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City of Dreams - Beneath its historic domes, Istanbul embraces a vibrant art and design scene


Words: Tim Cornwell    Photography: Benjamin McMahon


Beneath its historic domes, Istanbul embraces a vibrant, art, design and cultural scene

Istanbul: intoxicating, infatuating, addictive. The great Ottoman architect, Mimar Sinan, whose mosques crown its skylines and harboursides, made Istanbul a city of domes; historic neighbourhoods jostling for space with bazaars and market districts have made it a place of beautiful chaos. In the words of modern Turkey’s foremost chronicler, Orhan Pamuk, today it is a city “of ruins and end-of-empire melancholy”.

Istanbul tram
Prayers at Ortoköy Mosque

Colour and customs:from its stunning mosques to traditional tram rides, Istanbul is immersed in a rich history

So, where to begin, with the art and culture of Istanbul? On Istiklal Avenue, near to sunset, in the old European quarter where 19th-century Italian façades now house Turkish and international brands and also the best known contemporary art spaces? At the Hagia Sofia, the Aya Sofya, which, from the 5th-century was the greatest church in Christendom, then a mosque, now a museum? Or nearby, in the heart of the city’s historic district to see the trophy artwork of one of the world’s pioneering art collectors: the Emperor Theodosius the Great? In the 6th century, he set his heart on an ancient obelisk, carved from pink granite, that he ordered to be shipped from Egypt. It was already 2,000 years old when it was set up here, a 20m-high colossus, on a base celebrating the emperor at his chariot races.

Fast forward to 21st-century Istanbul, where there is a phenomenal choice for the modern collector. The past decade has seen an extraordinary growth in contemporary Turkish art and design. The launch of the Istanbul Modern gallery, in 2004, marked the start of a revolution. Ten years ago, artists showed in impromptu venues, their own or others’ homes. These days, there’s a private gallery on every corner.

Ten years ago, artists still showed in their own homes. Now, there is a gallery on every street

Design of the times:striking modern art sits alongside ancient aspects of Istanbul

Istanbul’s 21st-century contemporary art explosion is matched in design, eating and entertainment. The growth is mirrored in design house Autoban, founded by Seyhan Özdemir and Sefer Çağlar, fellow graduates of the leading Mimar Sinan University. Autoban’s name reflects the Bauhaus influence on post-war Turkey from emigré German architects and art lecturers. The pair’s first signature project in 2004 was the makeover of a derelict café for a friend. Hundreds of projects later, Autoban has just designed Azerbaijan’s new airport, and three new London restaurants.

The contemporary art season in Istanbul gets into full swing at the close of summer, with the ArtInternational art fair in September showcasing a curated selection of top Turkish and international galleries and their artists. Its more regional rival, Contemporary Istanbul, follows in November. The Istanbul Biennial and the newer Design Biennial fall in alternate years.

The contemporary art season in Istanbul gets into full swing at the close of summer

Where to start your gallery tour? The choice is overwhelming; be warned that price tags for big names are as high or higher than other cities. Head first to Karaköy, home to the Istanbul Modern; art spaces nestle between old-style machine shops (try to see the Mana, ArtSümer and Elipsis galleries) and trendy cafés pop up like mushrooms. In Nisantasi, with its Parisian feel, higher-end galleries are discreetly placed between outlets for the biggest names in Turkish and overseas fashions. The venerable Portakal auction house, the oldest in the city, stocks the great Oriental artists, alongside the likes of Renoir, and Old Masters this November.

City living: food, rituals and weddings are all part of Istanbul's colourful daily life

On the European shore of the Bosphorus, in easy reach of Raffles Istanbul, Borusan Contemporary boasts one collection on the cutting-edge of Turkey’s international art culture, that is too new to feature in most guides. It is housed in a 1910 art-deco mansion dubbed the Perili Kösk, the fairy mansion, for a woman as beautiful as a fairy who is said to have died there. Beautifully renovated, on weekdays it is the HQ of one of Turkey’s biggest steel producers; at weekends the office becomes an exhibition space over nine exquisitely presented floors. From the roof, the vista takes in Rumeli Hisari, the castle built by Istanbul’s conqueror Fatih Sultan Mehmet, and the 1988 road bridge.

"Istanbul has an extraordinary history that cannot be matched by any other city in the world,” says Ümit, who sells about 500,000 copies of his books a year. “A land of opportunity, that can make a poor man wealthy, it’s also a land of risk that can make a wealthy man impoverished. Or it can make someone a writer, like myself.” Architectural styles are constantly reborn in earthquakes and fire, he explains. Classic wooden buildings swayed rather than fell in earthquakes but were consumed by huge fires."

Istanbul has an extraordinary history that cannot be matched by any other city in the world

Creative visual art appears to pervade Istanbul’s culture. Keep a keen eye open in side-streets and you’ll spot hidden, hole-in-the-wall workshops for plaster casts of classical busts, eyeglasses or jewellery, wood carvers or young artisans working in leather or silver. In Sultanahmet, master felt-maker Mehmet Girgiç plies the trade he first learnt on the wet and steamy floors of hammams in eastern Turkey. “Istanbula keyfiniz kalin,” he says, as we leave: “Enjoy your stay in Istanbul.”

Everyone has a different opinion about the best that Istanbul has to offer, so Raffles Istanbul’s concierge team will be on hand to construct tailored tours to help you discover this amazing city.

Leading historic sites are Aya Sofya, Topkapi Palace, the Kariye Museum, the Basilica Cistern, the Galata Tower and the Sülemaniye Mosque built by the master architect of Ottoman Istanbul, Mimar Sinan.

The English language Cornucopia Magazine is the gold standard for high-end culture, art and shopping in Istanbul. Getting lost on an Istanbul walk is essential, but a phone with location services is handy. Among the apps, Triposo’s Guide to Istanbul shows attractions, with a handy direction finder as well as efficient search functions. The Turkey Travel Planner website is very navigable for both Turkey and Istanbul (

For foodies, there’sIstanbul Eats ( with an app and guidebook. Lonely Planet’s Istanbul is a short guide to the city. Other books include Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul, Philip Mansel’s Constantinople and Andrew Finkel’s Turkey: What Everyone Needs to Know.

Check the website of the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts, (, for a rapid guide to Istanbul’s biggest festivals.

The Istanbul Film Festival, in April, showcases as many as 200 titles. Awards include the Best Turkish Film of the Year and the international Golden Tulip Award. The Istanbul Theatre Festival is held every second year from early May to June. It features Turkish and international productions, with links to European festivals and cultural organisations. The Istanbul Music Festival occurs in June and the Jazz Festival in July.

Late summer and autumn in Istanbul are the highlight of the arts calendar. Among the biggest events will be the 2nd Istanbul Design Biennial, from 1 November-14 December 2014, and the next Istanbul Biennial, from 5 September-1 November 2015.

The new Istanbul Deniz Müzesi, the Naval Museum at Besiktas, is close to Raffles Istanbul and has a stunning collection of massive Imperial caiques. The Museum of Innocence is a multi-sensory reflection of the writer Orhan Pamuk’s works. The Pera Museum, in Galata, shows both contemporary and Ottoman art and ceramics. It is expertly presented with research and displays of the highest standards. Look out for milestone international shows. The Rahmi M Koç Museum of transport and industry is a haven for children of all ages. Exhibits include cars, trains and a U-boat.

The Sakıp Sabancı Museum has a permanent collection of Koranic art and calligraphy, and high-grade temporary collections of historic art. Borusan Contemporary is a short walk away.

Robinson Crusoe 389 is an established bookstore located at the end of Istiklal Caddesi in Beyoglu, whose owners are seriously passionate about books. Magnolia Culture in Galata is a small but well-curated bookshop that mainly stocks design-related books alongside unique decorative objects. Ece Ajandasi, which is famous for its diaries, is Turkey’s oldest brand. The company has recently opened a very modern five-floor store in the historic district of Karaköy.

The Çukurcama area is dotted with antique shops, but for the hardcore buyer, the Horhor building near Aksaray has five floors packed with shops. Only go if you know what you’re looking for.

Also well worth a visit are two tiny shops on the streets off Istiklal — the Fan Fin Fon handmade shoe shop in Cihangir, and the Moria leather bag shop on Kumbaracı Yokusu nearby. Don’t miss the Ikonium Studio of Turkish felt master Mehmet Girgiç in Sultanahmet.

Mikla in Tepebası region is well known and has lovely views. Gile, in Nisantası-Akaretler, is an innovative contemporary Turkish cuisine fine-dining restaurant. Lacivert, on the Asian side, can be reached by boat and has spectacular views of the Bosphorus. Ulus 29 and the Sunset Grill and Bar have good views and great food.

For traditional Turkish cuisine, the historic Pandeli restaurant on the Spice Market is a must, but is only open for lunch. Karaköy Lonkantasi is another good spot for lunch as well as dinner, while one of the best-kept secrets for modest and tasty food is Sahil Lokantasi in Balat.

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