Home of the Ottoman sultans for nearly 400 years, Topkapı Sarayı Museum (“Palace of the Cannon Gate”—map) was the seraglio, the heart of the vast Ottoman Empire, ruled by the monarch who lived in Topkapı’s hundreds of rooms with hundreds of concubines, children, and white and black servants.
The domes of Topkapı’s Harem dominate the Golden Horn.
Because Topkapı is No. 2 on everyone’s list of Istanbul sights(Hagia Sophia is No. 1), get there when it opens and go straight to the Harem. Maybe you’ll be able to beat some of the millions of other visitors…)
Topkapı Palace is open every day except Tuesday from 09:00 am till 18:00 (6 pm) in summer, till 16:00 (4 pm) in winter. It is also closed in the morning on the first day of the two biggest Islamic holidays, Ramazan Bayramı and Kurban Bayramı. Admission to the palace costs TL40 for adults; children 12 and under free. There are additional fees of TL25 for the Harem, and TL20 for the Hagia Irene museum (Aya İrini Müzesi), if you choose to enter them.
Tickets are available in advance online here. Also, ticket machines are located in Sultanahmet Square and near the Topkapı ticket offices.
Consider buying an Istanbul Museum Pass for your visit to Topkapı (even though the pass is not valid for the Harem and the Hagia Irene church). If you plan to visit Hagia Sophia and several of the other included museums (such as the Mosaic Museum or Chora Church), it’ll save you time and money.
You can wander through the Harem on your own, as you choose; but only a certain number of visitors are allowed at one time, so go there first to avoid waiting.
After wandering through the Harem you can stroll the palace’s spacious grounds and four courtyards at your leisure. The Hagia Irene church (Aya İrini) in the First Courtyard is usually open to visits for an additional ticket price of TL20.
Don’t miss the Treasury in the 3rd courtyard, with its incredible gems, gold, and works of art.
Topkapı Palace as seen from the Bosphorus
(For a bittersweet romantic scene that actually happened at Topkapı, see my Bright Sun, Strong Tea excerpt entitled “Tears at Topkapı.”)
Just down the hill to the west of the palace are the Istanbul Archeological Museums, and beyond them is shady Gülhane Park, a fine place for a stroll or a soothing glass of tea.
When you’re done at Topkapı, head for Ayasofya (Hagia Sophia), right next door, and the Blue Mosque, next door to Ayasofya on the Byzantine Hippodrome.