Topkapi is a former Ottoman Palace that has been converted into a museum. It is located right by Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque.
- Grand Hyatt Istanbul
- Istiklal Avenue Istanbul
- Blue Mosque Istanbul
- Hagia Sophia Istanbul
- Eminonu New Mosque & The Egyptian Spice Market
- Old Town Istanbul (at night)
- Doubletree Istanbul Old Town
- KLM Business Class Istanbul – Amsterdam – San Francisco
- 5 Things I Love About Istanbul
If you’re going to check out Topkapi Palace, I highly recommend getting there early. Not only is it going to take you all day to tour the place, but it gets very crowded if you arrive late. We got there around 11 AM and although there were lines at the ticket booth and at the various exhibits, they did move quickly.
There are tour guides near the ticket booth, charging $15 per person on top of the ticket price. Touring this place at my own pace was pretty tiring, so if you get a tour guide it might take even longer (or you’ll get rushed through it and end up even more exhausted).
At the ticket counter, I paid with my Chase Sapphire Preferred (my go-to card abroad). The stone-faced agent picked up my card and said matter of factly, “Nice card. Are you rich?” You gotta love people’s responses to the Sapphire Preferred (if I had an affiliate link, this would be the perfect plug).
Past the Gate of Salutation, all visitors are required to go through a security screening. This is in response to the November 30, 2011 attacks at the palace. Security was very quick.
There was a booth past security that sold audio guides and maps. These came in various languages, including English, German, Farsi, Arabic, and others. They do take your ID when you pick one up, as they’re technically only renting them out to you. When the agent took my ID, he looked at it and asked where I was from. When I told him Afghanistan, he responded with sincerity, “Your country and my country are like brothers. We love Afghanistan.” I thought this was very nice, and it wouldn’t be the only time I’d hear something like this from a local.
I highly recommend you pick up a map for the tour. There is a lot to see and it might not be obvious. There were a few things that annoyed me about Topkapi:
1. Some things are listed on the map but are out of sight. Example: The Palace Kitchen. It would have been interesting to see, but instead, we were guided to a set of closed doors with signs indicating the kitchen was behind them.
2. No photos allowed in the Chamber of Sacred Relics or any other artifacts worth photographing. I strongly believe if there’s no harm in breaking a rule, you should (I know – entitlement generation and whatnot). I did get stopped a few times by security guards who made me delete my photos, but I came away with a few shots, so victory (no matter how blurry) is mine!
Topkapi’s claim to fame is the Sacred Relics collection: Abraham’s pot; Moses’ staff; Mohammad’s banner, sword, tooth, and hair; Joseph’s turban; scrolls belonging to “prophet John” (I assume they meant John the Baptist); keys and locks to the Kaaba, and various other artifacts that allegedly belonged to the prophets of the three major religions.
Of course, the authenticity of some of these items are questionable. While covering sacred items in gold is a method of restoration and a sign of respect, I don’t think it has the same effect as seeing the artifact in its original form. I also found it obnoxious how a prayer rug purportedly belonging to Fatimah (daughter of Mohammed) consisted of a small piece of the original rug, sown over a large cloth. It just seemed like some of the relics had been tampered with, denigrating their historical value to a degree.
The exhibit also claimed to display hair and a tooth belonging to Prophet Mohammad – however, the only thing on display was the box with a sign stating that these items were contained within. Why on earth anybody would stand in line to gawk at a box is beyond me – and I have no idea why the museum curator would find a box to be a sufficient substitute. It’s like going to the Louvre and being told you can’t look at the Mona Lisa, but here’s the velvet curtain preventing you from seeing it.
There are plenty of other treasures to admire at the Imperial Treasury, where I saw and unsuccessfully tried to photograph the most beautiful armor I’ve ever seen (because I see so many on a daily basis). How can you lose any battle when you’re literally draped in gold? I’m sure opponents of the Ottomans were distracted by all the bling. Do a Google search on “Mustafa III Armor” to see what I’m talking about.
The jewelry owned by the Sultans would make Harry Winston’s stuff look like cheap trinkets. Stunning! When the palace maids would get married, they were allowed to borrow these gems for their big day. Talk about job perks!
My mom and sister liked to rush through quickly, so they took off by themselves while my dad and I took a more leisurely approach to the tour. We saw the Sofa (Terrace) Mosque and pretty much everything else that was marked on the map.
A lot of the Palace consists of big, empty rooms. There is Sultan Ahmed III’s Library, which has beautifully painted walls but is completely bare. Considering it’s a library, it would have made sense to furnish it with books that were contained there originally.
By the end of the tour, we were exhausted. I turned to my dad and asked if he wanted to see the Harem (hoping he’d say no). He said it was up to me and when I asked if he had the patience for it, his response was, “There’s not an ounce of patience left, but I will go if you want to see it.” With that, we headed out on our aching feet to get something to eat.
There is a restaurant by the Grand Kiosk, which is quite famous. Queen Elizabeth, Jackie Kennedy, and Muhammad Ali have all dined there. It was packed and we did not want to wait. There is another cafe in the same building as the Imperial Council Hall, but the menu selection was nonexistent. It consisted mainly of snack items.
Maybe next time I’ll visit the Harem, but on this day all I could think about was getting something to eat and then sticking my feet into a tub of ice. Based on my mom and sister’s feedback, it wasn’t anything to get excited over anyway.
Overall, Topkapi Palace is an interesting place to visit, but be prepared for a long day of sightseeing and a few disappointments.