In the Modern World, where the Bauhaus philosophy of minimalism reigns supreme, there are architects and critics who disdain the grandeur of buildings like Dolmabahçe. However, the overwhelming crowds that flock to this imperial palace, drawn to its neoclassical exterior and opulent interior, beg to differ. Visitors come from near and far to embark on a self-guided audio tour, exploring the palace's Selamlık (Ceremonial Quarters) and Harem, each offering a glimpse into a rich history.
The grand vision of Sultan Abdül Mecit I (r 1839–61) materialized in a magnificent palace on the Bosphorus shores, as he decided to relocate his imperial court from Topkapı. He selected the dolma bahçe, a filled-in garden where Sultans Ahmet I and Osman II had once created a royal park with wooden pleasure kiosks and pavilions.
To create a masterpiece that would awe all beholders, Abdül Mecit entrusted the construction to imperial architects Nikoğos and Garabed Balyan. They dared to defy the traditional Ottoman palace architecture, rejecting pavilions and choosing a design that turned its back on the splendid view instead of celebrating it. The interiors, a theatrical marvel, were crafted by the designer of the Paris Opera, featuring resplendent Hereke carpets, crystal staircases, and chandeliers that dazzled the eye. Completed in 1854, the palace welcomed the sultan and his family two years later, leaving all mesmerized with its "wow" factor. However, this extravagant project also brought the empire to the brink of bankruptcy and marked the beginning of the end for the Osmanlı dynasty. In the early years of the republic, Atatürk found solace within the palace walls, using it as his İstanbul base. It was here, on 10 November 1938, that the great leader breathed his last.
As visitors approach the palace grounds through the ornate imperial gate, they are greeted by an equally intricate clock tower, designed by Sarkis Balyan between 1890 and 1895, commissioned by Sultan Abdül Hamit II (r 1876–1909). Just nearby, an outdoor café awaits, offering premium Bosphorus views for those seeking a moment of tranquility amidst grandeur.
The palace, enveloped in meticulously tended gardens, is divided into three sections: the Selamlık, Harem, and Veliaht Dairesi (Apartments of the Crown Prince). It is the Selamlık that beckons first, drawing visitors into its vast, ornately furnished reception halls and intimate salons through the self-guided audio tour. Additionally, two exhibition halls showcase precious objects from the palace collections, taking visitors on a journey through history. In contrast, the Harem remains an exquisite testament to the life of the sultans and their families, with a dedicated room paying tribute to Atatürk. Meanwhile, the Veliaht Dairesi finds a new purpose, housing the National Palaces Painting Museum, an opportunity to explore Turkish heritage through art. Within the palace grounds, another gem awaits—the Clock Museum, displaying a collection of 19th-century clocks that adds a touch of fascination to the visit, all included in the palace ticket.
It is essential to note that, to preserve its splendor and ensure a pleasant experience, the palace restricts the number of daily visitors to 3000, a quota often reached on weekends and holidays. To avoid the crowds, a midweek visit is recommended, although patience may still be required, especially when queueing under the scorching sun. Additionally, admission to Dolmabahçe Palace is not covered by the Museum Pass İstanbul, so plan accordingly.
Dolmabahçe Palace remains a magnificent testament to an era of opulence, a fusion of Ottoman and European influences that continues to captivate the hearts of those who wander through its resplendent halls. As architectural tastes shift, it stands tall, a timeless symbol of Turkey's rich history and artistic grandeur, beckoning all to relish its storied past and relive the elegance of a bygone era.