I. Avlu (1st Courtyard) of Topkapı Sarayı was the only section of the palace open to the public. The road leading to the palace is called the Divan Yolu, which followed the old Byzantine main road through Constantinople, Mesi Odos, directly past Hagia Sophia.
Before entering the palace gate, you’ll notice III. Ahmet Çeşmesi (Fountain of Ahmet III). It was built under Ahmet III in 1728 and is one of the finest fountains in Istanbul. It replaced an older Byzantine fountain, Perayton, that once stood in its place. Calligraphic panels above the taps are parts of a poem dedicated to water. It’s read clockwise from the northern side. The last stanza, on the northwest side, was written by Ahmet III himself. For a virtual tour of the fountain, click here.
Bâb-ı Hümâyûn (Imperial Gate) is the main entrance to the palace and the first of three ceremonial gates. It was built in 1478 by Mehmet the Conqueror with the marble covering dating back to a 19th century reconstruction under Abdülaziz I. It originally had a wooden pavilion at the top used by Mehmet and sometimes the ladies of the harem to observe special occasions. It was also used as a depository for property of those who died in the palace without heirs and a receiving department for the treasury. The gate was also known as the Saltanat Kapısı (Sultan’s Gate). The inscription above the gate reads:
“By the Grace of God, and by His approval, the foundations of this auspicious castle were laid, and its parts were solidly joined together to strengthen peace and tranquility. This blessed castle, with the aim of ensuring safety of Allah’s support and the consent of the son of Sultan Mehmet, son of Sultan Murat, sultan of the land, and ruler of the seas, the shadow of Allah on the people and demons, God’s deputy in the east and west, the hero of water and soil, the conqueror of Constantinople and the father of its conquest, Sultan Mehmet Khan – May Allah make eternal his empire, and exalt his residence above the most lucid stars of the firmament.”
The courtyard is the largest in the palace. Many of the buildings were used for management of the palace, including a bakery and a small hospital, but they no longer exist.
Two important buildings remain in the courtyard. One is the Darphane-i Âmire (Imperial Mint), built in 1727.
The other is Hagia Eirini (Ἁγία Εἰρήνη / Aya İrini), which was the very first church built in Constantinople. Closed to the public for many years except for concerts or with special permission, it opened to the public in January 2014. It’s possible to visit for 20TL (as of September 2016) or on a Museum Pass Istanbul.
Tickets to the rest of the palace can be purchased in the I. Avlu. There’s also a gift shop, restrooms, and a restaurant.