Off the radar museum: SantralIstanbul

After over four months and eight guests, I’ve seen nearly ever museum and tourist attraction in Istanbul, at least once. At this point, I don’t need a guidebook to tell visitors the history of Hagia Sofia or what’s worth checking out in the Grand Bazaar (the “Wall Street” alley is a bright spot amongst the swag). Still I try to find something new or interesting each week and recently, my explorations took me to the north end of the Golden Horn to see SantralIstanbul. Santral is a university campus-gallery-museum-cultural complex converted from an Ottoman Empire-era power plant, with multiple cafes (including a Starbucks), a playground, concert facilities, and even a nightclub on weekends. Even after an afternoon of wandering around, I haven’t entirely wrapped my mind around the concept, but it is one of the coolest museums I’ve seen, and one I will certainly add to my itinerary for future visitors.

%Gallery-102551%Don’t miss: Along with temporary art installations and exhibitions, the showpiece of Santral is the Energy Museum. I was less than excited about at first, but as soon as I walked in, my jaw dropped and I wondered if they were really going to let me wander around freely in an old power plant (yes, they were). The Energy Museum is where all your mad scientist, vintage sci-fi, steam punk, Dharma station fantasies are realized. The lower floor is comprised of interactive exhibits common to many science museums – how a battery works, fun with magnets, electric globes, etc – as well as some fun concepts like the Reactable music (apparently the future of electronic music) room and a few dangerous-looking electricity experiments that would surely invite lawsuits in America. Walking around the exhibits gives you a sense of being in a factory-like space, but it’s not until you go up to the upper level that you get the full effect of being in a nearly 100-year-old power plant. Enormous metal engines surround you on the second level, dating from 1931 and earlier, like an industrial petting zoo. Catwalks and stairs lead up to the most fascinating room – the Control Room, pictured above – the nerve center which once produced and supplied electricity to all of Istanbul. Dials, switches, and various vintage contraptions are perfectly preserved, as if the engineers just stepped out for a tea break. A few touch-screen monitors provide some information on the turbines and machines, but it’s almost more fun to let your imagination take over the explanations and enjoy the experience. If this space were transported to the United States, it would surely have all of the cool stuff roped off, only open as a location for Lady Gaga’s next video or the latest alternative event venue. In Istanbul, it serves as a perfect period piece, the occasional photo shoot background, and probably the most fun field trip in town.

How to get there: There is a free minibus shuttle from Taksim Square outside the AKM cultural center (large, black, rather ugly building opposite the beginning of Istiklal Caddesi) every half hour but they aren’t obvious to spot, look for a Bilgi University sign in the bus window and ask if they are going to Santral. You can also take public bus 36T from Taksim or a number of buses from Eminonu to Bilgi University, but it’s easy to get lost (which I did on my way back). Save yourself some headache and if you can’t find the shuttle bus, take a taxi (with the address written down) from Taksim or Eminonu.