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. However, the crowds that throng to this imperial pleasure palace with its neoclassical exterior and over-the-top interior clearly don’t share that disdain, flocking here to visit its Selâmlık (Ceremonial Suites), Harem and Veliaht Dairesi (Apartments of the Crown Prince). The latter is home to the National Palaces Painting Museum.
More rather than less was certainly the philosophy of Sultan Abdül Mecit I (r 1839–61), who decided to move his imperial court 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.
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 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 extravagant project precipitated the empire’s bankruptcy 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 and died here on 10 November 1938.
The tourist entrance to the palace grounds is the ornate imperial gate, with an equally ornate clock tower just inside. Sarkis Balyan designed the tower between 1890 and 1895 for Sultan Abdül Hamit II (r 1876–1909). There is an outdoor cafe near here with premium Bosphorus views and reasonable prices (yes, really).
Set in well-tended gardens, the palace is divided into three sections: the Selâmlık, Harem and Veliaht Dairesi. Entry is via a compulsory and dreadfully rushed guided tour (up to 50 people per group), which focuses on the Selâmlık but visits parts of the Harem as well; you can visit the National Palaces Paintings Museum independently. In busy periods English-language tours leave every 10 minutes or so; during quiet times every 25 minutes is more likely.
Note that visitor numbers in the palace are limited to 3000 per day and this ceiling is often reached on weekends and holidays – come midweek if possible, and even then be prepared to queue (often for long periods and in full sun). If you arrive before 3pm (summer) or 2pm (winter), you must buy a combined ticket to tour both the Selâmlık and Harem; after those times you can take only one tour; we recommend the Selâmlık for its huge chandeliers and crystal staircase made by Baccarat. Note, admission here is not covered by the Museum Pass İstanbul.
Just outside the gate, the Dolmabahċe Mosque (Dolmabahçe Camii) on Muallim Naci Caddesi was designed by Nikoğos Balyan and completed in 1853.