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Topkapi - Turkey's Top Palace and Most Popular Museum
Topkapi Palace (Istanbul, Turkey)
Member Name: koshkha
Topkapi Palace (Istanbul, Turkey)
Advantages: Spectacular - it's hard to believe people lived with such opulence
Disadvantages: You may become very disatisfied with your bathroom tiling after visiting.
For me Istanbul has a 'Big Five' of world class attractions. There are two spectacular mosques - the Sultanahmet (or Blue Mosque) and the Suleymaniye - there's the mega-fabulous church-turned-mosque-turned museum called the Hagia Sophia (or Aya Sofia) and the two most visited palaces - the Dolmabahce and the Topkapi Palace. The last of these - the Topkapi - is probably my favourite of the lot and my husband and I spent a few hours there during our most recent visit to Istanbul, returning because we'd loved it so much the first time we'd been about 8 years earlier.
The Topkapi Palace is the most visited museum in all of Turkey and a report I found online claimed 8.5 million visitors in the first 4 months of 2012. There are a number of reasons for its popularity; it's in the right place, tucked away on the edge of the Old City where most people tend to stay when going to the city for a holiday but more importantly it's absolutely amazingly spectacularly wonderful.
Topkapi Palace sits on the Seraglio Point, a wooded hillside which overlooks the Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmara and sits on the 'nose' of the Golden Horn. The palace was home to the Ottoman sultans who ruled the city for over 400 years and originally commissioned by Sultan Mehmet II after he concquered Constantinople in the 15th Century. This spectacular set of buildings were constructed between 1459 and 1465 and are laid out in a series of courtyards which are thought to recreate the typical layout of a nomadic Ottoman camp. The palace was the main seat of the sultans until 1853 when Sultan Abdul Mecit I upped sticks to move down by the river in the Dolmabahce Palace. I can see the benefits of the river front location but at the same time it's hard to imagine anyone wanting to move out of such a beautiful spot as Topkapi.
The palace has been open to the public as a museum for nearly 90 years, ever since the Ottomans were kicked out with the formation of the Turkish Republic. It's still really popular with school groups and you're likely to find lots of small children in matching uniforms running excitedly around the palace learning about what a high old time the Sultans use to have. You could probably go a dozen times and never see everything, if only because there's always some part of the place that's closed for renovations. On our first visit the entire 'Treasury' was off limits whilst this time we missed out on the much less impressive kitchens. Like painting a big bridge, they no sooner finish one bit than have to start work on the next.
The palace comprises a collection of open courtyards with rooms around their perimeter and several 'pavilions'so beautiful that they're likely to have you yearning to totally redecorate your home in the style of the Ottoman sultans. IKEA it's not! The overall footprint is a large rectangle and the layout reminds me of a mixture between a Roman villa and an Indian Mughal palace whilst being uniquely different from either.
The so-called First Courtyard actually lies outside the palace walls. This is where you can find the ticket booths, a small cafe and lots of nice green lawns as well as the Executioners Fountain where the man with the sword would wash his hands and his weapon after chopping off heads for a public execution. The first and second courtyards are separated by a wall with the entrance gate in the middle which looks distinctly Disney-like.
The second courtyard is rather lovely with lawns and lots of mature trees offering shade and quite a few benches offering somewhere to sit down. If you want Harem tickets you can buy them at the office next to the Harem entrance - if you can't see the signs, just ask for directions. You'll find a rather limited and dull display of royal carriages which can be viewed through glass windows near the entrance. The kitchens are on the right of the courtyard but aren't currently open. The Harem is on the left side of this courtyard and a few very ornate public rooms just next to the Harem can be seen without a ticket and will give some hints of the opulence beyond.
Passing into the third courtyard, you'll find a much smaller space with the library standing alone in the middle and the treasury standing to the right side. We passed into the courtyard through the 'Gate of Felicity' only to find a long queue and since we hadn't taken a map with us, we weren't sure what it was for and so decided to come back later when the line wasn't so long. I would advise not skipping the line since this is for the spectacular treasury room and it does move quite quickly thanks the the cattle prods used by the guards at the front (only kidding!)
The fourth courtyard is my favourite as it's where you'll find most of the pavilions as well as the best views. The pavilions are a bit like exotic summerhouses decorated with exquisite tiles and paint work, with carved wood and fabulous old chandeliers. Their location slightly lower than the previous courtyards and overlooking the sea seems to suck cooler air into the buildings and create soothing breezes. The Bagdhad Pavilion is one of my favourites and looks like the perfect place for the Sultan and his friends to recline on cushions, sip their cool drinks and eat Turkish Delight (well, it is Istanbul, everyone should) whilst having a natter about how proud they were to have captured Baghdad. The nearby 'Circumcision Pavilion' probably had every visitor of the male sex crossing his legs and wincing rather than taking in the fabulous tiles and lavish gilding.
The palace has several special collections available to view. I'll admit we didn't even attempt to see them all since this was our second visit and since I'm sure we'll go again at some time in the future and I always like to leave a few bits to come back to. The Treasury is a 'must see' and contains jewels that will have you salivating and wondering at how anyone could wear such things without falling over. There are thousands of fabulous precious and semi-precious stones, many of them set in unique or unusual ways. Somewhat disappointingly, some of the biggest diamonds are the least impressive (due to being cut to maintain size rather than to create brilliance) but there is one diamond - a massive 86 carat beauty. This is known as the 'Spoonmakers Diamond' and was allegedly found on a rubbish dump and swapped with its finder for a few spoons. It is quite simply one of the most awesome gems I've ever seen (and I do go looking for them!) There are bejewelled weapons, fabulous jewellery including some egg sized emeralds, carved decorative items and gifts passed between the various royal families with whom the Sultans came into contact, fancy tableware encrusted with jewels, a fabulous throne and even a cradle, heavy with gold and jewels. The security guys - who don't have tazers but look like they wish they did - will attempt to hurry you along but try to stand your ground and take things at a pace that will give you a chance to read the explanatory plaques as many of the items need some explanation and the stories can add to their impact.
There are also collections of ceramics, arms and armour, imperial clothing, clocks and miniature paintings, each housed in different parts of the palace. If you are particularly interested in these collections, I suggest to take the time to get maps ahead of your visit and plan what you want to see since once you're inside the palace, it's really easy to just get completely overwhelmed by the place and forget what you were looking to see.
On this occasion we didn't see the Harem partly because we'd been before, loved it but not felt the need to see it again, and partly because we were being a bit mean. If the tickets had been sold alongside the main palace tickets, I think I'd probably have bought them but once inside we found plenty to see and opted to skip the Harem this time. If you're going for the first time, don't have a tight schedule to get round and on to your next attraction and you LOVE lavish ceramic tiling, then I suggest you do pay the extra to see these additional rooms. If you'll only ever go once, then don't miss it. You cannot just wander into the Harem; even with a ticket you'll have to wait for your allotted time and join a tour group. If you're lucky to get a good tour leader, try to stick close so you can hear what they're saying. If you get one who's completely incomprehensible, then hang on at the back so you can get some better photos when people are out of the way.
At the Dolmabahce Palace, the guides are at pains to clarify that the Harem is just the name given to the private areas of the Sultan's family but I suspect this is a little bit of historical repositioning. Turkey's a modern country and not the type of place that likes to harp on about it's past of slavery and female exploitation. The Topkapi represents an earlier period than the Dolmabahce and the Sultans were men of eclectic and exotic tastes. According to my guide book many of the women of the Topkapi harem were concubine slaves, beautiful women brought from across the Ottoman empire to keep the Sultan entertained. It was of course also the place where the 'official' women of the family lived too - the wives and their children - all in purdah, unseen by men from outside the family with the exception of eunuch guards.
If you think the public rooms of the palace and the pavilions are spectacular, then the level of décor in the Harem goes a step or two beyond. Whilst the women and children were effectively captive in this area, they were birds in very gilded and very beautifully decorated cages. The standard of the tiling, the carving and the painting in this part of the palace are absolutely jaw-droppingly awesome and the finest examples of their kind
~How long do you need~
If you are Japanese in a tour group or from any nation on a cruise boat with just a half day to see all of Istanbul, you can do it in about 45 minutes but you won't see much. If you like to take your time, want to see EVERYTHING and don't mind sitting around soaking up the sun, pondering how life would have been in the days of the Ottoman sultans, and waiting for your entrance time for the Harem, you could spend 5 or 6 hours here and take a picnic. On this visit I think we were there about 3 hours and on our previous visit we were there for four or five. I'd say 2 hours is enough if you aren't massively interested and you skip the Harem and if the Treasury line isn't too bad. You'll never see everything and if you're anything like me, no sooner will you leave than you start wanting to plan your next visit.
~The Cold, Hard Financial Facts~
You can very easily spend quite a lot of money (by local terms) on a trip to Topkapi Palace so it's worth knowing the facts before you go. The standard entrance ticket is 25 TL and the additional guided tour of the Harem Apartments is another 15 TL. You need to buy a timed entrance ticket for the Harem and if you are sure you want to see this part of the palace, it's best to buy as soon as you go into the palace or you could end up with a really late entrance and have to hang around all day. If you want an audio tour, that'll set you back another 10 TL and if you fancy a coffee in the only cafe inside the gates, it'll cost you an arm and a leg with a cup of Nescafe at over a fiver. If you want a proper sit-down lunch, you might want to consider selling your first born child in order to finance your meal. On the plus side, there's nobody checking to make sure you don't take your own food and drink so you can do that very easily. It will take a few hours to see the place properly so come prepared.
If you are going to try to see a lot of attractions in a short time, then it's worth knowing that the Topkapi Palace and its harem apartments are included in the Museum Pass Istanbul which costs 72 TL for 72 hours. The other attractions include the Chora Museum, Hagia Sophia, Archaeological Museum, Mosaic Museum (currently closed for renovations) and the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts. Since Topkapi and the Harem plus Hagia Sophia would set you back 65 TL, any visits to the other museums are almost for free but could lead you to spend your holiday running around like crazy people trying to make sure you get value from your pass. Also keep in mind that most of the museums are closed on Tuesdays and the pass doesn't include other things that you'll want to see and which could cut into the 72 hour deadline.
More usefully perhaps, the site which sells the Museum Pass (http://muze.gov.tr/museum_pass) also sells tickets for some of the big attractions including Topkapi Palace. You can buy these before you go to Turkey, print off your tickets and then jump the queue when you get to the place you want to see. Don't underestimate how much you'll wish you'd done this when you're standing in a really long line in blazing sunshine watching all the pre-booked tour groups walk straight past you and into the palace. For example on our first visit to Topkapi, we waited ver an hour to get tickets and even on our recent visit we were waiting for 20 minutes. At peak times queueing time can seriously cut into your holiday. Also take note that if you don't want to buy the audio tour, you can still download the map here: http://www.acoustiguide.com/tours/Topkap​ ;i/Download_Map/Espro.Topkapi.pdf
Summary: I love it - and recommend it highly.