There are not many hotels in the world where you can sit on your balcony on one continent and have a view of another. Ciragan Palace Kempinski is one of them, in a prime spot on the Bosphorus waterway separating Europe and Asia.
It’s really “Çirağan” in Turkish, pronounced CHEER-a-an, and part of the complex really is a palace, built of marble in 1871. It lay abandoned for decades after a fire destroyed much of the interior, just as the Ottoman empire was coming to an end. After restoration it opened as part of Istanbul’s finest hotel in 1992 and Kempinski has kept it at the top despite a flurry of heavy competition from the world’s top luxury hotel chains. Some of them have built their own pseudo-palaces on the waterway, but they can’t match the history here or the sprawling garden area with an original royal gate.
Plus it will take a while for any other hotel to match Ciragan Palace’s wall of fame. Heads of state are frequent guests—who else besides oil sheiks can afford to pay €30,000 a night for the 4,000-square-foot Sultan Suite? (Hey, it does have its own Turkish bath…) Besides the leaders of all the world’s top economies staying here, the celebrity guest list includes designers (Oscar de la Renta, Georgio Armani, Donna Karan), actors (DeNiro, Daniel Craig, Bette Midler), and pop stars (Madonna, Bono, Sting, Pavoratti, Clapton).
Read on for a description, or if you’re the visual type, take a couple minutes and check out this video tour:
Around 80% of the 313 rooms face the Bosphorus, the famed waterway separating Europe from Asia, linking the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara, the Aegean, and the Mediterranean. From your balcony you can watch the ships pass by—both commercial and pleasure boats—and see the Asian shore on the other side. From some you can see some of the city’s landmarks in the distance. The lowest-priced rooms face the street and trees beyond, which is not bad, but paying a bit more to upgrade is worth it for the true Istanbul experience.
All rooms have plenty of high tech and human touch elements to delight you during your stay, from the notice on the TV welcoming you by name to the Turkish treats on a silver tray. You probably won’t want to touch the minibar unless you’ve just won the Powerball lottery, but unlike at so many luxury hotels, the Wi-Fi connection is included in the rates. Robes, slippers, an electronic safe, and English channels on the TV make your stay comfortable, as do the separate shower and tub in the marble-clad bath. Many of the furnishings are international hotel standard, but there are a few reminders of where you are, like framed Islamic art and regal fabrics draped over the bed.
The 11 suites in the original palace are more opulent, of course, fitting for guests who arrive via the adjacent heliport, skipping the notorious Istanbul traffic. These have elements like Turkish carpets on hardwood floors, historical prints, original paintings, and a mix of contemporary and period furniture. They also have kitchenettes and a butler on call.
A few meeting rooms with a view are also in the palace section, plus a function room that’s inside a restored marble Turkish bath from the Ottoman days.
Three restaurants and two lounges serve food and drinks, with all but one looking out on the Bosphorus. Breakfast, lunch, and tea are in spaces with walls of glass and outdoor dining terraces open during good weather periods. Meals here are a delight, whether it’s a well-chosen sweet in the afternoon or a full breakfast buffet that makes full use of Turkish ingredients and dishes.
The signature dinner spot is Tuğra Restaurant, where you’ll spend like a sultan but dine like one on original recipes from the Ottoman palaces of centuries past. With boats bobbing past, an opera house on the opposite shore, and the Bosphorus bridge lit up, dining by candlelight here is one of the city’s most romantic options. Superlative service, a wine tasting menu option, and a rolling Champagne cart ensure a memorable meal.
Recreational facilities are more akin to a resort’s than a city hotel, thanks to the Kempinski’s ample acreage. The huge swimming pool is heated in winter and very popular in the summer, while an indoor pool is a better bet in the dead of winter. The spa with five treatment rooms has separate saunas and steam rooms for men and women that are open to all, plus an excellent 24-hour gym with a trainer on call.
It’s very hard to find fault with any aspect of this hotel, which often shows up on lists of the best in Europe. The seasoned staff is ready to please: they handed me an umbrella as I walked out into a drizzle and handed me an adapter when I mentioned that I forgot mine. Elevators are fast, the maids don’t knock when a “do not disturb” sign is up, and the wait staff is ready for foreigner’s quirks—like wanting a coffee refill or two within a half hour at breakfast.
Review and photos by editor Tim Leffel, who was hosted at Ciragan Palace while research a magazine story on Istanbul.