Dolmabahce Palace was really easy to get to, it's at the northern end of tram line T1 and from our hotel in Sultanahmet in the Old City it was just a short walk to the tram stop near the Blue Mosque where we bought a couple of tokens for 2 lira each from the machine to get through the turnstile. The ride takes around 15 minutes, crossing Galata Bridge over the Golden Horn, you get off at the terminus at Kabatas and carry on walking about 5 minutes towards the palace which you can see ahead right away facing the legendary Bosphorous. There's an ornate clock tower by a riverside cafe and a taxi rank (though beware scams where taxi drivers use a sleight of hand to swap the notes you give them for lower denomination ones!). You can either tour just the state rooms (selamlik), just the private quarters (the harem) or both and tickets for both combined are 40 lira, but you have to join a tour – we were lucky, an English-speaking group was just about to set off as we arrived. Get there early – as close to 9am as you can - as queues build up quickly. Note that the palace is closed on Mondays and Thursdays and you are not allowed to take any photos or film inside.
The first thing you notice about the palace is how ornate it is – every surface inside and out is elaborately carved, gilded or embellished to within an inch of its life, as befitting I suppose the home of six sultans and the first president of the republic. It's very European rather than Turkish, at the time it was built the sultans were looking to impress and copy Europe and so Dolmabahce is a curious blend of sumptuous architectural and decorative styles from both East and West. It would certainly have impressed European emperors and kings such as Germany's Kaiser Bill who was a great friend – in the vast Ceremonial Hall hangs the world's largest Bohemian crystal chandelier (a present from Queen Victoria who probably thought it a bit vulgar) and there is the stunning Crystal Staircase in the shape of a double horseshoe with bannisters made of Baccarat crystal, and many great glittering halls for formal state occasions. But within the palace is the traditional, self-contained harem or private quarters where there are the bedrooms, studies, salons and hamams of the sultan's wives, concubines, siblings and children, often just as showily decorated as the state apartments next door. A pair of skinny guards stand outside and it's strange that the Bosphorous just outside the palace windows is pretty much ignored and the gardens are all on the other side with no view of the river and the shore of Asia Minor beyond. But it makes for a great excursion in Istanbul to experience the last gasp of the old Ottoman Empire that was already crumbling by the time this extravagant and grandiose symbol was completed.
ReadyClickAndGo.com can arrange a private day tour of Dolmabahce Palace, the Grand Bazaar, Blue Mosque and Aya Sofia with your own English-speaking local guide, and you can customise your sightseeing day tour of Istanbul and visit whatever you choose. A guide for the day costs a flat fee of £150 for 8 hours, excluding entrance fees and transport.