At its peak, the Ottoman Empire was one of the largest empires in world history, spanning three continents. And for centuries, its administrative center was Istanbul’s Topkapı Palace. Topkapı also served as the sultans’ private residence, accessible to visitors who buy the special Topkapı Palace Harem ticket, an extra fee that few regret paying.
Taking up an area of 700,000 square meters, Topkapı Palace was established by Mehmed the Conqueror. This was the Ottoman sultan who, in 1453, invaded Constantinople, bringing down the Byzantine Empire for good.
And Topkapı Palace would maintain its place at the heart of the vast empire until 1854, when a new palace was established to the north at Dolmabahçe. But as opposed to the European-influenced art and architecture of Dolmabahçe Palace, Topkapı retains its distinctly Ottoman feel.
Upon the founding of the Republic of Turkey, Topkapı Palace was turned into a public museum in 1924. Ever since, it’s been one of Istanbul’s most popular tourist attractions – and rightfully so.
Exploring Topkapı Palace
Entry to the main palace costs 100 TL, while a ticket to the Topkapı Palace Harem costs an additional 70 (be sure to check for updated prices before your visit). Entry to both is included in the Istanbul Pass Museum Card, which you can learn more about below.
The main palace is divided into four different courtyards, while the harem can be accessed via the Second Courtyard. If you plan to see everything, expect for your visit to take around three or four hours.
In order to beat the crowds, it would be wise to get here as early as possible.
The First Courtyard
The first courtyard of Topkapı Palace is where you’ll line up to buy tickets. And within it, you’ll see the former Byzantine church of Hagia Irene, built over the site of the city’s first church established by Emperor Constantine. Used as an armory in Ottoman times, it’s now a separate attraction which requires its own ticket.
This courtyard was also home to the royal mint. But the main surviving highlight is the Gate of Salutation. Established in 1468 by Mehmed the Conqueror, it’s flanked by two tall towers which resemble a medieval castle.
The Second Courtyard
Stepping through the gate, you’ll arrive at the Second Courtyard, also known as the Council Square. This is where royal coronation ceremonies took place and where foreign ambassadors were received.
And the meetings with these ambassadors took place in the Imperial Council Hall, arguably one of the palace’s most beautiful structures.
The first thing you’ll notice, though, is the Tower of Justice. From here, the sultan could sit and observe ongoings of the palace. And he could also overlook a sizable portion of the city, not to mention the activity taking place at the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus.
The council hall was built by Suleiman the Magnificent in the 16th century, and its meetings were led by the grand vizier. Interestingly, the sultan wouldn’t directly participate in the meetings, but would sit behind the latticed upper window and observe.
The hall features an intricate hand-carved wooden ceiling, while much of the art was done in the Rococo, or the Late Baroque style. Rococo, a style also used at other Ottoman palaces, is known for being curvy and highly ornamental. It was especially popular in the 18th century when the most recent renovations here took place.
Topkapı Palace is home to two outstanding treasuries, one of which can be entered from this courtyard. Within this stone building is an immense collection of artifacts from throughout the Ottoman era.
The most notable items on display are numerous thrones, pieces of armor and weaponry, various ceremonial flasks, and the Topkapı dagger, ornamented with the largest piece of emerald in the world.
Unfortunately, no photography is allowed inside.
The opposite end of the Second Courtyard, meanwhile, was home to the palace kitchens. The large confectionary kitchen was roofed by four domes and was designed by legendary Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan in the 16th century.
Several chefs would compete with one another to rise through the ranks, and all types of Turkish sweets (baklava, halva, lokma, etc.) were produced within.
Interestingly, the kitchen area almost functioned as its own little village, and the chefs even had a two-story mosque to themselves.
One interesting landmark in the center of the courtyard is a commemorative pillar in honor of Sultan Selim III’s (r. 1789-1807) shooting of a target from around 900 meters away. Selim III would eventually be deposed by a Janissary revolt and executed, but this pillar was left in place.
As you make your way into the Third Courtyard, you’ll pass by one of Topkapı Palace’s most splendid gates: the Gate of Felicity. Topped with a dome, it features four marble columns and elaborate Rococo elements.
It was in front of this gate that thousands of Janissaries would participate in large ceremonies, such as royal coronations and holiday festivities.
Note the small stone in front, which is where the Sancak-ı Şerif, or banner of Muhammed himself, would be placed during declarations of war or armistice agreements.
Few outside the sultan’s inner circle were ever allowed to cross beyond this point, and the gate was normally kept closed. The sultan could instead traverse the different courtyards via the Topkapı Palace Harem.
For those with a ticket, the Second Courtyard is where the official harem entrance is located, but more on that below.
The Third Courtyard
The Third Courtyard, also known as the Inner Palace Court, is densely packed with some of Topkapı Palace’s most important buildings. Upon entering, the first structure you’ll encounter is the Audience Hall.
As opposed to the Imperial Council Hall, where meetings were conducted by the vizier, this is where the sultan himself would meet with foreign ambassadors. And he’d also discuss official matters here with the vizier.
The hall took its present form in the 16th century and contains both a throne hall and ablution room. But especially impressive is the exterior, adorned with blue and green tiles and surrounded by multiple columns.
Following a fire in the 19th century, it was reconstructed by the architects of Dolmabahçe Palace.
Next is the library, built by Sultan Ahmed III in the 18th century. It’s representative of the Tulip Period, a time in which tulip motifs were used as a symbol of nobility.
Furthermore, Ottoman architecture became increasingly inspired by the European Baroque style around this time.
The interior is covered in Iznik tiles from the 16th century, while floral motifs adorn much of the ceiling.
Amazingly, the library contained over 13,000 manuscripts and numerous miniature paintings. Not only were new books created at Topkapı Palace itself, but important religious texts were brought here from all throughout the empire.
It’s also from the Third Courtyard that visitors can enter the Inner Treasury, one of Topkapı Palace’s top highlights. Originally built as a residence during the reign of Mehmet the Conqueror, the building was converted to a treasury later on.
It now acts as a museum displaying the most prized possessions of the Ottoman royal family.
Many of them are extremely important to Islam, such as soil from Muhammad’s tomb, part of his tooth, and strands from his beard. A molding of his footprint and some of his swords are also on display.
Also kept here are various relics related to the Kaaba in Mecca, such as a set of keys and part of the gutter.
And the treasury even contains what it claims to be the staff of Moses and the sword of King David. As one might expect, photography is strictly prohibited inside.
The Fourth Courtyard
The Fourth Courtyard is the closest to the water, and contains many scenic viewpoints from which to look out at the Bosphorus, the Golden Horn and the Sea of Marmara.
It consists of two levels, and among the structures on the lower level is the Sofa Mosque, built by Sultan Mahmud II in the early 19th century.
Walking through a garden, you’ll come across a set of stairs taking you to a couple of interesting pavilions. One of them is the Baghdad Kiosk, built in honor of Sultan Murad IV’s victory in Baghdad in 1639. In Ottoman times, it served as a private library for the sultan.
One of the most stunning buildings in the entire palace, it’s been entirely decorated with tile-work, tortoiseshell and mother-of-pearl.
Everything in and around the kiosk, from the stained glass windows to the elegant cabinets, was created with extreme attention to detail. And in the center of the room is the original fireplace.
This building is one of the only surviving palace structures to have been created completely in the traditional Ottoman style without significant Western influence.
Nearby is the Iftariye Balcony, which offers an excellent view of the Golden Horn. Built in 1640 by Sultan Ibrahim, it was here that the sultan would break his Ramadan fast each evening.
Another structure in the area is the Circumcision Chamber, likely built by Suleiman the Magnificent in the 16th century.
As the name suggests, it’s where some of the Ottoman princes were circumcised as babies. Built on a square plan, it’s covered in turquoise and blue tiles.
The Topkapı Palace Harem
Accessed via the Second Courtyard, the Topkapı Palace Harem requires an additional entry ticket of 70 TL, but it’s also included in the Istanbul Card Museum Pass.
With all there is to see around the rest of the palace, you may be wondering if the harem is worth it. And the answer is yes. In fact, no visit to Topkapı Palace is complete without seeing it.
The Topkapı Palace Harem was the private residence of the sultan, his family, his concubines and numerous servants. Interestingly, many of these servants were prohibited from ever leaving the dwelling quarters.
The harem contains nearly 300 rooms in total, many of which were added after a large fire took place here in 1665.
Stepping inside, the first area you’ll encounter is the dwelling place of the Baltadji, or corps of palace guards. And just across from the dormitory is the guards’ mosque, decorated both inside and out with blue Iznik tiles.
Moving along, you’ll pass by the room of the Chief Pipe Attendant, where he’d prepare tobacco pipes for the Ottoman elite. Continuing forward, other rooms include a music school and the bathhouse of the eunuchs.
The Topkapı Palace Harem, full of dimly lit and narrow hallways, can sometimes feel like an underground labyrinth – a far cry from the grandiose royal mansions of Europe.
Don’t miss the room called ‘Dome with Cupboards,’ featuring ornate tilework and a unique floor comprised of colored stone.
It was here that documents and funds related to maintaining the holy sites in Mecca and Medina were kept – areas which the Ottoman Empire controlled for centuries.
Nearby is the Mosque of the Black Eunuchs. As was common with many royal households, only castrated males were allowed to serve in the royal residence. And here at the Topkapı Palace Harem, the Ottomans separated their eunuchs between black and white.
Most Ottoman eunuchs were slaves, but upon working in the royal palace, they could rise through the ranks and achieve quite a high status, not to mention great wealth.
Within the mosque is a unique tile panel depicting the Mosque of the Prophet in Medina. It was specifically designed for this room in the 17th century. Another, meanwhile, depicts Mt. Arafat, a holy mountain near Mecca.
And nearby is the entrance to the Tower of Justice mentioned above.
One of the most interesting sections of the Topkapı Palace Harem is the open hallway which served as the main harem entrance. Largely renovated after the fire of 1665, it was managed by the black eunuchs, who also had their dorm rooms nearby.
In the cramped and dimly lit harem, this is one of the few places that receives ample natural light.
Close by is the apartment of the Queen Mother, featuring a sofa and fountain. The depictions of nature were later added in the 19th century, appearing as artificial windows. Similar decorations are also commonplace throughout Dolmabahçe Palace.
Next is the elaborate bath complex, parts of which were used by the sultan and others by the high-ranking women. The hamam was designed in the 16th century by none other than Mimar Sinan.
The master architect was known for such iconic buildings as the Selimiye Mosque in Edirne and the Süleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul, among many others.
Notice how the sultan’s bath was protected by an iron lattice as a safety precaution. Even in this luxurious private harem, Ottoman sultans could never fully let their guard down.
In total, the Topkapı Palace Harem contains over a dozen hamams. The tradition dates back to Roman times, and many ruins of elaborate Roman bathhouses can still be seen throughout Anatolia.
Soon you’ll enter the Imperial Hall, arguably the most impressive room of the entire harem. Built in 1585 by architect Davud Agha, the room was used for things like royal parties and weddings.
The gallery off to the side was where female participants, such as the sultan’s wives and mother, would sit during the festivities. Its golden painted wooden carvings date to the late 16th century.
The hall features 26 windows in total, and the blue and white tiles adorning most of the walls were added in the 18th century. Interestingly, the hall had a central heating system implemented by hot water channels from the bathhouse running beneath the floor.
Moving on, you’ll reach the Privy Room of Murad III, also designed by Mimar Sinan. Adorned with 16th-century Iznik tiles and decorated with floral motifs, this room is considered by some to represent the zenith of Ottoman art.
For centuries, it served as the private apartment for tens of Ottoman sultans.
Getting near the end, you’ll reach the Topkapı Palace Harem Mosque. During your visit, you may even encounter additional rooms such as the ‘Fruit Room’ and ‘Twin Kiosk,’ or private chambers of the crown prince. But these seemed to be under renovation at the time of my trip.
The Topkapı Palace Harem was also home to a large community of concubines, many of whom were either purchased as slaves or captives in war. As many of them were of non-Muslim origin, the harem is where they’d learn about Islam along with the etiquette expected of them as a royal concubine.
As with many other aspects of Ottoman life, the concubines were ranked hierarchically, and women competed with one another to get ahead. While many simply worked as servants, others tried to master enough skills in order to eventually serve the sultan himself – possibly even marrying him.
Some, however, would eventually be granted their freedom following nine years of service.
The Topkapı Palace is situated within Istanbul’s Sultanahmet district, which is also home to many of the city’s other famous historical sites (Hagia Sophia, Hippodrome, Blue Mosque, Basilica Cistern, etc.). Accordingly, there are plenty of hotels to choose from around here.
I stayed in the Eminönü neighborhood to the west of Sultanahmet, which I found perfect for getting around. Not only is the neighborhood within walking distance of Sultanahmet, but it’s also near the ferry port from which Bosphorus cruises depart, along with boats to the Anatolian side and Büyükada.
If you’re a budget traveler, there’s a certain section of Eminönü just southwest of the Haliç Metro Station that’s home to numerous cheap hotels.
Most of them aren’t listed online, but you can simply walk around and pick one out. I stayed at a place called Ferah Otel which only cost me 75 TL per night for a private room/bathroom and with decent internet. It was a bit rough around the edges, but there are slightly fancier hotels around the area as well.
Many visitors choose to stay in the Taksim district, as did I during my first visit to the city. But as nice as Taksim is, it’s not the most convenient base for visiting Istanbul’s major attractions.
Given its population of over 15 million people, Istanbul’s public transport system is surprisingly substandard. While the city has both a subway and a tramway, there are many significant landmarks and bustling neighborhoods that neither rail system will take you to.
I found public bus to be the most convenient way to get around Istanbul, though traffic jams are a frequent problem. The bus routes are marked on Google Maps, so you shouldn’t have much trouble getting around as long as you have internet access.
If you’re based in the Sultanahmet or Eminönü districts, many of Istanbul’s major attractions will be walkable.
And for those visiting the Anatolian side, frequent ferries depart from Eminönü and Karaköy.
Before beginning your explorations around the city, you may want to consider buying an Istanbul Museum Card.
As one might expect, the entry fee for attractions in Istanbul are considerably higher than in other parts of the country, and this pass is one of the few that actually saved me money.
At the time of my visit, the pass cost 325 TL. Valid for 5 days, it allowed access to Galata Tower (30 TL), the Istanbul Mosaic Museum (30 TL), the Istanbul Archaeology Museum (50 TL), Hagia Irene (60 TL), Topkapı Palace (100 TL) and Harem Apartments (70 TL), and numerous other attractions.
It also included the Chora Church, though that should already be a free mosque by now.
As prices are always changing in Turkey due to inflation, be sure to check the current prices of everything before making your decision.
While the Turkish government isn’t quite as extreme as China when it comes to online censorship, you’ll probably want a decent VPN before your visit.
I’ve tried out a couple of different companies and have found ExpressVPN to be the most reliable.
Booking.com is currently banned in the country (at least when you search for domestic accommodation). However, there are actually quite a few Turkish hotels listed on there anyway. And many them don’t even appear on Hotels.com, which hasn’t been banned.
Over the course of my trip, I ended up making quite a few reservations with Booking.com and was really glad I had a VPN to do so.
Another major site that’s banned is PayPal. If you want to access your account at all during your travels, a VPN is a must.
While those are the only two major sites that I noticed were banned during my trip, Turkey has even gone as far as banning Wikipedia and Twitter in the past.