As the place from which one of the most powerful empires the world has ever known was governed, Topkapı Palace (Topkapı Sarayı) is undoubtedly among the most important landmarks in the city. After the conquest of Istanbul, Mehmed the Conqueror took up residence in the Old Palace (Eski Saray), which is now the site of Istanbul University. However, he was soon on the lookout for a place to build a new, grander palace, and he chose the Byzantine acropolis. It was here that the New Palace (Yeni Saray) was to be built, and construction was ordered in 1459. Its name was soon changed to Topkapı Palace, after a monumental gate which is no longer standing. The palace was the seat of the Ottoman sultan from just after the conquest of Istanbul right up until when it moved to Dolmabahçe in the 19th century. For centuries it gave shape to political and social life in the Ottoman Empire, and in 1924, Atatürk had it converted into a museum. At its height, there were 4,000 people living in the palace, and it's hard not to be struck by the magnificence of it as you explore. You can see the harem's quarters and see what daily life would have been like for the women of the palace in the Ottoman era. Then move on to the treasury and take a look at the sultan's thrones and incredible 86-carat Spoonmaker's Diamond (Kaşıkçı Elması). In the palace kitchen, learn how and what the sultans ate before you wander through the other fascinating sections of this historical wonder. Of course, as the empire grew, additions were made to the palace, and despite not being in the same architectural style, they still complement the original building beautifully. It all makes for a truly historical experience, so be sure you set aside enough time to enjoy all Topkapı Palace has to offer.
Built on an area of land known as the Kazancıoğlu Gardens (Kazancıoğlu Bahçeleri), Çırağan Palace (Çırağan Sarayı) was built on the orders of Sultan Abdülaziz I and its history goes back to 1872. This building, which covers an area of 80,000 square meters, is just one of the masterpieces created by the Balyan family of architects. It was designed by Nigoğos Balyan and built by Sarkis and Agop Balyan. The design and decoration of Çırağan Palace bears striking resemblance to the Wilhelma Palace in Germany, and though the Balyans never visited it person, it's thought that they took inspiration from photographs they'd seen. The palace is made up of three sections - the main building, apartments and a harem. The palace has seen a number of astonishing events over its history, including the imprisonment and death of Sultan Abdülaziz I and his family after he was removed from the throne, the 29-year long incarceration of Sultan Murat V, and the fire which struck in 1910. This magnificent palace sheds light on the final years of the Ottoman Empire, and after the declaration of the second constitutional monarchy, it was used as a parliamentary building. After restoration work in 1987, it began serving as a hotel in 1990, and despite its turbulent history, it's still one of the most beautiful pieces of architecture along the Bosphorus.
The building of Dolmabahçe Palace (Dolmabahçe Sarayı) was completed in 1856, and it's one of the many impressive buildings lining the Bosphorus’ European shores. The palace was built on the orders of Sultan Abdülmecid I, who commissioned the Balyan family to design and build it. It was built on land reclaimed from the bay where the Ottoman fleet once moored their ships, hence the name Dolmabahçe, which roughly translates as "filled-in garden". Efforts towards Westernization in the last years of the Ottoman Empire and Sultan Abdülmecid I's own Western values influenced the architecture of the building, though it's also true that 14 tons of gold plating were used in its construction, and the palace is also home the world's largest Bohemian-style crystal chandelier. Apart from being the residence of the Sultan and his family, the palace was used for state functions, and hosted official visitors from around the world, and this hospitality continued after the Turkish Republic was founded. The French President Charles de Gaulle, King Faisal of Iraq and President Gronchi of Germany have been among the palace's most illustrious guests. While looking at the palace, the first feature that'll capture your attention is the Gate of the Sultan (Saltanat Kapısı). This gate opening out onto the main road would only be used by the sultan himself, and in respect of that tradition, the gate is not in use today. Another of its most attractive features is its clock tower, which despite being built in 1895, still tells the right time. In addition to this, the clock collection which belonged to the empire is on display in a section of the palace garden.
As you cross the Bosphorus Bridge to the Anatolian side of the city, one of the most eye-catching things you'll see is the Berlerbeyi Palace (Beylerbeyi Sarayı). The palace was commissioned by Sultan Abdülaziz I and completed in 1865 by Sarkis Balyan and his brother Agop Balyan. The architecture of this summer palace is a blend of traditional Turkish residential architecture and classical Baroque. The main building of Beylerbeyi, with its gardens and pools, was used both as a summer palace and also to host important foreign and Ottoman dignitaries during both the period of the Ottoman Empire and the first years of the Republic of Turkey. As you wander around, you'll really get a feel for Sultan Abdülaziz I's passion for the sea. Frescoes depicting the rough sea and maritime-themed candles reflect how much he adored the open waters. There are also rooms decorated with Japanese and Chinese art. There are English and Turkish-speaking guides available to take you through the palace, and after exploring, take a seat in the garden café and relax, enjoying the picturesque setting. The palace mosque sits just opposite, and nearby there are some excellent seafood restaurants too.