The Topkapi Palace is one of the most iconic buildings in Istanbul, Turkey. It’s known for its opulent architecture and its extensive gardens. In this blog post, we’ll take a closer look at the history of the palace and its place in modern Turkish culture.
It’s one of the most important historic buildings in Turkey, and it’s full of fascinating stories and beautiful art. The palace was built by the Ottoman sultan Mehmed II in the 15th century, and it served as the main residence of the sultans for almost 400 years.
Today, it’s a museum that houses an incredible collection of art and artifacts from the Ottoman period. Visiting Topkapi Palace is a great way to learn about the history of Turkey and get a taste of the opulent lifestyle of the Ottoman sultans.
Is Topkapi Palace worth visiting? Yes! Topkapi Palace is definitely worth visiting!
And be sure to buy your tickets in advance so you don’t have to queue up (book a skip the line with guide and audio guide app here).
The palace is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Istanbul. It’s one of the most visited museums in Turkey, and it’s also a popular spot for weddings and other special events. The palace is huge, so allow plenty of time to explore all the different rooms and galleries. It’s also known for its harem, its extensive gardens, and its lavish architecture.
If you’re planning a trip to Istanbul, be sure to add the Topkapi Palace to your itinerary!
What to expect when visiting the Topkapi Palace
Sultans, courtiers, concubines and eunuchs
The Palace is the subject of more fascinating stories than most museums in the world. The lustful sultans, ambitious courtiers, beautiful concubines and cunning eunuchs who lived and worked here between the 15th and 19th centuries provide a captivating glimpse into their lives. Mehmet the Conqueror built the first stage of this palace shortly after he conquered Constantinople in 1453.
Subsequent sultans continued to live in this luxurious environment until they moved to ostentatious European-style palaces on the shores of Bosphorus.
Before you enter through Imperial Gate, take a look at ornate structure situated in cobbled square just outside. There you will see a beautiful rococo style fountain.
The First Court
As you enter the First Court, also known as the Court of the Janissaries or the Parade Court, you’ll see the Byzantine church of Hagia Eirene on your left.
The Second Court
The Middle Gate leads to the palace’s Second Court, which was used for the business of running the empire. In Ottoman times, only the sultan and the valide sultan (mother of the sultan) were allowed through the Middle Gate on horseback. Everyone else, including the grand vizier, had to dismount.
The Second Court has a beautiful park-like setting. Unlike typical European palaces, which feature one large building with outlying gardens, Topkapı is a series of pavilions, kitchens, barracks, audience chambers and sleeping quarters built around a central enclosure.
As you enter the palace on the right, you’ll find the great kitchens, which include a dedicated space for confectioneries. This is also where you’ll find a small portion of Topkapı’s vast collection of Chinese celadon porcelain. The celadon was valuable to the sultans not only for its beauty, but because it was said to change color if it came in contact with poisoned food.
On the left side of the Second Court, you’ll see the ornate Imperial Council Chamber. This is where the council met to discuss matters of state. Sometimes, the sultan would eavesdrop on these conversations by listening through the grille in the wall.
The Harem in Topkapi Palace
The Harem is located beneath the Tower of Justice on the western side of the Second Court. If you’re interested in visiting, you’ll need to buy a ticket (this ticket includes a visit to the Harem).
As popular belief would have it, the Harem was a place where the sultan could engage in debauchery at will. In more prosaic reality, these were the imperial family quarters, and every detail of Harem life was governed by tradition, obligation and ceremony. The word ‘harem’ literally means ‘forbidden’ or ‘private’.
The sultan could have up to 300 concubines in the Harem, although there were usually fewer than this. The girls who entered the Harem would be schooled in Islam and Turkish culture and language, as well as the arts of make-up, dress, comportment, music, reading, writing, embroidery and dancing. Islamic law allowed the sultan to have four legitimate wives, who received the title of kadın (wife).
The sultan’s chief wife, the valide sultan, owned large landed estates and controlled them through black eunuch servants. She could give orders directly to the grand vizier, and her influence on the sultan, his wives and concubines, and matters of state was often profound.
The Harem complex has six floors, but only one of these is open to visitors. To get there, you’ll need to go through the Carriage Gate. Next to the gate is the Dormitory of the Corps of the Palace Guards, a beautifully restored two-storey building with stunning 16th- and 17th-century İznik tiles. Close by is the Hall with the Fountain, lined with gorgeous tiles featuring botanical motifs and inscriptions from the Koran.
Then there is the Courtyard of the Black Eunuchs, also decked out with beautiful Kütahya tiles and if you look to the left behind the marble colonnade, you’ll see the Black Eunuch’s Dormitories.
The reception room past the Courtyard of the Valide Sultan is beautifully decorated with a large fireplace and Kütahya tiles from the 17th century. This was where the princes, valide sultan, and senior concubines waited before being received by the sultan in the magnificent Imperial Hall.
Nearby is the magnificent Privy Chamber of Murat III, one of the most splendid rooms in the palace. This room dates back to 1578 and almost all of its decoration is original. The three-tiered marble fountain has been restored and it was originally designed to make it difficult for people to eavesdrop on conversations held by the sultan. The gilded canopied seating areas are from the late eighteenth century. The adjoining dining room walls are lined with wooden panels that have images of flowers and fruits painted them in lacquer colors.
The two of the most beautiful rooms in the Harem are the Twin Kiosk/Apartments of the Crown Prince. Take note of the painted canvas dome in the first room and the fine İznik tile panels above the fireplace in the second. The stained glass is also noteworthy. Past these rooms is the Courtyard of the Favourites. Over the edge of the courtyard (really a terrace), you’ll see a large empty pool. Overlooking the courtyard are the tiny windows of the many small dark rooms comprising the kafes (cage) where brothers or sons of the sultan were imprisoned. Adjoining it is the tiled Harem Mosque with its baroque mihrab, which points to Mecca.
See also: Where to Experience a Traditional Hammam in Istanbul
The Third Court
The Third Court is the sultan’s private domain, which can be accessed through the Gate of Felicity. It was staffed and guarded by white eunuchs. Important officials and foreign ambassadors were brought to the Audience Chamber to conduct the high business of state. The sultan, seated on a huge divan, inspected the ambassadors’ gifts and offerings as they were passed through the doorway on the left.
The Dormitory of the Expeditionary Force, located on the eastern edge of the Third Court, houses the palace’s rich collection of imperial robes, kaftans and uniforms worked in silver and gold thread.
The Sacred Safekeeping Rooms are located on the other side of the Third Court. These ornately decorated rooms contain many relics of the Prophet, and were only opened once a year for the imperial family to pay their respects during Ramazan. The Dormitory of the Privy Chamber is next to the sacred Safekeeping Rooms and contains an exhibit of portraits of 36 sultans.
If you’re looking for an incredible collection of gold, silver, ruby, emerald, jade, pearl and diamond objects, the Topkapı Treasury is the place for you. Some of the highlights include the jewel-encrusted Sword of Süleyman the Magnificent and the extraordinary Throne of Ahmed I (aka Arife Throne) and which was designed by the same architect who also created the Blue Mosque. There are many more enormous emeralds, diamond and dozens of smaller beautiful stones.
The Fourth Court
The Fourth Court at the palace is home to several pleasure pavilions, including the Mecidiye Kiosk. Underneath the Mecidiye Kiosk is the Konyalı restaurant, which has a lovely terrace with great views. But you’ll find better food for better value elsewhere.
There is also a Tulip Garden with stairs leading up to a Marble Terrace. This platform hosts a decorative pool and three pavilions.
If you look closely, you’ll see İznik tiles on the walls and a painted ceiling with mother-of-pearl and tortoiseshell inlay—truly beautiful craftsmanship.
If you’re looking for another top attraction to visit, check out the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul.