Worth the Ticket Price: Topkapi Palace, Istanbul

As a die hard budget traveller I am super skeptical of tours, tourist trap sites, and basically anywhere that charges an entry fee that I haven’t heavily vetted/weighed the value of the ticket price. I’ve mentioned before, if you’re travelling all the way to Istanbul, it’s worth it to set aside maybe $30-40 of your budget for entry fees to the city’s sites. Most charge 25-30 TL, and with the US dollar doing pretty well for itself, that budget should get you into three or four admissions paying sites.

I completely flouted my thoroughly vet ticketed sites rule to visit the Topkapi Palace, and I was definitely not disappointed for my moment of reckless abandon. I honestly had never even heard of Topkapi Palace, but my dad insisted that we go. The Topkapi Palace Museum experience is both a historic tour through a Ottoman Empire Palace, which at its peak held a full court of nearly 4,000 people, and entry into a cluster of mini-museums of period artifacts, Islamic relics, Islamic calligraphy, and the biggest attraction, crown jewels of the Ottoman Empire that put the British Crown Jewels to shame. This is another UNESCO World Heritage site, the second I’ve introduced you all to within one square block of Istanbul. Pretty exciting stuff.

Tree lined palace grounds
Palace grounds

Visiting Topkapi Palace is like taking a step back in time. The palace is built overlooking the Bosphorous in Istanbul’s historic district. The ornate place gates are embossed with gold Qur’anic calligraphy, and two moons and stars- the symbol of the Ottoman Empire. Stepping through the ornate  gates of the palace, the grounds open up into an expansive and immaculately maintained courtyard garden. Rose gardens line the polished marble walkways.

A view of the courtyard

Even the floors are stunning

The palace grounds are divided into a series of mini-museums. Entry to all of the exhibits are included in the entrance fee, but at least when I was there, the lines to enter the exhibits were quite long. You must commit to standing in them however, because the exhibits display the most memorable pieces in the museum/palace. The grounds are beautiful, but to go to Topkapi Palace and not see the exhibit rooms is to miss the main event. Unfortunately, you’re not allowed to take photographs in most of them, so I don’t have many photos to show. The first exhibit we went to was in jewels room that holds the Crown Jewels of the Ottoman Empire. The British Crown Jewels are perhaps the most well known royal gemstones, but these ottoman gems were equally, if not in my opinion, more impressive. The biggest diamond I have ever seen in real life stood next to necklaces dripping in rubies and sapphires, and of course, glittering gold. There were dazzling crowns, saber sheaths, rings, bracelets, it was absolutely spectacular. I was surprised that these stunning gems were on display with such limited security. Once we had seen our share of the jewels, we were able to walk out onto the expansive palace terrace overlooking the Bosporus. In the adjacent garden was a small cafe where visitors could take lunch.

A stunning view of the Bosporus from the terrace outside the jewel room

The next exhibit had an even larger line and was surprisingly far more heavily guarded than the jewels, from what I could see. The Holy Relics exhibit is a permanent exhibit at the Topkapi Palace that displays a collection of religious items collected by Ottoman sultans including Abraham’s pot, Joseph’s turban, Moses’ staff, as well as several ancient pieces of the Kabah, Islam’s most holy site, as well as precious items belonging to the Prophet Mohammed and his followers. I’ve never seen an exhibit that held such religious relics, most Islamic exhibits I’ve seen in the past focused on Islamic architecture or that of Muslim empires, but not of items dating back to the earliest days of the faith, as well as items from the Abrahamic faiths that came before it. In additions to scraps of robes, bits of the Prophet’s beard, swords and other personal items, there was also an ancient Qur’an, read aloud beautifully by a Muslim scholar as visitors walked through the exhibit. There is some discussion in the Muslim world as to the authenticity of the items in the Topkapi exhibit, but for the believer it is both a fascinating and moving experience. Again, absolutely no photos allowed in this exhibit, so you will have to experience it in person. There were some visitors popping flash photos left and right despite the numerous signs and guards telling them to stop, but I found it rather tacky and rude, so sorry folks, no photos from me!

Qur’anic script carved in stone

The final exhibit we viewed showed the work of Kadıasker Mustafa İzzet Efendia Turkish calligrapher, who lived in the 1800s. His beautiful Islamic calligraphy was on display in one of the palace halls. Islamic teaching frown upon creating portraits or likenesses of God’s creations, which is why calligraphy and geometric shapes feature so heavily in Islamic art, whereas for instance Christian art is characterized by portraits of the Madonna, the Crucifix, etc. I wasn’t able to take photos in the calligraphy hall either, but a quick look at Kadıasker Mustafa İzzet Efendia’s work in the Google machine gives you an idea of what it’s like:

Here are a few more shots I took while at the Palace:

Pretty ceiling
Beautiful gold and colorful tiles decorate this wudoo station- used for Islamic ablutions
This is one of my favorite photos- and that’s all for now!
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