Welcome to our massive post about one of Istanbul’s (and the world’s) most famous landmarks; the residence of the Ottoman sultans, Topkapı Palace.
We’re taking you on a tour of the palace’s decadent interior, intricately designed tiles and stained glass windows. We’re taking a peek at harem life in Topkapı Palace; home to the sultans’ wives and children and out of bounds to the outside world. A place of true mystery and intrigue.
Then we’ll tour the gardens and the grounds of Topkapı Palace. We’ll admire the views along the Bosphorus from the palace walls. Well, a sultan was never going to leave himself without views over his Istanbul, was he? After that come the modern day practicalities. If we’ve whet your appetite and you’re itching to see Topkapı Palace, what is all this splendour going to cost you to see for yourself and when can you visit?
Let’s take a Topkapı Palace tour…
Inside Topkapı Palace, Istanbul
Let’s just tell you something, right now. When you’re walking around each of the Topkapı Palace rooms, you quickly realise it’s all about walls and ceilings and stained glass windows. A stiff neck from constantly looking up combines with the making of present day mental notes; dreamily, decorating bits of your kitchen and bathroom. Not that the tiles in our kitchen or bathroom remotely resemble any of these tiles – but, you know, one day…
But let’s get back to a little bit of the history of Topkapı Palace. Much more interesting than our kitchen and bathroom!
The Circumcision Room
The tiles in the photo above, for instance, are decorating the walls of the Circumcision Room, which is a separate building in the palace grounds, built in 1640. Sure all the observers of the circumcision enjoyed their tiled surroundings much more than the young male being circumcised…
Topkapı Palace and the grounds were almost a world within a world. Apparently, at full size, the whole complex could host up to 4,000 people. Topkapı Palace was not just a home to the Ottoman rulers but also the centre from which the Ottoman Empire was governed. Where battles were planned. And where politics was discussed. Where the administrative affairs of the empire were organised. And where religious affairs were organised and laws created and foreign dignitaries hosted. And, of course, there was much intrigue, paranoia and betrayal as those with ambition attempted to climb the power ladder.
Ahhh, to be able to drop back in time a few hundred years and spend a day – invisible – just watching, watching. Fascinating!
This chamber here, for instance, is the Kubbealtı in the Imperial Council building where the Imperial Council would gather to meet. The sultan of the time needed to be able to trust his viziers and other chief staff. But it didn’t always work like that, of course.
See the Golden Window just above the sofa? The sultan would sit behind this, discreetly, so he could watch and listen to what was going on in the council chamber. As the plotting of the downfall of various sultans and others in the palace happened throughout Ottoman rule, this plotting was either done very cleverly or it happened elsewhere.
And there’s so much more to see as you explore the various rooms of Topkapı Palace. There’s centuries of history here. Rooms and chambers built at various stages throughout the Ottoman dynasty. There are a few chambers closed to the public. There are also chambers where photography is forbidden. But that’s a good thing because it means you can go to see for yourself. But these rooms are only one little part of the Topkapı Palace experience. What else is it that interests so many people who visit Topkapı Palace?
Topkapı Palace – The Harem
What about where the sultan of the time, along with his wives, children, mother and siblings, lived? Yes, this is the famous Topkapı Palace Harem and this is where ‘Barry and Julia practicalities’ stepped in when we visited. We were at Topkapı Palace because we’d bought a Müzekart.
Entrance to Topkapı Palace is free if you have one of those…but, if you want to see the Harem, you still need to fork out a further 15 TL (2016 price). Hmm, did our budget justify us paying 30 TL between us? Well, these are the type of money questions we’re always asking when we’re away and, on this occasion, Barry volunteered to wait on the bench outside enjoying the gardens whilst I went inside to explore…
And just like when I went into Izmir Agora on my own, instantly the Harem felt more ‘real’ than the rest of the palace. Even a bit spooky, an ornate prison. It seems lots of people had opted not to pay the 15 TL entrance fee so the crowds of visitors around Topkapı Palace had thinned further still. Walls 10 feet thick in places, beautifully tiled as they are, made me feel quite claustrophobic. And, straight away, you’re transported to wondering what life was like for those in this section of the palace.
No bed of roses, that’s for sure. In earlier Ottoman days, the sultan who wanted to make sure he kept the throne obviously didn’t want any meddling brothers hanging around lest they themselves fancied being in charge. Fratricide was seen as the best method to reduce the threat of the annoying sibling. Later, however, a change in strategy meant the potential threat of ambitious siblings was reduced by effectively imprisoning brothers within a section of the harem. If anything happened to the sultan then the sibling could be released to take up reign of the Ottoman empire.
All of a sudden, you can see how these walls become imposing and claustrophobic. And, indeed, by the time their services were needed, some of these siblings had completely lost the plot. Quite literally, they had gone stir crazy and were unfit to rule.
Anyway, back to the living quarters. The Harem of Topkapı Palace is quite a large area and only small sections of it are open to the public. In days gone by, if you wanted to visit here as a tourist, you needed to get to the Topkapı Palace ticket office early and book your ticket for a guided tour at an allotted time. Once the tickets were gone, that was it. That has now changed and you can just buy your ticket at the Harem entrance and wander around at your leisure.
There was restoration work going on when we were there, and, from photos we’ve seen in the past, there were parts of the Harem closed that have previously been open to visitors. That’s why repeat visits to places like Topkapı Palace are never boring – you can remind yourself of why you enjoyed it so much in the first place, see things you missed first time round…and if you’re anything like us, you enjoy it more than your previous visit.
That was my experience on this visit. The fountain in the photo above is from the oldest room in the Harem; a room designed designed by Mimar Sinan; he of Süleymaniye Mosque architecture fame (amongst others). The sound of the water flowing from the fountain prevented nosy people in the palace from eavesdropping on private conversations. There’s that paranoia again…
We left a ten year gap between our visits to Topkapı Palace, and, in that time, we’ve done lots of reading on both modern day Turkey and the Ottoman Empire. We’re also older and (hopefully) a tad wiser. No two visits are ever the same because you get different experiences each time; a whole new perspective.
And that’s why Barry preferred to sit on a bench in the gardens to wait for me while I entered the Harem. We’d both forgotten how much we’d enjoyed the gardens on our first visit…but I really wanted to see where the sultan, his eunuchs and his ladies spent their time. And, rather than rooms being few in number and spacious, it’s surprising how numerous, small and intimate they are.
As you can see here. This is the courtyard of the apartments of the queen mother. These apartments date from the 1570s and were the living quarters of she who gave birth to a son who ascended to the throne. Of course, room for her entourage was necessary, too, hence the size of this area.
I was in the Harem for perhaps 90 minutes or so. It’s a bit of a maze and signs guide you around the site…and the entrance and the exit are two completely different doorways in two completely different parts of the palace gardens…and I have absolutely no sense of direction. Poor Barry had another wait on his hands while I tried to negotiate my way back to his bench!
Topkapı Palace – The Gardens
The grounds and gardens of Topkapı Palace are just a really pleasant place to be. Well, if you’re the rulers of the Ottoman Empire, you’re not going to go and build yourself a palace with rubbish surroundings, are you?
So, when you’re there, it’s not just a case of going from room to room being entranced by the beauty and detail of the Iznik tiles and rich decoration. It’s also about the whole area. As in the photo above, before you even need to part with your Topkapı Palace entrance fee, you head through the main palace gate and into what used to be one of the courtyards. Now lawns, pathways and ancient trees, you could enjoy a few moments away from the crowds, here…
That’s what we were doing when we took the photo above. It was our last morning on one of our trips to Istanbul and we were enjoying the autumn sunshine away from the Sultanahmet masses around here and Gülhane Park. It was a different day altogether when we actually went inside the palace grounds and gardens. Not a sunbeam in sight, as you’ll see in some of the photos.
Topkapı Palace – Queues & Crowds
A lot of people who visit Topkapı Palace talk about the queues and the crowds – which isn’t surprising, is it? If it’s your first visit to Istanbul, you’re likely there to see Hagia Sophia, Sultanahmet Camii (Blue Mosque) and Topkapı Palace. They’re all next to each other; three of the world’s most famous tourist sights within minimal walking distance. No wonder they’re so packed.
And we’re not pretending we had the place to ourselves when we visited Topkapı Palace. Far from it. But, if you want to soak up the palace and grounds and enjoy the splendour with minimal people fuss, what we’ve noticed over the years is that autumn and winter visits are going to be your best bets. Don’t worry about potential lack of sunshine. Autumn trees or winter snow all make for wonderfully atmospheric Topkapı Palace scenes.
There are slightly fewer people around so you can enjoy the palace’s autumn gardens and take photos without having thousands of other tourists aimlessly wandering through your shots. Looking back at these photos now, I can’t believe how lucky we were, really, to visit Topkapı Palace at this time of year. A touch of good management – but also good luck, too, as we’re usually in Istanbul in November for the Istanbul Marathon.
Depending on how interested you are in all the ornaments and other possessions that filled the home of the Ottoman rulers, you can spend a good few hours here.
Topkapı Palace was built between 1459 and 1465, and was the official residence right up until 1853 when a move to Dolmabahçe Palace was made – the Ottomans obviously amassed a lot of riches. Much of this is in evidence in the jewellery, clocks, weapons and clothing on display today.
The first time we visited Topkapı Palace, the famous palace kitchens were open and various kitchen crockery and utensils were on display. The Ottoman kitchens were world famous and many of the culinary creations that were placed at the sultan’s table – hünkar beğendi, for example – are still a major part of modern Turkish cuisine, today. Being keen cooks, the kitchens were one of our favourite parts of the palace.
We spent a long time in this area. If the palace could host 4,000 people, you can just imagine how big the kitchens needed to be. And we were looking forward to reacquainting ourselves with it on this visit. As with many museums, however, displays have been rearranged and swapped around. Areas are closed off from time to time for restoration – so no kitchens for Barry and Julia on this occasion as the room was closed to the public.
Holy Relics – The Staff of Moses & Prophet Muhammad’s Sword?
Still much to while away our time with, though. Because, we’ll be honest; we enjoyed Topkapı Palace on both visits because of the surroundings. The views down the Bosphorus towards the Bosphorus Bridge – we hovered around this section of the palace for some time. It’s whatever does it for you. Rooms with diamonds, jewel-encrusted clocks and daggers only manage to keep us occupied for a matter of minutes, especially when photographs are forbidden. But Topkapı Palace lays claim to be the home of Islamic and other holy relics such as the Staff of Moses and Prophet Muhammad’s sword and footprint.
The great outdoors of Topkapı Palace is what does it for us. The architecture, the decorative paintwork, the ceramic tiles, the marble. All set amongst ancient cypress trees, gardens and the backdrop of the Bosphorus.
And, over the years, we’ve learned to forgive ourselves a little when we’re looking around sights like this. While we loved the kitchens of Topkapı Palace on our first visit, and enjoyed the setting, we were kind of left with a feeling of, ‘well-we’re-not-blown-away-and-everyone-else-seems-to-be-so-is-it-just-us.’ Well, ten years later and ten years older, whether that’s ‘just us,’ or not is now irrelevant.
Topkapı Palace was home to one of the world’s most powerful dynasties for four centuries. And, while in the 21st century, rooms with glass cabinet displays might not really capture our imagination, personally, we’re perfectly happy with that. It doesn’t matter. Every person who enjoys their visits to Topkapı Palace, enjoys them for their own reasons. For us, it’s soaking up the grounds, the setting and the architecture of the palace that evokes some sense of the significance of the Ottomans in world history…
Topkapı Palace Facts & Info
- Topkapı Palace is in the Sultanahmet area of Istanbul and is open every day except Tuesday. Reserve Tuesday for a visit to Hagia Sophia or the nearby, superbly atmospheric Basilica Cistern which supplied water to the palace for a short time.
- Autumn and winter are also less crowded. We visited in late autumn and were rewarded with beautiful garden scenery.
- Topkapı Palace opening hours for summer season are from 09:00 – 18:45 (April 15th – Nov 1st)
- Topkapı Palace opening times for winter season are from 09:00 – 16:45 (Nov 1st – April 15th)
- According to the official website, Hagia Irene is now also open to visitors with a separate entrance fee.
- Clothing: Be aware that there is a section of the palace housing very important sacred Islamic relics. You need to wear appropriate clothing – no shorts, mini skirts, strapless tops. Basically, make sure your legs and shoulders are covered.
- If you have a Müze Kart, entrance to Topkapı Palace is free. There is, however, an extra fee for entrance to the Harem.
- If you’re in Istanbul to tour all the sights, it’s worth you investing in a Museum Pass to save money. These can be bought from mobile booths in Sultanahmet or from museums which are part of the scheme.
- The Ottomans and the Ottoman Empire are fascinating subjects. If you’re interested in this topic, we can highly recommend Caroline Finkel’s book, Osman’s Dream.
- When you’re planning a visit to this area of Istanbul, you can book hotels near Topkapı Palace though Booking.com