Photo: Sailorr/Shutterstock

In Istanbul, A Former Sultan's Palace Is Now Among The World's Poshest Hotels

Epic Stays
by Tim Wenger Feb 28, 2024

Nowhere in the world embodies humanity’s living history quite like the Bosphorus Straight. Cutting 19 miles through Istanbul and northwest Türkiye, the straight is the only shipping channel connecting the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara and, eventually, the Mediterranean. As such, it’s an imperative lifeblood for West Asia and the Caucasus, and throughout human history has carried, celebrated, and cursed some of the most powerful armies the world has ever seen. Indeed, if only these waters could talk.

Nowadays Istanbul, a global hub of more than 15 million people divided in half by the Bosphorus, remains the most imperial city the world has ever known, with the Straight’s banks through the city serving as the seat of empires stretching back some 3,000 years. Thanks to the recent remodel of the five-star Çırağan Palace Kempinski, you can embrace the city’s global ties on a stay in the city right on the banks of the Bosphorus – and there’s no better way to immerse yourself in lore, legacy, and luxury.

The story so far

museum at ciragan palace kempinski

The hallway connecting the historic palace to the hotel serves as a museum. Photo: Tim Wenger

What is now Istanbul, Türkiye’s largest city and the cosmopolitan bridge between Europe and Asia, has historically been the seat of several of mankind’s most powerful empires. First settled by the Megarans as Byzantium in the 7th Century BC, Constantine I then established the seat of the Roman Empire on the same stretch of land under the moniker Constantinople in 272 AD. The city has since been sieged thrice by the Arabs and at least five times by the Ottomans. The latter finally ousted the resurgent and resistant Byzantine empire in 1453 and put the city firmly in Ottoman hands in a 55-day marathon battle known as the Fall of Constantinople (check out the Netflix series “Rise of Empires: Ottoman” for a dramatic reenactment of the latter and a much more thorough backstory on the region’s significant players).

On October 29, 1923, the Treaty of Lausanne was signed, officially establishing the modern Republic of Türkiye. Ironically, and largely due to Istanbul’s vulnerable and desirable location straddling two densely-populated continents, the long-time seat of human desire then lost its capital status to Ankara, several hours inland and thus firmly safe from water-born attacks. Humanity’s living history lives on in Istanbul, however, and the best way to experience it on a trip to Istanbul is to base yourself where the sultans themselves lived – right along the shores of the Bosphorus.

The only place to do this is the Çırağan Palace Kempinski (pronounced Cheer-an). Here, you can sleep adjacent to where Sultan Abdulaziz and his successors Sultan Muard V and Abdul Hamid II, slept, in contemporary 5-star luxury and the vibrant Bosphorus scene right out your window. It’s a posh palace hotel that can easily be appreciated solely for its lavish quarters and amenities – but to get the most out of your stay, it’s best to understand why this property is so special.

About the Çırağan Palace Kempinski’s history – and its contemporary aesthetic

The construction of the Çırağan Palace began in 1855 during the reign of Sultan Abdülmecid I and was completed in 1871. The palace was designed by the famous Ottoman Armenian architect Nigoğayos Balyan, who was renowned for his elegant and grandiose architectural style. The palace was built in the neoclassical style, incorporating elements of Ottoman architecture and European influences. It features a symmetrical layout with impressive domes, arches, and columns, reflecting the opulence and grandeur of the Ottoman Empire.

Constructed mainly from marble, the Çırağan Palace boasts intricate detailing and ornate decorations both on its exterior façade and within its interior spaces. The palace overlooks the Bosphorus Strait, providing breathtaking views of the waterway and the skyline of the city’s Asian side.

All but the outer facade of the palace was destroyed in a fire in 1910 and rebuilt over the following years into a contemporary version of its historical glory, retaining the Ottoman characterizations of opulent furnishings, intricate geometric patterns, vibrant colors, ornate textiles, and the lavish use of luxurious materials such as silk, velvet, and gold accents. What became the Çırağan Palace hotel was built in the 1980s under the direction of Dr. Randi Sanbar, and opened in 1991 on the grounds of the historical structure’s former football pitch and garden. The hallway connecting the original palace to the hotel serves as a museum of sorts, displaying historical photographs and documents covering the property’s history and how it ties into the rise and fall of particular sultans.

chandelier at ciragan palace kempinski

Opulent chandeliers are everywhere. Photo: Tim Wenger

Over the past few years, the hotel has undergone a significant transformation to modernize its amenities, albeit without sacrificing its historical Ottoman splendor.

“We wanted to bring this spirit of the Ottomans into this hotel,” the hotel’s General Manager and Kempinski Regional Vice President, Ralph Ratdke, told Matador over a drink in one of the hotel’s ornate suites. “In so many luxury hotels, you could be anywhere. That’s why we worked with Serdar Gülgün, the Ottoman Art historian (to work on the redesign).”

That spirit is present from the moment you walk into the hotel. Guests must first pass through a gate separating the property from the street. The lobby opens up to Gazebo, the hotel’s lounge restaurant characterized by ornate blue vases, the white-pillared quadrants of the grand dining room, and its high-hung and gold-tinged chandelier that resembles the historic birdcage long found on the property. Gülgün’s interpretation of Ottoman style graces the common spaces throughout the first floor. Floral decor plays heavily into the aesthetic.

​​“In our part of the world, interiors are different from the west,” Gülgün, the art historian, told Matador over the same round of drinks. “Here, it’s about fabrics, patterns, and colors. For the Istanbul people, Çırağan Palace is very close to our hearts. If you want to celebrate something, you end up in Çırağan. It was first built during the period of tulips, an era very important to us.”

The brightness of the tulips plays deeper into the hotel’s story, dating back to the initial construction of the palace in the 1860s. Indeed, the name of the property – Çırağan – itself is derived from the Persian word for “torch,” an homage to the torchlights that used to light up the city. The tulip gardens represent the city’s global ties stretching as far away as Holland and developed since the rise of the Ottomans.

“It’s said that Muslim art is representative of four flowers. Rose, tulips, hyacinths, and carnations,” says Gülgün. “We brought this tradition into the palace hotel, honoring local traditions to create a seamless blend of Istanbul’s past and its future. The lobby cafe incorporates the four quadrants, one for each flower, into its expansive high-ceiling dining room.”

What it’s like to stay at the Çırağan Palace Kempinski

Never before had I slept like a sultan. Photo: Tim Wenger
Small bites are a Turkish staple. Photo: Tim Wenger

I was greeted by a bouquet of flowers on a recent stay at the Çırağan Palace Kempinski. By the time I’d inhaled a generous whiff, the hotel staff had placed a room key in my hand. From a balcony overlooking the Bosphorus, the moon reflecting off the Temmuz Şehitler Bridge connecting Europe and Asia, I sipped a glass of Turkish red wine and tasted my first bite of İzmir bombası, a cookie stuffed with praline and a common snack served at social functions in Istanbul. This experience, overlooking one of the world’s most important and visually striking cities from three floors up, rejuvenated my body after the 12-hour flight from San Francisco to Istanbul.

The bathroom in each room draws from the style of old Turkish Hammams. Marble flooring and inlays play heavily into the calming aesthetic, with rain shower heads and plenty of space to stretch and unwind in the shower. The corridor in every room features artwork depicting archetypes of traditional Ottoman society. Mine featured squibs of two of the sultans who’d called the palace home.

wall art at ciragan palace kempinski

Sultans watched over me as I slept. Photo: Tim Wenger

I stayed in a Grand Luxe Room overlooking the Bosphorus, the city’s Asian side across the straight as my backdrop. The room was ornate in all aspects. Rich fabrics such as silk, velvet, and brocade comprise the draperies, upholstery, and bedding, adding a sense of sumptuousness to the décor. Ornate patterns and motifs inspired by traditional Ottoman design, such as arabesques, geometric shapes, and floral motifs, adorn the textiles and furnishings, creating a visually stunning aesthetic – laying in bed looking out over the Bosphorus, I felt a bit of imposter syndrome kick in, like I should be a royal to experience grandeur of this caliber.

If you have a spare $28,000 or so, you can rent one of the 11 Sultan Suites, located in the historical palace itself. Fit for a president, each Sultan Suite is meticulously designed and furnished to feature spacious living areas, private balconies or terraces overlooking the Bosphorus, luxurious bedrooms with king-sized beds, marble bathrooms with Jacuzzi tubs, and separate dining areas. Guests staying in these suites can take advantage of 24-hour butler service, in-room dining, and access to exclusive facilities like a helipad with a private entrance to their suite.

Dining at the Çırağan Palace Kempinski

Never has a plate of food been so perfectly colorful. Photo: Tim Wenger
Part dumpling, part pastry. All perfect. Photo: Tim Wenger
I could see where this fish lived from my hotel room balcony. Photo: Tim Wenger

Tuğra is the signature restaurant of the Çırağan Palace Kempinski, named after the distinctive seal of the Ottoman sultans. This elegant dining venue offers a refined setting with stunning views of the Bosphorus. Tugra specializes in authentic Ottoman cuisine, showcasing traditional recipes and flavors from the imperial kitchens. We sampled the Meze of Chef Emre İnanır , a plate of cold appetizers including hummus, Cacik, . My personal favorite among them was the Ezme, a spicy tomato and pepper relish that expertly accented the fresh bread served on the side. For main, I had the Black Sea Turbot, a locally sourced seafood dish paired with slow-cooked fennel and cherry sauce. The dish epitomized Istanbul, where fish from the Bosphorus are on display at markets across the city – fresh, succulent, and exceptionally tasty. Recommended by the Michelin Guide, dining at Tuğra is a first-class experience best done on date night or with business colleagues.

More casual dining happens at Gazebo, which serves a complete Turkish breakfast in the morning along with pastries and lighter bites throughout the day. Italian dining is offered at Bellini, with a patio overlooking the Bosphorus.

Defining the luxury experience at the Çırağan Palace Kempinski

soap butler at ciragan palace kempinski

It’s not cheese, not cake . . . but soap. Photo: Tim Wenger

You haven’t lived luxury until you’ve experienced the Çırağan Palace soap service. Stay in one of the hotel’s high-end suites and a soap butler will bring a cart with a series of large bars of soap, each scented to reflect a different touch of the Turkish palate, and cut you off a bar of whatever flavor or smell that you strikes your fancy. The hotel will then send you home with more of the same. No matter which you choose you’ll experience one of the hotel’s proprietary soap blends. Guests also experience scents from Atelier Rebul, a boutique fragrance purveyor crafting locally-accented perfumes, colognes, and other products specifically tailored to the hotel.

Certainly, there are more budget-friendly options when it comes to places to stay in Istanbul. By staying here you not only have the opportunity to gain an intimate knowledge of Istanbul’s history, you’re helping to preserve it by engaging with a property that has staked its entire existence on celebrating the city’s legacy.

Unlike many modern luxury hotels, this one is content to embody Istanbul’s vibrant and often tumultuous past, rather than attempt to create its future. “New York should be presenting New York. If I am in Istanbul, I want to feel Istanbul. At the end of the day, what people like is that the hotel has a soul.” Radtke says.

I certainly felt the Çırağan Palace Kempinski tugging at mine.

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