Dolmabahçe Palace

Lonely Planet review

These days it’s fashionable for architects and critics influenced by the less-is-more aesthetic of the Bauhaus masters to sneer at buildings such as Dolmabahçe. The crowds that throng to this imperial pleasure palace with its neoclassical exterior and over-the-top interior fit-out clearly don’t share their disdain, though.

More rather than less was certainly the philosophy of Sultan Abdül Mecit I, who, deciding that it was time to give the lie to talk of Ottoman military and financial decline, decided to move from Topkapı to a lavish new palace on the shores of the Bosphorus. For a site he chose the dolma bahçe (filled-in garden) where his predecessors Sultans Ahmet I and Osman II had filled in a little cove in order to create a royal park complete with wooden pleasure kiosks and pavilions. Other wooden buildings succeeded the original kiosk, but all burned to the ground in 1814. In 1843 Abdül Mecit commissioned imperial architects Nikoğos and Garabed Balyan to construct an Ottoman-European palace that would impress everyone who set eyes on it. Traditional Ottoman palace architecture was eschewed –there are no pavilions here, and the palace turns its back to the splendid view rather than celebrating it. The designer of the Paris Opera was brought in to do the interiors, which perhaps explains their exaggerated theatricality. Construction was finally completed in 1854 and the Sultan and his family moved in two years later. Though it had the wow factor in spades, Abdül Mecit’s project also did more to precipitate the empire’s bankruptcy than to dispel rumours of it, and signalled the beginning of the end for the Osmanlı dynasty. During the early years of the republic, Atatürk used the palace as his İstanbul base. He died here in 1938.

The palace, which is set in well-tended gardens and entered via its ornate imperial gate, is divided into two sections, the Selamlık (Ceremonial Suites) and the Harem-Cariyeler (Harem and Concubines’ Quarters). Entry is via a compulsory guided tour (around 35 people per group), which focuses on the Selamlık but visits parts of the harem as well. In busy periods the tours leave every five minutes; during quiet times every 25 minutes is more likely. The full tour of the palace takes two hours. Be warned that queues at the ticket office can be very long (waits of up to two hours) and there is no shade.

The tourist entrance to the palace is near the palace’s ornate clock tower, designed by Sarkis Balyan between 1890 and 1895 for Sultan Abdül Hamid II (r 1876–1909). There is an outdoor cafe near here with premium Bosphorus views. Don’t set your watch by any of the palace clocks, all of which are stopped at 9.05am, the moment at which Kemal Atatürk died in Dolmabahçe on 10 November 1938. When touring the harem you will be shown the small bedroom he used during his last days. Each year on 10 November, at 9.05am, the country observes a moment of silence in commemoration of the great leader. The nearby Dolmabahċe Mosque (Dolmabahçe Camii) on Muallim Naci Caddesi was designed by Nikoğos Balyan and completed in 1853.