The name Dolmabahçe means "filled-in garden," from the fact that Sultan Ahmet I (ruled 1603–17) had an imperial garden planted here on land reclaimed from the sea. Abdülmecid I, whose free-spending lifestyle later bankrupted the empire, had this palace built from 1843 to 1856 as a symbol of Turkey's march toward European-style modernization. He gave father and son Garabet and Nikoğos Balyan—from a prominent Armenian family of late-Ottoman architects—complete freedom and an unlimited budget, the only demand being that the palace "surpass any other palace of any other potentate anywhere in the world." The result, an extraordinary mixture of Turkish and European architectural and decorative styles, is a riot of rococo: marble columns with gilt Corinthian capitals, huge mirrors, trompe l'oeil painted ceilings, inlaid parquet floors, rich brocade. Abdülmecid's bed is solid silver, the tub and basins in his marble-paved bathroom are translucent alabaster, and more than 200 kilos
(420 pounds) of gold were used throughout the palace. European royalty helped contribute to the splendor: Queen Victoria sent a Bohemian crystal chandelier weighing 4½ tons (still the largest in Europe), while Czar Nicholas I of Russia provided polar-bear rugs. The result is as over-the-top and showy as a palace should be, and every bit as garish as Versailles.
Dolmabahçe is divided into the public "Selamlık" and the private "Harem," which can only be seen on separate, oversized guided tours, which together take about 90 minutes. After the tour(s), take time to stroll along the palace's nearly ½-km (¼-mile)-long waterfront facade and through the formal gardens. Two small buildings set back from the palace can be visited on a Harem or combined ticket without a tour: the ornate Crystal Pavilion, which boasts a crystal piano and glass conservatory with a crystal fountain, and the Clock Museum, which has some of the most elaborate clocks you have ever seen. The palace has a daily visitor quota, so call the reservation number, 212/327–2626 (open Mon.–Sat.), at least a day in advance to reserve tickets and to avoid lines of up to an hour long at the ticket booth.