Ortaylı attended elementary school and Saint Georg High School in İstanbul and then Ankara Atatürk High School. He graduated from Ankara University and completed his postgraduate studies at the Chicago University under Professor Halil Inalcik and at the University of Vienna. He obtained his Ph.D. at Ankara University in the Faculty of Political Sciences. His doctoral thesis was Local Administration in the Tanzimat Period (1978). After his Ph.D., he attended to the faculty at the School of Political Sciences of Ankara University. In 1979, he was appointed as associate professor. In 1981, his book on the German influence on the late Ottoman Empire was published. In 1982, he resigned from his position, protesting the academic policy of the government established after the Military Coup of September 12, 1980. After teaching at several universities in Turkey, Europe and Russia, in 1989 he returned to the Ankara University and became professor of history and the head of the section of administrative history.
He has published articles on Ottoman and Russian history, emphasis on cities and the history of public administration, diplomatic, cultural and intellectual history. He is a member of the Foundation for International Studies, the European-Iran Research Foundation and the Academy of Sciences Of Turkey (TUBA) and Turkish Historical Foundation (Türk Tarih Kurumu).