Sotheby's Museum Network

Istanbul: the Insider's Guide

Istanbul is a destination like no other. The historic city, straddling Europe and Asia, has been a hub for cultural exchange, innovative design, and creative expression for centuries. Today, Istanbul continues to inspire contemporary artists and attract a cross-section of artists, curators, and collectors from throughout Western Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. It is home to a thriving arts scene, which receives particularly strong attention in late September when the groundbreaking Istanbul Biennial and smaller but no less popular Contemporary Istanbul art fair take place on alternating years.

Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia

In advance of this year's edition of Contemporary Istanbul (19 - 23 September), Sotheby's Museum Network sits down with regional art expert and contemporary art collector Canda Elgiz Dayıgil of the Elgiz Museum to discuss her favorite museums, Istanbul's hidden gems, and the best ways to enjoy a visit to the Bosphorus.

My Istanbul: A Conversation with Canda Elgiz Dayigil

Sotheby's Museum Network (SMN): Thank you very much for taking the time to speak with the Museum Network about your home town of Istanbul. Where should a first time visitor to the city begin?

Canda Elgiz Dayigil (CED): It's a pleasure! I'm originally from Istanbul and currently based here, though I did study in Switzerland and later in the United States, where my interest in the art world only expanded. For first time visitors to Istanbul, I would certainly recommend Pera Museum, Sabanci Museum, Istanbul Modern, and - of course - our family's Elgiz Museum.

Pera Museum. Source: Wikimedia

Pera Museum

Pera Museum is very special because it is a historic building located in an older district of Istanbul and allows visitors to see the city at a different time. Well known for its collection of oriental paintings, it has, however, added modern and contemporary artworks and collections to its exhibitions. The museum has also been actively offering their space for the Istanbul Biennial and running an amazing film programme; so, they are not only a historic collection but also a museum truly committed to contemporary art.

The Sabanci Museum is located on the Bosphorus in the northern part of the city. The museum's building and its garden are absolutely splendid, especially in the warmer months, and they usually produce very strong, extensive exhibitions such as the latest one on Ai Weiwei. Istanbul Modern is very well known, though I would point out that their collaboration with international organization is truly remarkable. they are a regional museum with a strong international orientation.

The Sabanci Museum

Last but not least, the Elgiz Museum is obviously a personal favorite as it hosts my family's contemporary art collection, though I would add that in the spring, summer, and early autumn seasons it's also a great destination for its Terrace Exhibitions programme; here, visitors may see large-scale sculptures installed on the outdoor terraces in between the skyscrapers of Istanbul's business district - it's truly an intriguing scene! Elgiz Museum has been supporting the development of the local contemporary art scene for over 17 years now, as well as hosting international exhibitions, academics, and collectors, which makes it one-of-a-kind and, again, one of my personal favorites.

Elgiz Museum

SMN: Fantastic; there are so many wonderful cultural destinations in Istanbul. For visitors with more time, what else would be on your short list for Turkey?

CED: Ephesus, Gobeklitepe and Aphrodisias would be my top 3. Aphrodisias is located in the southwestern area of Turkey and is one of the richest archaeological sites in the world. The temple of Aphrodite dates from the 3rd century BC, and it's very interesting as a site since most of the wealth was sourced locally, from the nearby marble quarries and export art produced by sculptors working in this local medium. Ephesus is located near the Aegean and is also worth a visit; the scale of it is simply magnificent. Here, one can almost feel apart of the past, or that the social life is once again alive. For me, this is especially true in the theatre which has been well maintained. Finally, Gobeklitepe is a relatively new site, though findings from its digs are some of the oldest, predating even Stonehenge! Recently opened to the public, it's a place you can go to be revived spiritually. In a way, it's a whole new dimension and yet it still feels entirely Turkish, creating for us a sense of belonging with our cultural past. It's like the ancient and modern times are collaborating here!

Temple of Aphrodite, Aphrodisias

SMN: Transporting, indeed! Turning back to Istanbul, are there any cultural sites like this within the city, and beyond museums, that you'd recommend visitors reserve time for?

CED: Of course. First time visitors should definitely see the Hagia Sophia Museum and take the historical tour - preferably the special tour by Saffet Emre Tonguç that takes place at night where one can see the lights of the old city and the magnificent Hagia Sophia in a magical way. Of course, another recommendation, although also a museum, is the Archaeology Museum which is currently undergoing a partial renovation but is still open to the public. It is definitely worth a visit! Finally, Topkapi Museum is also very interesting as it was once the home of the Ottoman sultans. Here you can also take a stroll in the Gülhane Park, which is essentially the garden of the former palace, overlooking the Bosphorus and the sea of Marmara.

Topkapi Museum

Topkapi Museum

SMN: After a day touring all the sites, where do you go to dine and recharge?

CED: I love dinner at Tomtom Suites, located in Tophane and worth it for the view alone - do try to reserve a table by the windows! I would also highly recommend having drinks at sunset at THE BAR located inside the hotel Les Ottomans. Since it's accessible by boat, you might also consider reserving time for a ride; boat rides on the Bosphorus, especially at night, are magical experiences. If you're looking for a quieter pace and place to recharge during the day, the Princes' Islands, also accessible by hired boats, are beautiful in the spring through fall seasons.

Princes' Islands

Princes' Islands

SMN: It seems we have enough on the bucket list to fill an entire week! For visitors with limited time, can you propose a nice day-long itinerary beyond some of the highlights you've already mentioned?

CED: Yes, there are infinite suggestions! If you're interested in culturally historic sites, I would recommend passing by the Spice Market in the early morning before it gets super crowded. You can then head to the old town and take a food break at the Golden Horn, known for its seafood specialties. The nearby Chora Museum, dating back to the 6th Century, is small but nearly as important as Hagia Sophia. Later in the afternoon, take a stroll on the Bosphorus and watch the sun set over the waters; this is priceless serenity in my book.

Istanbul's Spice Market

SMN: For the foodies of the world, what are your top restaurant recommendations in Istanbul?

CED: Mürver is an excellent restaurant serving exclusive contemporary cuisine, looking over the new port of Istanbul; its view is as amazing as its food and, most important for travelers, it’s in a central location. Park Şamdan, a fine dining restaurant located in the Les Ottoman Hotel, is also lovely; the location is absolutely perfect as it overlooks the Bosphorus. Lastly, a slightly different recommendation for lunch would be Aslan Restaurant located near the Grand Bazaar. Aslan serves authentic traditional food based on historic Turkish recipes.

SMN: If you weren't based in Istanbul where would you stay?

CED: The Four Seasons Bosphorus is a trendy hotel for its amazing view, central location, and dynamic atmosphere - with the boats passing by in front of you all day and night. Pera Palace is situated at the historical district of Pera (near the Pera Museum); here, one can almost feel the memories of Agatha Christie walking around (she was a well-known, frequent guest at the property). St. Regis is a hotel with a very central location and is full of art; it houses artwork from a private collection. It's also a good location for High Street shopping, with the view of Maçka Parkı below. Inside the hotel, there is the iconic two-Michelin-star restaurant Spago, launched by the infamous Hollywood chef Wolfgang Puck. Spago has a beautiful view of the water as well - nearly everywhere.

Copyright The Four Seasons Bosphorus.

The Four Seasons Bosphorus. Photo courtesy of The Four Seasons.

SMN: We can't wait to plan our next visit! Speaking of which, when is the best time to visit Istanbul?

CED: Every two years there is, of course, the Istanbul Biennale in September, which is a global art event known for its collaborations with prominent curators from around the world. Another important annual event would be the Terrace Exhibitions held at the Elgiz Museum every summer, where large scale sculptures are exhibited outdoors. Overall, however, the best time of year to visit is between May and September, when the weather is beautiful and the flowers around the Bosphorus are in full bloom. Enjoy a water taxi or boat tour, be out on the sea, and enjoy what the unique geography of Istanbul has to offer!

SMN: You're a trendsetter and avid collector of contemporary art. Whom do you look to for inspiration? Or, what are a few of your favorite local design or art brands?

CED: Begum Khan and Misela are great places to explore new designs. Many of Begum Khan's pieces are inspired directly by the past, especially her cufflinks which are quite unique and exude a sort of hidden, subtle elegance. If you would like to see some pioneer examples of pocket squares, silk scarves and the like, I'd visit Rumisu. For overall style direction, I look to Sudi Etuz and Özgür Masur. Last but not least, Midnight Express in Bebek is a fabulous shop where once can find creations by many prominent Turkish designers.

SMN: Thank you so much, Canda, for your time and insights on Istanbul! Any final words of advice for the first-time visitor to Turkey?

CED: It's been my pleasure! Final advice... do you research; Istanbul offers many different sides to explore depending on one's individual wishes. There are so many sites, palaces, museums, experiences, and encounters - both expected and unexpected! - to be had. You can plan for Istanbul, but the city usually has its own time. Be ready to get lost in the magical sounds and corners of the city. That said, this city guide should be helpful in getting your bearing!

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Photo Credit: Ekin Ozbecir

Canda Elgiz Dayigil, Photo: Ekin Ozbecir

About the Insider

Canda Elgiz Dayıgil is the youngest family member of the Elgiz family and an avid art collector. She is among the founding members of Istanbul's Elgiz Museum, which opened in 2001 as the first contemporary art museum of Turkey. She has been a prominent figure in raising international awareness of the contemporary art scene in Turkey as well as supporting local artists on a global scale through Proje 4L/ Elgiz Museum. Beyond her work in contemporary art, she plays an active role in her family's business, Giz Real Estate and Land Development.

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