One of my favourite Istanbul experiences is visiting Topkapi Palace in Sultanahmet, Istanbul’s old city. As you walk through the impressive white Gate of Salutation, you are transported to a time and place that seem more akin to childhood make-believe than real-world history.
Inside you’ll find the worlds fifth largest diamond sparkling with decadent delight at being the best in a room of extraordinary jewels. You’ll see the sacred space that houses the beard (or hair strand) of Muhammad the Prophet, the armoury filled with gem-encrusted swords and rooms of talismanic shirts. You can learn about the black eunuchs who once managed the harem and the imperial princes who plotted for the throne. And, best of all, you can wander the shadowed harem passageways and richly decorated rooms, where the sultan’s wives, children and hundreds of concubines once lived a life of duty, ceremony and extravagance.
The oldest part of the palace dates back to the 1400s, when Mehmet the Conqueror ended the Byzantine Empire, birthed the Ottoman Empire (and the new city of Istanbul), and took the best piece of real estate for himself. Since then, the palace has grown in scale and opulence, housing all sorts of interesting imperial characters, such as Süleyman the Magnificent, who gave the Ottoman legal system a good overhaul and scandalously married a harem girl, Roxelana.
As well as the stories and artefacts, the feel of the palace is something to be admired. The sweeping awnings, stained-glass windows, centuries-old hand-painted tiles and patterned domes of natural light feel like the stuff of Arabian night dreams and magic carpet rides. My favourite space is the Library of Ahmet III, which sits humbly in the Third Court, full of low lounges, wide windows and a mesmerising ceiling that make you feel like the world of possibilities hangs just above your head; like studying there would result in ideas worthy of a crown.
The only down side of the palace experience is the jostling throng of camera-wielding tourists that fills the palace from morning to eve. But, if take your time, enjoy the space in the colourful courtyard gardens, and even pack a snack to enjoy with the view of the Bosphorus, the palace can offer a whole day of relaxing, enthralling, magical fun.
Info for visiting Topkapi Palace
- The palace sits on the Bosphorus coast in Sultanahmet, behind Aya Sofia. As you walk the Sultanahmet streets you’ll see glimpses of the heavy stone wall that wraps the palace grounds. There are two ways to enter these palace walls – both from Soğukçeşme Sk.
- Inside the palace walls there is a beautiful park, currently filled with tulips for the Turkish Tulip Festival, Istanbul Archaeology Museum, and the palace itself.
- Admission to the palace costs 25TRY. This will get you into the grounds and allow access to everything but the harem.
- Admission to the harem costs an extra 15TRY. Buy tickets from the harem entry (on your left as you enter the ‘Second Courtyard’, which is actually the first courtyard you encounter.)The harem really is worth the extra money for a look into royal lifestyle.
- There is so much history, so many stories, that the palace is best experienced with a well-read mind, a detailed guidebook or one of the audio guides available for extra charge at the front gate.
- Opening hours are 9am-5pm Wednesday to Monday and the bus loads start early, so get there around 9am to beat the crowds and make the most of the day.
- When I was there, the Imperial Kitchens and Hammam were closed to the public, but there was still plenty to see.