Art shines a light on Istanbul

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The Turkish capital is rich with ancient culture, but cutting-edge artists have also found a home in the city. Maya Jaggi uncovers a heady mix of old and new

Art lovers have long been drawn to Istanbul's Byzantine and Ottoman treasures, from Aya Sophia and the Blue Mosque to the Topkapi Palace. Yet Turkey's cultural capital has lately become a magnet for a different kind of art connoisseur. Curators and dealers are excited by a resurgence in Turkish contemporary art, while a boom in new venues is fuelling a revival that all can enjoy.

For an insider's view on this renewal, I spoke to Orhan Pamuk in the renovated Ottoman townhouse where the Nobel literature laureate will open his own idiosyncratic museum next spring. The novel that inspired it, The Museum of Innocence, mocks "ersatz museums of modern art with adjoining restaurants". Yet Pamuk, a trained artist, approves of a "cultural optimism" in his home town, compared with his youth. Though his novels probe the anxiety of imitation in a post-imperial society on Europe's edge, he tells me that "a new generation is less troubled and wounded by issues of identity".

A measure of this confidence is the Istanbul Biennial, which begins on Saturday. Founded in 1987, it has soared in status and was tipped this year by the director of New York's MoMA, Glenn Lowry, as the art calendar's most enticing event – above even Venice. Its venue is Beyoglu, which grew from the medieval port quarter flagged by the Genoese Galata tower – and specifically Antrepo, a row of warehouses on the Bosphorus dockside.

Tourism to Istanbul traditionally focuses on Sultanahmet, the Ottoman centre across the Golden Horn (the inlet of water which bisects the European side of the city). But Beyoglu's neighbourhoods are the heart of the burgeoning art scene.

A blue warehouse beside the biennial is home to Istanbul Modern (, founded in 2004 as the city's first contemporary art museum – and also boasting an excellent restaurant. I relished the mincemeat-stuffed black cabbage with yoghurt. The fresh twist on Ottoman cuisine comes with views past tankers towards the minarets of Sultanahmet. Two shows of women artists, "Dream and Reality" and the photography of "Uncanny Encounters", coincide with the biennial (Friday to 22 January 2012).

Returning each year, I find ever more exhibition spaces or "platforms", many with free entrance, whose brief is to engage a wider public. The funds flow from banks and a few industrialist families – Eczacibasi, known for pharmaceuticals, founded Istanbul Modern; Koc, with a hand in everything from car manufacturing to banking, sponsors the biennial. Pick up Akbank's free Contemporary Art Map at art venues and online ( for a guide to what's on where.

Many new spaces occupy revamped 19th- and early 20th-century apartment buildings on Istiklal (Independence) Avenue. This is Beyoglu's smart, pedestrianised shopping drag. Pamuk remembers it from the 1980s as being a "muddy street with porn shops". Salt Beyoglu at No 136 ( opened this spring with a gleaming cream front, its foyer an oasis of pillars. Salt means "pure" in Turkish; the venue has exhibition floors, an art bookshop and a walk-in cinema. Almost opposite, at No 211, lies Arter (www.arter. This "space of art" opened last year, and will have a film installation by the Turner prize-shortlisted Kutlug Ataman running from tomorrow to 16 November. Misir Apartments at No 163 hosts leading galleries, including Galerist and Galeri Nev. Look for the entrance beside House Café ( – a chic meze and cocktail chain.

The biennial is run by the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts ( The organisation is newly housed in the Art Nouveau Deniz Palas, which can be found at 5 Sadi Konuralp Caddesi, close to Sishane Metro. Visit the design shop and fashionable sixth-floor X restaurant and bar, a discreetly dark expanse of black Perspex, orange sofas and Horn views, with Turkish-Med cuisine. There is also a café and summer rooftop bar. The Pera Museum (en.peramuzesi. at 65 Mesrutiyet Caddesi, which meanders almost parallel with Istiklal Avenue, has Orientalist paintings and blockbuster shows. Stop for cakes at its Art Deco Pera Café, the centrepiece of which is Maria Callas's piano.

The alleys of Galatasaray, a quarter frequented by the intelligentsia, around the lycée midway up Istiklal Avenue, have café-bars favoured by the art crowd, including Ara Café at 8a Tosbaga Sokak, which is hung with Ara Guler's photographs of old Beyoglu.

Just north is the charming Dogancay museum ( at 42 Balo Sokak. This venue, founded in 2004, provides a neat induction to modern Turkish painting. It is devoted to Burhan Dogancay, now in his eighties, and his late father Adil, an army officer. The former is known for his innovative take on urban walls; the latter painted impressionist seascapes. It's free to visit (just ring the doorbell) and offers complimentary afternoon tea from 3-5pm. The fish market meyhanes (tavernas) are a step away from here. At Vesta, at 21-23 Sahne Sokak, you can taste the timeless classic of raki with grilled Marmara bluefish, rounded off with oven-warm halva.

On the cobbled slopes between Galatasaray and the Bosphorus are the fast gentrifying neighbourhoods of Cihangir and Cukurcuma, a jumble of Ottoman houses with overhanging upper storeys. Here, Pamuk's museum will open amid antique shops and galleries in a dark-red house at 12 Cukurcuma.

Boutique hotels in this up-and-coming area are multiplying, too. The House Hotel Galatasaray opened last year in the former apartments of a Jewish family, with design team Autoban's ultra-modern touches – the shower resembles a teleporter. The hotel's Nisantasi branch is handier for the annual art fair, Contemporary Istanbul. Meanwhile, Tomtom Suites has hi-tech, hi-spec rooms in a former Franciscan nunnery.

Further afield, you can visit the eclectic Sakip Sabanci museum ( at 42 Sakip Sabanci Caddesi in Emirgan, a village up the Bosphorus beyond the Rumeli Fortress. The museum is housed in the Horse Mansion, a 1920s villa bought by a self-made cotton-picker and named for the statues in the waterfront grounds, and in a modern glass-and-marble extension. At its MuzedeChanga restaurant, try clove meatballs, and crispy baklava with quince puree, washed down with ginger-and-mint lemonade.

Istanbul's equivalent to London's Tate Modern is Santralistanbul ( at 2 Kazim Karabekir Caddesi. It opened in 2007 in an Ottoman power station up the Horn. A free shuttle bus takes 15 minutes from outside the Ataturk Cultural Centre on Taksim Square. An energy museum houses giant turbines, and there are two restaurants: Otto Santral has DJs, while Tamirane offers Sunday jazz sessions.

From here, it's a short walk to the Eyup ferry station. Ending a tour of contemporary art with a boat trip on the Halici Panoramik (70p), which zig-zags down the Horn to Galata bridge at sunset, seems apt in a metropolis where Pamuk's "end-of-empire melancholy" co-exists with cutting-edge design.

Travel essentials

Visiting there

The 12th Istanbul Biennial runs from 17 Sep–13 Nov (00 90 212 334 07 00;

Contemporary Istanbul takes place from 24-27 November: 00 90 212 244 7171 (

Staying there

House Hotel Galatasaray, Bostanbasi Caddesi 19 (00 90 212 252 0422; Doubles start at €159.

House Hotel Nisantasi, Abdi Ipekci Caddesi 34 (00 90 212 224 5999; www.thehousehotel. com). Doubles start at €189.

Tomtom Suites, Tomtom Kaptan Sokak 18, Beyoglu (00 90 212 292 4949; www.tomtomsuites. com). Doubles start at €200.

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