By John O’Ceallaigh
Lots of hotels like to be considered grande dames, but the Ciragan Palace Kempinski Istanbul hotel really does feel deserving of that title. That’s perhaps because it occupies such a spectacular location, and features its own Ottoman palace – a building so impactful and impressive that the suites within it are among the most expensive in the world.
But I’ll get to the suites later. First things first, the hotel opened back in 1991 as a flagship Kempinski property but its origins stretch back much further. The site on which the hotel stands was previously a lively public meeting space that served as a focal point for Istanbuli and national celebrations and sports events – archive photos show well-attended football games and festivals; this has always been a place where people gather to have a good time. And royalty were long associated with the area too, with a succession of regal households emerging and falling here before that ornate Ottoman palace was built in the late 19th century. That palace is an immensely beautiful landmark, with a huge foyer that’s crowned by a towering chandelier, lots of fancy meeting rooms, and an Ottoman fine-dining restaurant called Tugra (ask for a seat on the terrace in warm weather – you get the view shown in the image above). The mere presence of the building really elevates the entire guest experience here.
A few metres from the palace, another building – built in the late 1980s and inaugurated in 1991 when the hotel launched – houses most of the hotel’s inventory and amenities. Obviously, the ‘80s wasn’t the best time for architecture and its bulky, boxy facade isn’t nearly as pretty as the original palace, but much of its interior was remodelled in late 2023 and once you’re inside everything feels refined and surprisingly relaxed. Ciragan Palace is as much a resort as it is a city hotel.
The setting contributes to that. Istanbul straddles the European and Asian continental shelves, and the hotel sits on the tip of Europe, right alongside the Bosphorus. Across that strait, Asia is a few hundred metres away, and the waterway itself is incredibly dynamic – with a series of pleasure cruisers, freight ships and commuter services bobbing along day and night. Most rooms come with large balconies and the majority face the water – if you stay here you must book a Bosphorus-facing room. I couldn’t get enough of those views, they were magnetic.
The rooms themselves are very inviting, too. An expert in Ottoman art devised their aesthetic, so the bathrooms are finished in grey marble – that’s the material and colour traditionally used in Turkish hammams; colour schemes (typically either deep blue or burgundy) and patterns reference aspects of Ottoman heritage. I was really taken with the toiletries – Kempinski collaborated with the Istanbul-born Turkish pharmaceutical and toiletries brand Atelier Rebul to produce bespoke Ciragan Palace-branded products – and you can pick up a full range of Ciragan Palace products from Atelier Rebul’s Istanbul boutiques (think reed diffusers, aftershaves, candles and so on).
Also in the main building, you’ll find the hotel’s restaurant Akdeniz, which serves a really substantial international-style breakfast buffet before switching to generously portioned, healthy Mediterranean dishes for lunch and dinner. There’s a terrace space here that again overlooks the Bosphorus, and breakfast here felt peaceful and special – I particularly enjoyed watching cute little flocks of breakfast-burgling birds descending on tables after diners left, to swoop up any pastry crumbs that might otherwise go to waste.
Nearby, the Gazebo is the all-day international lobby lounge with its own patisserie section. It’s a meeting place for Istanbul’s high society – great people-watching here… – and the afternoon tea is hefty, with an additional serving of traditional Turkish savoury dishes alongside the standard offering. Service here was, however, glacial, and if there’s one consistent shortcoming at the hotel it’s that service across the F&B outlets is slow and imperceptive.
I was initially a bit dubious about the subterranean spa offering, too. It wasn’t renovated alongside much of the rest of the hotel and looks and feels dated, with a small gym and limited facilities. However, it does feature a chic pool tastefully finished with a bucolic mural that seems to show the Bosphorus pre-development (the setting reminded me a bit of the pool at Le Bristol in Paris, which also features a distinctive mural) and the hammam I had here was properly heavenly. I can’t remember the last time I described a spa treatment in such a cloying way, but I felt blissfully adrift throughout the process – at one point I was enveloped by a layer of bath foam so thick, nicely weighty and soothing that it felt I’d been wrapped up in a cloud.
The hotel’s other significant wellness offering is its heated outdoor infinity pool (with a smaller pool for families out of sight a level below it). It’s a sizable 33 metres in length (rather than the 20 metres a staff member told me; I knew he was wrong…) and its loungers look either towards the Bosphorus or the palace – you get quite a vista either way.
And back to the suites in the palace. Its six signature suites here are located in a private wing that’s inaccessible to every other guest in the hotel. Stay the night and you’ll enter the hotel through a private entrance and have access to a standalone lounge. As part of the arrival experience, a butler will proffer a selection of homemade soaps and room fragrances so guests can customise the scents and amenities in their residences, beyond the Acqua di Parma toiletries that are already supplied. (I don’t know why they deviate from Atelier Rebul’s custom products for the signature suites; Acqua di Parma feels much less interesting.)
If you have an unlimited budget, then the place to stay is the two-bedroom Sultan Suite, which comes in at around 450 square metres and costs €50,000 a night. It’s an astronomical figure anywhere, but feels particularly extreme in Turkey, blighted as the country is with so many economic problems. But it’s booked out regularly – I was told Indian wedding parties often book out the whole palace or hotel for days, with the bride and groom residing here – and it regularly hosts celebrities and dignitaries, with Oprah Winfrey and Madonna among the Sultan Suite’s confirmed guests. No doubt they appreciated having the run of such a palatial private residence, but when I toured the suite it was again that remarkable waterside setting that really stood out to me. And luckily for everyone on more moderate budgets, that view is something that can be enjoyed in one way or another by every guest at the hotel.
Rooms at Ciragan Palace Kempinski Istanbul hotel start from €700 per night, including breakfast; suites in the Ottoman palace start from €1,400 per night, including breakfast.
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