Istanbul: Sultanahmet’s Secret Underworld – Palatium

Howling wind, driving rain – and a huge floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall window radiating a warm, inviting glow to the outside world. It’s little wonder that every time we walked past Palatium restaurant in Sultanahmet, it was a packed. We were two of its very regular customers whilst we were in Istanbul in October, as it was only a few doors down from Antique Hostel & Guesthouse where we stayed and they were serving large bottles of Efes Pilsen; a treat we have never found previously in Istanbul!

A former carpet shop, Palatium is now a thriving bar / restaurant serving meals baked in a brick oven. It’s one of many establishments in Sultanahmet serving the masses of tourists who are here to visit the Blue Mosque and Aya Sofya amongst other attractions. At first glance, all appears normal. But not everything is as it seems in this restaurant. In fact, from frequenting this building, we realised that not everything is as it seems in Sultanahmet

Palatium Bar & Restaurant in Sultanahmet, Istanbul

Palatium, Sultanahmet, Istanbul

We’d been in Palatium twice before we noticed a section of floor made from reinforced glass – it had been obscured by floor cushions on our previous visits. Not being one to trust reinforced glass, I peered down from a safe tile-floored distance while Barry stood directly above the emptiness below.

Dim, yellow lighting created shadows over piles of earth, bricks and archways. The waiter came over and told us that the building’s owners had discovered this underground world and had excavated it themselves. ‘You can go down there if you like,’ he said and pointed to some steep, iron steps in the rear courtyard. We liked! Off we went, ignoring the wind and rain.

Byzantine Underground World In Sultanahmet, Istanbul

Byzantine archways beneath Sultanahmet

Underneath this restaurant, and the roads and pavements of much of Sultanahmet, is an underground world of brick arches and tunnels. Even in this small excavated area, it’s possible to see further pathways, still blocked by earth. A rabbit warren of tunnels that must have linked up to serve this area of Istanbul at one time.

And then we heard voices. Where could they be coming from? We were the only people down there…or so we thought.

Byzantine Corridors Under Palatium In Sultanahmet, Istanbul

Byzantine corridors beneath Palatium

We ducked our heads and went through an archway towards where the voices were coming from. A group of tourists were stood listening to a guide as he explained about the mini maze of corridors. It’s thought that if they ever get fully excavated, this particular section of tunnel will eventually lead to Topkapı Palace, formerly the Great Palace in the Byzantine era. We listened for a moment, fascinated – and then remembered that we were supposed to be the only people down there. Where had these people appeared from?

Barry disappeared round the corner and through another archway and immediately bobbed his head back round, grinning. ‘You’ll not believe this. Come and look at this.’

Underground Corridors In Sultanahmet, Istanbul

Peering across to another restaurant while gazing up to Palatium

I followed him and we entered into a smaller chamber. A chandelier hung from bare rock and a tall plant obscured a doorway – a doorway into a completely different restaurant! We were about 15 feet below our restaurant. We could see the customers sitting on beanbags on the reinforced glass above our heads (top right of the photo directly above). We found out that this restaurant is Albura Kathisma Restaurant – this is where the tourist group must have appeared from – and it has its entrance somewhere round the corner from Palatium on Akbıyık Caddesi, down the hill.

It was as though the people dining in the restaurant had no idea we were there, spying on them. Maybe they didn’t. We felt invisible. How exciting. How completely weird…and definitely one of the unexpected highlights of this year’s trip to Istanbul. It certainly wasn’t on our Istanbul itinerary! We sloped away unnoticed, through the archways and back upstairs into the other 2011 world from whence we came.

Palatium & Sultanahmet Underground Passages – Useful Info

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  1. How amazing! You don’t expect that when you pop out for a meal! Very cool.

  2. @ Turtle: You could say that. We were certainly shocked by it anyway! 🙂

  3. That underground is intriguing enough just to go for that!

  4. Wow… this is incredible! Kind of reminds me of the Bond movie set in Turkey when they go underground. This is so cool!

  5. This why I love Istanbul! You never know what you will discover. I will add this to my 2012 list.

  6. I can’t believe it- it was right near where we staying on our last trip and we missed it! How amazing to be right under the restaurant.

  7. @Belinda: Great isn’t it?! 🙂

    @Corinne: Can you believe we’ve never seen the Bond movie where they’re in Turkey. 🙂 This site was very cool, though.

    @Joy: That’s exactly what we said. We find something new and unexpected every time we go there. 🙂

    @Jenny: As I said in the post, we’d been in the restaurant twice before we even noticed it. There’s so much of historical interest in Istanbul that things like this get pushed to the side I think.

  8. What a fantastic find. Sounds like this place should be on every visitor’s list.

  9. Palateum is such a cool and mysterious place. Thanks for sharing this exciting surprise!

  10. @ Leigh: Great isn’t it. and yes, definitely should be on everyone’s list of things to see.

    @ Cathy Sweeney: Certainly is. It would be great if archaeologists could link all the tunnels up again and then there could be underground tours.

  11. That is the kind of surprise one gets in Lebanon as well, which is why it is a good idea to know a native as a guide! I spent a few short wonderful days in Sultanahmed neighborhood and would have loved to know of this place!

  12. How cool is that! Would love to wander around down there.

  13. @tasteofbeirut: Would love to go Lebanon but will be sure to get a guide if we do go. Would be a shame to miss out on things like this.

    @ Nancie: Very cool isn’t it? Would love to see more.

  14. Secret ancient passageways – how exciting! This sounds just like my kind of place. Up it goes on the nest-time-in-Istanbul itinerary!

  15. @ Sophie: And when do you think you’ll next be in Istanbul? They might have dug even more out by the time you get here. 🙂

  16. Lovely, I’ll make sure I try that out next time I go to Istanbul… soon hopefully 😉

  17. @ Angela: It felt like a really good discovery – of course, thousands of others have already seen it. 😉 Worth a little peak though. When are you in Istanbul.

  18. How amazing! Great series of images, too.

  19. Very cool to hear voices when you thought you were alone in a secret underground world. The whole experience sounds like something I want!

  20. @ Andrew Graeme Gould: Yes, it was amazing. Found it difficult to get the photos actually. Not good in dark situations. 🙂

    @ Sabina: Yes, the voices were strange – especially when we thought we were alone. 🙂

  21. I love it when you still find surprises in a place you’ve been living in for a while. Very cool!

  22. @ Laurel: Great isn’t it? And looks as though you’re still finding lots to explore in Germany. 🙂

  23. Nice and worth checking out!

  24. Definitely. 🙂

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