirls and, from November, Canan Tolon's abstract explorations of architecture.

Galeri Apel

The maze of streets around Istiklal Caddesi is threaded with small spaces showing everything from a Turkish take on street art to traditional paintings. One to watch is bijou loft space Galeri Apel (+90 212 292 72 36/ where exposed brick and diffuse light makes a good foil for the thought provoking installations.

The House Café

The place to see contemporary design at the height of its game is The House Café (+90 212 259 23 77/, a chain of chic eateries that showcase interior design by Istanbul's leading product design company Autoban. Fusing Ottoman Empire with urban design, the melting pot-style is illustrated through white rococo motifs spray-stencilled on to raw concrete walls and decorated with Ingo Maurer's winged lightbulb chandeliers and oak chairs inspired by American classic furniture company Emeco.


For sunset, go to ultra-hip 360 (+90 212 251 10 42/ in the Misir Apartment building: bar, restaurant and club combined, it stands, literally, head and shoulders above the rest – it won the Time Out Istanbul best bar award when it opened in 2005.

The Bosphorus

Finally, float away on the Bosphorus: there's no better way to experience Istanbul than a boat trip. Passing ugly modern riverside houses and then beautiful, sculpted ancient mosques – the call to prayer rising from the shoreline - the experience of sensory Istanbul is complete.

Local knowledge

Professor Robin McCormack, Byzantine Empire expert: ‘Haghia Sophia is the most impressive church ever built. Constantinople was looted by soldiers in the Middle Ages, but they couldn’t take the buildings. There’s the most extraordinary range of work there, from the sixth century to the fourteenth, so you can see how it changes through the ages.’

Fast facts

Flying to Istanbul

BA and Turkish Airlines fly direct from London to Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport; easyjet flies from Luton.

Where to stay

The stylish W Istanbul is located in historic Akaretler Row in the Besiktas region (+ 90 212 381 2121/ Dbls from €315.


The best weather is in spring and autumn when days are temperate and evenings mild.

Further information

For more information pick up the ‘Time Out Istanbul’ guidebook (Special Offer – £8.44 from our online shop). For on-the-spot listings, grab a copy of the ‘Time Out Istanbul’ magazine.

Full Istanbul online city guide coming soon!