dolma1North of Kabataş the Bosphorus suburb of Dolmabahçe is best known for the huge and spectacular palace built to house the later Ottoman sultans when they decided to abandon Old İstanbul and the Topkapı Palace in favour of basing themselves on the more westernised side of the strait. The palace was actually built on reclaimed land - in Turkish "dolmabahçe" means "filled-in garden" - in a nod of recognition to that fact.

Aside from the palace you might also want to take a look at the elegant Dolmbahçe Cami just outside its gates which would have been attended by the later sultans on a regular basis. 

Turkey's first president, the much revered Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, died in the Dolmabahçe Palace which is why the wall on the inland side of the coast road is lined to this day with photographs of the man. 

Dolmabahçe Palace

The elaborate Dolmabahçe Palace (closed Mondays and Thursdays, steep admssion fee, guided tours only) that became home to the later Ottoman sultans was the handiwork of the Armenian architect Garabet Amira Balyan (1800-66) and his son Nikoğos. Built for Sultan Abdülmecid, it was such a mammoth undertaking that it took from 1843 to 1856 to complete.

The palace contains a daunting 258 rooms, although the public only get to see a tiny fraction of them, most attention focusing on the stupendous 38-metre-high Ceremonial Hall with its concealed dome where the later sultans presided over festivities to celebrate the different bayrams (holidays), and on the considerably smaller room in which Mustafa Kemal Atatürk breathed his last on Nov. 10, 1938 - all the clocks in the palace are stopped at the precise moment. 

It shows what a grip the Balyans had on court architecture at that time that the wooden Beşiktaş Palace that had stood on the site before the Dolmabahçe had itself been a work of Garabet’s older brother Krikor.dolma2Sultans' alabaster hamam

Rushed guided tours make it hard to appreciate the fact, but the palace houses one of the city’s largest art collections, including a set of images by the Italian court painter Fausto Zonaro (1854-1929) that portray Sultan Mehmed II conquering Constantinople. Tours focus on The Sürre Procession, a huge canvas by the Italian artist Stefano Ussi (1822-1901) that depicts the annual camel train bearing gold from the sultan/caliph to Mecca and Medina.

Whether you will enjoy a visit to Dolmabahçe Palace probably depends on your tolerance for OTT decor. Forget minimalism - everything here is painted, lacquered or gilded although much of it looks as if it could do with a good dust.

dolma4Çamlı KöşküAs someone whose tastes run to the simple I struggle with Dolmabahçe. My favourite bit is probably the small Çamlı Köşkü (Glass Pavilion) mounted on the wall in the garden which seems more cohesive in its design than much of the interior of the palace.

The palace grounds are rather wonderful not just because of the Bosphorus views from the sultans' landing stage at the front but also for the floral displays. Don't miss the Kuşluk (Aviary) at the back with its peacocks. 

Around Dolmabahçe

If you walk to the palace from the Kabataş tram stop you will pass the lovely Dolmabahçe Cami right beside the water. Garabet Balyan designed it for Bezmialem Valide Sulta, the mother of Sultan Abdülmecid, but she died before seeing its completion in 1855. Although it never had one of the large complexes associated with the early imperial mosques, it did have a courtyard that would have given it a more regal approach but that was lost, like so much, in the 1950s to road widening. 

Although the mosque retains the dome and minarets of earlier mosques the most conspicuous break from tradition came in the form of the huge arched windows that were designed to let in much more light than had hitherto been the case. 

Across the road from the mosque is the enormous BJK İnönü Stadium that is the home ground of the Beşiktaş football team. Much hymned for its view of two continents, it is currently being rebuilt with an eye to the 2020 Olympics. It was designed in 1947 by a trio of architects, Vietti Violi, Fazıl Aysu and Şinası Şahingiray.

As you approach the palace you will see the lovely 27-metre-high clocktower that was designed by Sarkis Balyan for Sultan Abdülhamid II. It was not the city's first clocktower, an honour that goes to the smaller one lurking behind the Nusretiye Cami. However, visitors may be interested to note the clockfaces which retain their original Arabic numerals. Two thermometers and two barometers lurk at the foot of the structure. 

Transport info

It's easy to get to Dolmabahçe by tram from Sultanahmet as the Kabataş terminal is less than 10 minutes' walk away. Alternatively you can get a bus from Beşiktaş or a ferry from Üsküdar

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