Travels in Istanbul: Sultan’s Palaces

We visited the big two Palaces, Topkapı and Dolmabahçe, on different days, and under slightly different circumstances. There are multiple Sultan’s Palaces in Istanbul on both sides Bosporus Strait, and both Topkapı and Dolmabahçe Palace are located on the European side. There are others on the Asian side that unfortunately we did not have time to see, but you will definitely notice them if you take a Bosporus boat tour (which you should do).

Our first visit was to Topkapı Palace, which is located on Sultanhamet Square, directly behind the Hagia Sofia. It was built by Mehmed the Conqueror after he took Constantinople in 1453. Every subsequent Sultan added to the walled complex, and it was used as the administrative headquarters of the Ottoman Empire until 1856, when Dolmabahçe Palace was finished in 1853.

We first encountered the entrance at night; it’s walls and gate are intimidating and give nothing away as to the splendors that reside inside its gates.

We returned during the day with our new friends Rob and Amanda, who we met on a tour to Pamukkale and met up with again here in Istanbul.

Once we entered the main gate, we were inside the large gardens, with huge trees lining the main path, which led to the ticket booth and the next gate into the palace (the picture of the gardens below faces the Hagia Sofia, not the palace entrance).

In 1924 Topkapı was turned into a museum and Turkey’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism now administers the Topkapı Palace Museum. Visiting the Sultan’s Harem costs extra, but we paid it, and it was the highlight and where we went first on our visit.

Harem means “a holy place where not everyone is allowed to enter” in Arabic, and refers to private life in Islamic countries (though note that Turkey is a secular nation). The Sultan, the Sultan’s mother, his wives, children and siblings all lived in the Harem; along with maids and eunuchs who guarded it.

Today there are over 300 rooms (though we did not see near that many), nine baths, two mosques, a hospital, laundry room and numerous dormitories.

Sultan’s Bedroom

The Harem was to ensure the continuation of the Sultan’s line. The women who engaged in a relationship with the Sultan were known as gözde, and if they gave birth to a child of the Sultan, they were granted the title of ikbal (or wife). The Mabeyn apartment (and courtyard) was built in the mid-1700s as well as the “Apartment of Favorites (of the Sultan).” Below are windows of the apartment and the view from the courtyard.

The ceilings inside the harem and its baths (the ones with the geometric shapes and light shining through) are impressive.

The mother of the Sultan was very powerful, as often she would rule if the Sultan was not of age, and even after coming of age, was a very important person in the hierarchy. She had a grand courtyard and many rooms inside the harem.

After we walked the grounds, popping into a few of the buildings; some are quick pop-ins, others have more to see, but all are worthwhile if you have the time. Here are some of my favorite things we saw, starting with two different Sultan’s thrones:

There are four total courtyards to visit; the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th are inside the Palace gates. There are beautiful fountains and gardens throughout.

The building with the most interesting items/relics are called the Sacred Relics, located in the Privy Chambers, in the third courtyard. There was a long line, but it moved quickly. No one can take pictures inside, and for many Muslims it is considered a holy place to visit. The entrance to the chambers has impressive lanterns flanking the door.

Inside there are a few rooms; one holds keys to the Kaaba and swords of the Prophet Muhammed’s companions; another holds a letter signed by Muhammed, along with some of the hair from his beard and his tooth. For Christians, there are some interesting relics found here as well: the sword of King David, the staff of Moses, Joseph’s turban, and the arm of John the Baptist. There is also a room with a Muslim fellow singing prayers from the Quran. It is peaceful, serene, and solemn, and not to be missed.

Before leaving the palace, the basement to the Hagia Sofia can be visited as well. Although there is not much to see, it is still a cool place (literally and figuratively).

Jesse and I ventured to Dolmabahçe Palace on a sunny afternoon, which is the best time to visit, as there is a lot to see outside. Although there was a lot of construction going on, and there are no pictures allowed. At first we encountered the clock tower, located outside the palace entrance.

A quick note; there is a Turkish tourist pass, that gets one into a bunch of government run palaces and and museums; however it does not apply to Both major palaces we visited. This is always subject to change, so be sure to check before you purchase one.

Dolmabahçe Palace was built by the Empire’s 31st Sultan, Abdülmecid I, and was started in 1843 and finished 13 years later, in 1856. It cost $1.9 billion in today’s dollars, and led the Ottoman Empire to default on its public debt by 1875. After visiting the Palace and the grounds, it is easy to see why, starting with the entrance.

Once inside, there is another enormous archway, and Jesse is in front of it in the above left picture. Below, here is another archway inside the complex.

Across from from the above arch was the gate to the sea. Unfortunately we could not get too close as there was construction in progress; the view from the palace was still impressive through the gate.

Once inside the palace, we had to put plastic booties on our shoes, to not harm the floors, of course. We also could not take pictures inside, but many were, so I snapped a few as well. The excess of the palace was most impressive. The massive number of mirrors inside the palace made it very apparent they cared what they looked like; and the numerous ball rooms and opulent furniture and gold leaf on almost everything made the palace put the Royal Palace in Madrid and Versailles to shame. The main ballroom could not even fit in one picture; the columns and art work and chandelier were truly unbelievable.

The world’s largest Bohemian crystal chandelier

We saw room upon room upon room (there are 285 rooms and 68 toilets in the palace), all decadent and filled with beautiful, one of a kind items. Here are a few of the pictures I took (when the guards weren’t looking).

There are more pictures in the Italian brochure (there were none left in English, or Spanish) that really highlight the opulence and beauty of the palace.

There is a harem on the grounds as well; there was the same drill with the plastic booties and no pictures. The first floor was nothing special, so make sure to venture up to the second floor, as the most impressive rooms were found here.

We saw many detailed, beautiful and unique, tiled, room heaters, and I made it a point to take some pictures as they became a favorite of Jesse’s.

Of course, there are many fountains of all types, all unique and intriguing in their own way, as well as multiple gardens.

In the former Palace to the Crown Prince is the Art Museum, which is not to be missed, and was my favorite part of the visit. The museum is well set up; with dark lighting in most rooms; with the main rooms being illuminated by grand chandiliers; there is information on the history of the painters the Ottoman Sultans invited into their realm from all over the world. The artwork is stunning and has to be visited when touring Dolmabahçe Palace.

Here are a few of my favorite pieces found in the museum. The below painting is quite famous, and seen elsewhere around Istanbul.

“The Bairam Ceremony of Sultan Selim III” attributed to Konstantin Kapidagli (1789)
“Kaiser Wilhelm II on Dolmabahçe Palace dock” by Fausto Zonaro (1898)
“Portrait of Mehmed the Conqueror Smelling a Rose” Unknown (late 15th Century)
“Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent / The first siege of Vienna” by Stanislaw Chlebowski
“Gatekeeper of the Palace” Anonymous
“A young girl having her hair combed” Osman Hamdi (1880)

Once we left the palace, we walked around to the seaside. Here is the side view of the palace that faces the sea; it must have been nice to be the Crown Prince and wake up to the blue seas view every morning.

We had a wonderful time exploring both palaces; they each are different in distinct ways, and that is why one must visit both during a trip to Istanbul!

Published by Phil Barrington

Currently living in Spain, Accountant by Day, Writer by Night. Lover of baseball, travel ,and spreadsheets. Check out my blog:

%d bloggers like this: