There’s something about Istanbul that always pulls me back. Split between two continents and snugly situated between the Sea of Marmara, the Golden Horn, and the Black Sea, Istanbul has an affinity for its coastline. If climbing the hills in Cihangir to catch a glimpse of the sea strait flashing between buildings or leaning over the ferry railing for a better look whetted my appetite for Istanbul’s seaside charms, my stay at Çırağan Palace Kempinski sealed my obsession with the Bosphorus. Reflecting the site’s history as an opulent Ottoman palace, the hotel is an oasis of calm in the middle of bustling Beşiktaş — with breathtaking views of the strait to boot. I stepped through time to experience a luxurious pace of life fit for Ottoman royalty.
Where Cosmopolitan Flair Meets Ottoman Decadence
While many hotels can lay claim to historical roots, few have the kind of longstanding significance of the Çırağan Palace Kempinski. Redesign and modernity sit side by side here, with the recently renewed hotel decor specifically selected to reflect the palace’s illustrious history while embracing modern luxury. Entering the lobby, it’s hard not to notice the Murano glass chandelier, a nod to Istanbul’s position within historic international trade routes, and the rich textiles designed with Ottoman ironwork patterns in mind. Taking a turn around the lobby, I passed through an entry lined with bright blue Izmir tiles to find the Gazebo restaurant with its geometric layout reminiscent of an Ottoman garden — complete with birdcage fixtures and elegant cakes I hoped I’d have time to sample.
Entering my room, framed reproductions of Ottoman-era illustrations lined the walls. Dominated by a large bed draped with wine-red accents, the room was fitted with custom Atelier Rebul toiletries. Stepping out onto the balcony, I took in the panoramic view of the Bosphorus that ignited my imagination. An expansive pool lay to the left, while an old stone gate stood alone to the right — a curious threshold on the very brink of the water.
Wandering the grounds, I found a small exhibit tracing the palace’s origins from the 17th century to today. Beginning as an Imperial Garden, the site was transformed into a royal palace. As many as four Sultans left their mark on the Çırağan before the neighboring Dolmabahçe Palace was built to take its place. Here I found the answer to satisfy my curiosity: while the original palace was mostly destroyed in a fire (1910), the original palace gate facing the Bosphorus remains intact — along with the Sultan’s marble hammam, which the hotel keeps under lock and key.
Indulging, Sultan Style
Determined to relax, I took the elevator down to the Sanitas Spa. Not a stranger to the usual procedure at a Turkish hamam, I thought I knew what to expect. Based on the daily bathing rituals of the Ottoman sultans themselves, the Sultan’s Hammam treatment built on the usual process of hot steam, Kese exfoliating glove, and foam wash to include a full body milk, honey, and rosewater mask, and an extra-moisturizing moisturizing olive foam massage. I was floored. Unlike my previous hammam experiences, the treatment room at Sanitas was privatized just for me. Laying back on the warm marble stone, I let my attendant take over. After a deep exfoliation and a luxurious massage with a thick blanket of soft foam, I was rinsed clean. Covered from head to toe in a moisturizing rosewater, milk, and honey mask, it was impossible not to feel utterly relaxed. Exiting the spa at the end of my session, I caught a glimpse of my reflection in the mirror: I was glowing.
A Tale of Two Palaces
While it’s easy to let reality fade away, I laced up my boots and set off to explore Beşiktaş. Inspired by the history of the Çırağan Palace, I explored the neighboring Dolmabahçe Palace — after all, it’s only natural to want to check out the competition. After navigating a maze of snaking queues, I entered the grounds. Transformed into a popular museum, this former palace offered an elegant glimpse at the past from behind velvet ropes. Wandering the rooms draped in Baccarat crystal chandeliers and elegant silk wall hangings, I admired the melange of Old World and European opulence. Still, I longed for the tranquility of my own palace and was happy when my tour came to a close and I made my way back to Çırağan Palace Kempinski.
Feasting on the Mediterranean’s Finest
After spending the afternoon wandering Dolmabahçe’s crowded halls, my return to the hotel felt like reentering another world. Sitting on my balcony before dinner, I watched the sunset streak the sky pink, wondering about the other women through history lucky enough to have taken in these views. When the Bosphorus finally faded to an inky black and the lights across the water in Üsküdar blinked on at nightfall, I pulled myself away from the view in favor of a feast at Akdeniz by Esra Muslu.
Akdeniz, meaning ‘mediterranean,’ is a mélange of influences from Italy, Spain, Greece, and Turkey. The sharing plate menu concept made it easy to try multiple dishes, but dining alone made it difficult to choose. Sipping on an Izmir chardonnay, I sampled tender calamari, lemon roasted sea bass brushed with butter, and colorful heirloom tomatoes in a fresh mint yogurt sauce. I finished my meal with a scoop of tahini ice cream sprinkled with crunchy sesame brittle, delighted with my flavorful trip along the Mediterranean.
Returning to my room, I regretfully packed my bag for my morning departure. Dithering at the window, it was impossible to draw the curtains on the view. Finally, I shrugged, leaving the drapes open. I was rising early, after all, and what better way was there than to drift to sleep with enigmatic Istanbul right outside the window?
(All images courtesy of Çırağan Palace Kempinski. Article in partnership with Kempinski Hotels).