Though it served as the royal residence and seat of the Ottoman Empire for nearly four centuries, this palace isn’t the mighty pleasure dome that many visitors expect. (A visit to the Çırağan Palace hotel may be more satisfying: that’s the Ottoman Versailles.) The buildings appear at first to be modest, even haphazard. But there’s a key to understanding the architecture here: it was meant to emphasize the sultan’s absolute power and his aloofness from ordinary mortals. Thus, the palace is a series of increasingly restricted zones that culminate in the most forbidden area—the sultan’s residence. Because the logic of the palace is not immediately obvious to the contemporary eye, this, more than any other monument in the city, rewards the visitor who reads up beforehand. If you know what to look for, the whole thing comes vibrantly alive. For example, the southeast corner of the third court used to be an aviary, where trained pigeons, in pearl anklets, performed acrobatics at the sultan’s request.