Destinations,  Europe,  Turkey

A Visit to Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace and Harem

Visiting the Topkapi Palace is like peeling back the layers of an onion. No, wait. It’s more like one of those Russian dolls, with one inside of another getting progressively smaller. Ok, sort of but not really, but you get my point, don’t you?

Most people enter through the Imperial Gate which is located behind and to the right of the Hagia Sofia. You then walk through the walled exterior palace grounds until you reach the ticket booth and along the way pass by the Hagia Eirene and the Archaeological Museum. At the time we went, admission tickets were 25TL per person.

Topkapi Palace Grounds
Topkapi Palace Grounds, Hagia Eirene in background.

The next layer peels back after passing through the crenelated Gate of Salutations which looks straight out of Disney movie. Be forewarned, you must go through airline style security to get inside (bags are x-rayed).

Topkapi Palace Entrance
Topkapi Palace Entrance

Once inside there’s a large grassy area and a number of pavilions and buildings. Many of the pavilions have been turned into exhibit rooms showing items from the Sultan’s treasury as well as imperial clothing and the Sultan’s arms and armor (this exhibit was particularly well designed).

While I enjoyed seeing all the bejewled and bedazzled kaftans, scabbards, even a baby’s crib, I was particularly fascinated by the Pavilion of the Holy Mantle which holds many holy relics of Islam and the Prophet Mohammed’s mantle. Twenty four hours a day there are holy men chanting the words of the Koran over the mantle through a microphone. Unfortunately none of these exhibits allowed photographs inside.

Divan Pavilion in Topkapi Palace

After visiting most of the exhibits, we headed for the Harem which requires a separate admission fee of 15TL at the time of our visit. Fortunately, with the price of admission, photographs are allowed inside.

Topkapi Palace Harem Sign
Topkapi Palace Harem Sign

The first thing you will learn when reading about the Harem is that “harem” means “forbidden” in Arabic and that the harem part of the palace was where the sultan’s wives, concubines, children and mother lived, out of sight of prying eyes.

Topkapi Palace Harem
Topkapi Palace Harem
Topkapi Palace Harem View
View from Topkapi Palace Harem toward the modern part of the city.
Topkapi Palace door
Topkapi Palace door in the Harem
Topkapi Palace Windows
Same window, from inside and out
Topkapi Palace door and tile
Topkapi Palace door and tile detail

The sheer quantity and variety of tile was absolutely astounding, much of it made with the famous Isnik blue tiles.

Below, the salon of the Valide Sultana, the sultan’s mother (who apparently ruled the roost there, even deciding which of the Sultan’s wives would spend the night with him and when).

Topkapi Palace harem
Topkapi Palace harem room
Topkapi Palace harem
Topkapi Palace harem

The photo at the top of the post shows a detail of the basins set into the windows, shown above. Below, detail of the stained glass windows.

Topkapi Palace harem stained glass
Topkapi Palace harem stained glass

One of the buildings (outside of the harem) which did allow photos was the Library of Ahmet the third. This is a small marble building set in the center of the main courtyard. Like everywhere else in the palace, it’s incredibly ornate.

Topkapi Palace dome
Dome inside the library of the Topkapi Palace.
Topkapi Palace detail
Inside the Topkapi palace library
Topkapi Palace Library
Topkapi Palace Library

Lastly, and totally random, we were standing in the middle of the main courtyard in front of the Divan building and these parrots appeared!

Topkapi Palace parrots
Topkapi Palace parrots

Tip: We arrived at the Topkapi palace, shortly after 9am, eager to get a jump on the cruise line/bus tour hoards of tourists. Good thing we did too, because by the time we left, the ticket line was jammed (see below).

Topkapi Palace crowd
Topkapi Palace crowd

For information about visiting and admission prices for the Topkapi Palace, go to the official government web site:


  • Heather

    How lovely, visiting there was one of my favorite days in my Turkish vacation. It was nice to see it again through your eyes.

  • Jacqueline Church

    Gorgeous! I love those tiles. Amazing that the stained glass is so intact, do you know if it has been replaced and repaired over the years? I love the way architecture can seduce you in stages like that. Thank you for sharing! Turkey is on my list for sure.

    • wired2theworld

      Jackie-I love those tiles too. No, I don’t know if the stained glass has been replaced and repaired over the years. I think the palace was lived in well into the 1900’s and then turned into a museum.

  • Moni

    ‘Harem’ does not mean forbidden. It’s a place in a Muslim household just for the wives/women.

    ‘Haraam’ means forbidden. ‘Haram’ is the sanctuary or a sacred place.

    • wired2theworld

      From what I’ve read, both words are derived from the same original word. Perhaps I should have said “derived from” instead of “means” so people don’t take it so literally.

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