High on the hill in old Istanbul, next to the Hagia Sofia mosque, sits Topkapi Palace. When it comes to royal palaces in Europe, Topkapi wins the prize for the most beautiful views! Built in the 15th century, the Topkapi Palace was the ruling post for the Ottoman Empire and once home to as many as 4,000 people. Today, the Topkapi Palace Museum is a monument to Turkey’s importance for centuries.
In the west, our history of the Ottoman Empire is seriously lacking. I remember learning a little about it in school, but wasn’t prepared for the scope or importance of the Empire. From 1299-1923, the Ottoman Empire ruled in the east. The Islamic oriented state controlled land from Vienna to Somalia and Qatar. The Ottoman Empire was far larger and more important than I ever learned in school. And the Topkapi Palace was the center of this government.
The entrance to the Topkapi Palace is through the ornate archway immediately behind the Hagia Sofia. We walked through a lush garden to the ticket counter (this expansive garden is actually the First Courtyard) where we encountered a long ticket line.
Once we had tickets, we headed through the Gate of Salutation into the Second Courtyard (also known as Divan Square or the Divan Courtyard). The Topkapi Palace radiates out from this courtyard. From here, various aspects of palace life are visible. On the right, you can learn about housewares and daily life in the Topkai Palace Museum. I mean, who doesn’t love plates and housewares? Us, really.
In the central courtyard on the left were the ruling chambers for the Imperial Council. This was the seat of the Ottoman government for nearly 400 years (from 1465-1856). And this really is one of the absolute highlights of the Palace. You can almost imagine all the men sitting on their pillows and making decisions for the realm.
Through the next gate (the Gate of Felicity) is the Third Courtyard where the 400 rooms of the Harem are located. Yes, a harem. Visiting the Harem requires a separate ticket and sometimes a long wait so our guidebook advised buying that ticket before looking at anything else in the palace complex. We were fortunate and didn’t encounter a wait.
For many visitors (including us!) the Harem is the highlight of the Topkapi Palace Museum. We’ve long been fans of Middle Eastern and Islamic tilework and this Palace features some of the most colorful and intricate designs we’ve ever seen.
Surprisingly, in addition to the area for the concubines, the Harem also included the living quarters of the Queen Mother and the school rooms for the prince. One of our favorite rooms had the most unusual name we’ve heard in some time: the Courtyard of the Black Eunuch. It was a pretty room, but you kind of have to laugh at the name.
Another highlight for many visitors is the Imperial Treasury. Here, the vast wealth of the Sultans of the Ottoman Empire is displayed. The jewels are beautiful.
For us, a real highlight was the amazing view of Istanbul, the Bosphorus and the Marmara Sea from the Terrace (located just behind the Terrace Mosque). Despite the small space and a large number of visitors, we dwelled on the terrace soaking in the view that is modern Istanbul, including the incredible number of boats going up and down the Bosphorus.
Overall, we enjoyed our time at the Topkapi Palace Museum. Other than the tilework, it was not as ornate as we were expecting from a royal palace, but still beautiful. Historic Istanbul is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the Topkapi Palace is an important part of this cultural designation. It’s worth a visit to Topkapi for the tilework and Bosphorus views alone!