Topkapi Palace is the place from where for four hundred years the sultans decided the fate of the Ottoman Empire. Ringed with a strong fortress wall, it has reliably kept its secrets for centuries. Spread over an area of about 700 thousand square meters. m, Topkapi in Istanbul is rather a small city, where everything was located – from the treasury to the kitchens, from the office and the treasury to the harem, which during the heyday of the empire was important for the whole country.
Today, the palace complex is a museum, one of the most popular in Istanbul. About two million tourists visit it annually! On the territory of Topkapi, there are many interesting structures from different eras. Here are the ancient towers, which still remember Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror, and one of the most ancient Byzantine churches, preserved from the time of Constantinople, and the labyrinth of the premises of the Sultan’s harem built here in the 16th century, and amazingly beautiful elegant rooms for audiences, receptions and meetings of the viziers, and monumental gates, and exquisite pavilions of the palace garden … These various structures remind of magnificent ceremonies, and solemn receptions, and bloody executions, and amazing love stories, and numerous palace intrigues. For almost four centuries, while the Topkapi Palace served as the residence of the sultans and the administrative center of the Ottoman Empire, the most important events took place behind its powerful walls, fateful decisions were made, history was made.
In this article, we will tell you what to look for in this colorful museum complex, what places in it are the most interesting and remarkable. We will also share interesting facts about Topkapi, useful information and tips, and how best to plan an independent visit to one of the most popular museums in Istanbul.
History of Topkapi
Walk through the palace complex: the most interesting places
Interesting facts about Topkapi Palace
Topkapy on your own: tips and practical information
Topkapi Map: Highlights
Topkapi attractions on video
History of Topkapi Palace
Topkapi grew up on the site of the acropolis (fortress) of the city of Byzantium, the predecessor of Constantinople – later part of its walls became the foundation of the Topkapi walls. The construction of the palace complex began in 1459, 6 years after the Ottomans conquered Constantinople. Initially, it was called the New Palace in order to distinguish it from the unpreserved Old Palace, located on Bayazed Square (the sultan lived in it). And the name Topkapı Sarayı means “ Palace of the Cannon Gate ” – every departure of the Sultan from the residence was accompanied by a cannon shot.
Over the centuries, the palace has been rebuilt and expanded several times. One of the biggest reconstructions happened in the 16th century at the insistence of Alexandra Anastasia Lisowska, the wife of Suleiman the Magnificent – she insisted on transferring the harem to the palace in order to be closer to her husband and his affairs.
Topkapi Palace served as the residence of the Ottoman sultans until the middle of the 19th century. In 1856, another sultan moved his residence to the new Dolmabahce palace. Here, in the old Topkapi complex, the mint, the imperial treasury, the library and a number of other services and institutions have been preserved. Since 1924 Topkapi Palace has been declared a museum.
Walk in Topkapi Palace
How the palace complex works
The palace complex consists of four courtyards, each of which has a beautiful gate. From courtyard to courtyard, the privacy and importance of the services located there increased, and the opportunities to enter them narrowed. If the first courtyard was accessible to everyone, then only a select few could get into the Third, and especially the Fourth.
The first two courtyards of Topkapi belong to the outer part ( birun ), which was accessible to a relatively general public and included all kinds of administrative buildings. They received visitors, held official state ceremonies, and operated administrative and technical services. But the third and fourth courtyards are already the inner part of the palace ( enderun ), where only those close to the Sultan or privileged servants of the palace had access. Enderun is divided into selamlik (the territory of the sultan and his personal servants) and haremlik (the name itself suggests that this is the female half, where concubines, wives, children, sisters and the mother of the sultan lived – in general, the entire female and children’s part of his family).
Inspection of the palace will include both a walk through the open areas of courtyards surrounded by a whole complex of buildings, and (if desired, of course) visiting certain buildings and premises, inside which various expositions are available. We will tell you more about them below. When planning an independent visit to Topkapi in Istanbul, it is also worth considering that some parts of the complex require a separate ticket (for example, Ayia Irini Church or Harem).
Use Travelry’s free GPS travel guide for smartphones in Istanbul. In it you can easily find on the map the most interesting places in Topkapi and other sights of Istanbul.
Imperial Gate and First Courtyard of Topkapi
The main entrance to Topkapi Palace is the monumental Imperial Gate (Bab-ı Hümayun). Bab-s Hyumayun or Sultan’s Entrance was built by Mehmed the Conqueror back in 1478. They lead to the first, the largest of all the courtyards of the palace – the Janissary Yard (Alai Meydany). It was guarded by the Janissaries (as the name recalls) and was the only one accessible to all visitors. Visitors awaited an audience here, as well as some solemn ceremonies (and the Sultan could watch what was happening from the top floor of the gate – from the imperial box).
The Byzantine Church of St. Irene is located on the territory of the First Courtyard of Topkapi. This is one of the oldest Christian churches in the Byzantine capital and the only one not rebuilt into a mosque. Ayia Irini was built on the site of the ruins of the temple of Aphrodite during the Byzantine era.
And next to the ancient church is the Mint , where coins were minted during the Ottoman era, as well as jewelry and precious objects for the Sultan were created. Also in this courtyard is the building of the Istanbul Archaeological Museum .
It is from the Imperial Gate that we begin our tour of Topkapi with an audio guide in Istanbul Travelry. The Hofburg is part of the “Historic Heart of Vienna” audio tour as well as “Vienna in a Day”.
Gate of Welcome and Second Courtyard of Topkapi Palace
The Gate of Welcome (Babusselam), Bab-yus Selam or Sredinnye, was built in 1468. In the 16th century, Suleiman the Magnificent restored them, adding two towers in the style of European castles. It is noteworthy that while some especially important guests could enter Bab-yus Khumayun on horseback, everyone entered Bab-yus Selam on foot, except for the Sultan himself.
The second courtyard of the Topkapi Palace often became the main stage for many ceremonies of state importance – the declaration of war, the reception of foreign ambassadors, the enthronement of a new sultan, ceremonies associated with religious holidays.
This courtyard is called the Divan Meydanı, or Divan Square. “Divan” was called the Council of State , the highest authority in the empire, and Divanhane was the Ministerial Conference Hall. Above the Divan (Council of State) building rises the Adalet Tower (meaning “justice” or “legality”), built in the 15th century.
To the left of the State Council building there is the Coach Gate – the entrance to the famous Sultan’s harem. They are called carriages because closed carriages in which the concubines left for the city departed from here. The inscription “Harem” above the entrance is still visible today, and behind the door is a vast room with an area of more than 7 thousand square meters. m., where there are more than three hundred rooms, several baths, mosques and a whole maze of corridors. Only a small part of the harem is open to visitors, but it also allows you to feel the spirit of a bygone era.
The harem is adjoined by a Cafes – a “golden cage”, a prison palace , in which for years, and sometimes decades, the male heirs to the throne were kept. Such imprisonment replaced legalized murders – before the practice was such that princes were killed after the accession to the throne of the new Sultan.
One of the attractions of Topkapi’s second courtyard is the palace kitchens . Ten kitchens lined up in a row on the right side of the courtyard, all crowned with chimneys, and in each they prepared food for a different rank – from the sultan to the simple maids of the harem. Some of the kitchens have survived to this day in their original form – visitors can still look at huge pots, numerous pans and other kitchen utensils, including cutlery, candelabra and mirrors. And also look into the refectory, where tables were laid every day for the army of many thousands of the palace staff.
The central path of the second courtyard – Padishah’s Road – leads to the entrance to the third courtyard, the Gate of Bliss.
The Gate of Bliss and the Third Courtyard of Topkapi
Since the Gate of Happiness (Bab-i Saadet), Bab-i-Saadet is actually the entrance to the personal territory of the Sultan, the ruler of everything and everyone, their threshold had to be kissed by anyone entering. Some ritual ceremonies were also held in front of the gate, for example, the inauguration ceremony of the new sultan. Another name is the Audience Gate. Indeed, right next to the gate is the marble colonnade of the Audience Hall (Ars Odasi) of the 15th century.
This courtyard also housed the Enderun Palace School – an educational institution that prepared future servants of the empire: military, officials, other specialists and personal servants of the Sultan.
A special place among the structures of the third courtyard is occupied by the Treasury of Topkapi Palace . It contains a unique collection of jewelry: luxury items and jewelry, palace furniture and dishes, interior items and weapons. Special attention of tourists is attracted by the “Lozhechnik’s Diamond” weighing 86 carats, which, according to legend, found a poor man among the garbage and exchanged it with a cunning jeweler for three spoons (hence the name). Another celebrity is the Topkapi Dagger, inlaid with precious stones, with a clock hidden in its hilt.
The Pavilion of the sacred mantle and holy relics contains the most important shrines, both Muslim and Christian (the latter were inherited by the Ottomans from Byzantium). Among them are the Black Banner and the sacred robe of the Prophet Muhammad and the print of his foot, as well as the brush of John the Baptist, part of the skull of the Apostle Peter.
Fourth Courtyard of Topkapi
This is the most picturesque and romantic part of Topkapi Palace – a secluded garden on the top of a hill with several beautiful gazebos and pavilions. Once upon a time, the Ottoman sultans found peace and solitude here. From here one can enjoy the most beautiful views of the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn Bay, the Sea of Marmara and the Princes’ Islands, Galata Bridge and Ataturk Bridge. The famous watchtower of the Maiden is also visible from here, with which several legends are connected at once. As well as the 18-meter Gothic Column in Gulhane Park. You can admire this beauty from the observation deck of the Abdul-Majid pavilion, as well as from the terrace of the Konyali restaurant, a historical building that even Elizabeth II visited.
Interesting facts about Topkapi Palace in Istanbul
- Topkapi is one of the largest surviving palaces in the world – this complex spreads over an area of about 700 thousand square meters. m.
- For almost four centuries, when Topkapi Palace was the Sultan’s residence, 25 sultans were born there.
- On average, about 5000 people lived on the territory of the palace. In different periods, this figure, of course, varied – during periods of important state celebrations, for example, it almost doubled. The inhabitants of the palace were concubines, the Sultan’s family, and students at the Enderun palace school, and the military guarding this territory, and court doctors, eunuchs, and numerous servants …
- The palace served not only as the personal residence of the rulers , but also as the administrative center of the Ottoman Empire. Here meetings of ministers were held, all state affairs were decided, diplomatic receptions were arranged. In addition, Topkapi was also an important educational center – boys studied here, who later became military, officials or other servants of the empire and the Sultan, receiving a very good education.
- Originally the harem was located outside the palace walls. Only in the 16th century, under Suleiman the Magnificent, through the efforts of his beloved wife Roksolana (Khyurrem), the harem was moved closer to the personal chambers of the Sultan. In this regard, a major reconstruction of the palace was carried out.
- According to some versions, the same Khyurrem (which means “laughing”) was of Slavic origin. Once in the Sultan’s harem as a slave-concubine, she achieved fantastic success – she became the only wife of the Sultan, his friend and advisor, had a huge impact on the state affairs of the empire.
- Before the appearance of the Hagia Sophia Ayia Irini Church , which today is on the territory of the first courtyard of Topkapi, was the main temple of Constantinople. By the way, the Church of Ayia Irini is dedicated to the Divine Peace (from the Greek εἰρήνη – peace), and not to a certain Saint Irene.
- In the first courtyard of Topkapi in the Ottoman era, there were so-called “ edification stones “, on which the heads of those executed were “adorned”. And nearby was the Executioner’s Fountain , where the executioner washed his bloody hands and weapons after a hard day’s work.
- In the meeting room of the ministers (it is located in the second courtyard of Topkapi) there is a special window through which the Sultan could listen to discussions of state issues , remaining unnoticed by the assembled officials.
- The Kitchen Palace (a large complex of palace kitchens in the second courtyard) today houses one of the world’s largest collections of Chinese porcelain . And during the Ottoman Empire, up to a thousand chefs worked in them, serving the huge palace complex!
- The Treasury of Topkapi Palace contains one of the largest diamonds in the world (the 86-carat “Spooner Diamond”).
- From the observation deck in the fourth courtyard of Topkapi, you can see two parts of the world at once: both Europe and Asia. And also admire the views of the Sea of Marmara, the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus.
Check out our Istanbul travel guide for more interesting facts and amazing stories. It provides an audio guide to Topkapi Palace.
Topkapi Palace on its own: tips and practical information
Topkapi Museum in Istanbul is open on all days except Tuesday.
In the summer season (from April 1 to October 1): from 9.00 to 18.45 (the museum ticket office closes at 18.00).
In the winter season (from October 1 to April 1): from 9.00 am to 4.45 pm (ticket office is open until 4.00 pm).
When is the best time to visit Topkapi Palace
To avoid the crowds, plan your visit early in the morning (come straight to the opening) or in the evening closer to closing (after 15.00 – 16.00). The largest influx of visitors and tourist groups occurs in the first half of the day, from about 10 am to 3 pm. And if you are planning to visit the Harem and the Treasury, then start exploring directly from them, since it is in these places that most tourists accumulate.
The quietest time to visit, according to tourists, is Monday morning. But Wednesday and Friday are the most crowded days (especially Friday, when the Blue Mosque is closed all the first half of the day). The museum is closed on Tuesday.
The season, of course, also affects the comfort of visiting the museum. During the peak tourist season, Topkapi attracts many more visitors than during the winter months. The most successful periods for visiting the palace are spring and autumn, when Istanbul pleases with pleasant weather, but is not (or already) overcrowded with tourists.
How to get to Topkapi Palace on your own
Topkapi Palace can be reached by tram (line T1) – to the stops Gulhane or Sultanahmet .
You can also get there by the Marmaray train – in this case, you need to go to the Sirkeci station ( Sirkeci ), and from there go through Gulhane Park to the entrance to the museum complex.
The nearest metro station is Vezneciler (line M2). But you need to walk 2.5 kilometers from it.
By the way, you can get to Topkapi both from the side of Hagia Sophia (this way you will enter through the Imperial Gate into the first courtyard), and directly from Gulhane Park (then you will immediately get into the first courtyard of Topkapi).
Topkapi Palace is located next to the Sultanahmet area, which is replete with popular tourist attractions. Here and Blue Mosque , and Hagia Sophia , and Hippodrome square, and Basilica cistern (Erebatan) , and beautiful Gulhane Park , and several museums in Istanbul at once. On the one hand, this is great – you can combine a visit to Topkapi with an educational walk in the center. On the other hand, calculate your strength and plan your walk so as not to be pushed by a crowd of tourists. For example, it is worth combining the inspection of the Topkapi complex and the Hagia Sophia only if you have very little time, but you certainly want to see these iconic places. If there are at least a few days, then it is better to split the visit to the cathedral and the palace on different days. Each of these places deserves special attention and takes a lot of time. Therefore, it is better to visit them without fuss and rush.
Please Note ????
- Tickets to Ayia Irini Church and Topkapi Harem must be purchased separately from the main ticket.
- It is forbidden to take pictures inside the premises. The camera can only be used in open areas, in the courtyards of the complex.
- No open clothing (such as shorts) is allowed in the Pavilion of Sacred Relics – the same dress code as in mosques.
You can visit Topkapi Museum for free with the Museum Pass İstanbul, which is valid for 5 days and gives you the opportunity to visit the main museums of Istanbul for free, as well as take advantage of some discounts and privileges. Moreover, it also includes a visit to the Harem and the Church of Ayia Irini. If you plan to visit several museums in Istanbul, then using the museum pass will be much more profitable than buying tickets separately.
In addition, an important advantage of such a card is the ability to skip the line. This is especially true during the tourist season, when just waiting in line at the ticket office of the museum can take about 40 minutes.
For details and purchase of a museum pass, visit the official website (information and reservations in English).
Hear many interesting stories and facts about Topkapi Palace, the Sultan’s Harem and other parts of this unique complex on the Secrets of the Seral of Istanbul audio tour with Travelry Istanbul. Travel with inspiration!