The Çiragan Palace Kempinski, an Ottoman pleasure dome turned five-star hotel, has its own jetty and heliport for the A-list, one-name celebs (Kobe, Madonna, Oprah) who mellow out in the $40,000-a-night Sultan’s Suite. This may well be the toniest hotel in Europe – the Kempinski recently knocked Parisian landmark Hotel Le Bristol off its vaunted perch as the best hotel in Europe at the 2013 World Travel Awards – but it wasn’t always so. The grandest building on Istanbul’s Strait of Bosporus was constructed in the mid-1800s, at least partially on the grounds of a monastery for whirling dervishes, deeply religious Sufi Muslims who – as local lore would have it – cursed this monument to excess.
Sultan Abdulaziz, who financed the construction, hosted French Empress Eugénie de Montijo and may have snuck in a dalliance with Napoleon III’s wife while residing in his luxurious digs. But he didn’t enjoy the premises for long: He was swiftly deposed by political opponents furious about his profligate spending and found dead shortly afterward. He was 46 and in apparent good health. His nephew and heir, Sultan Murad V lasted 93 days in the palace before being declared mentally incompetent and imprisoned in the harem.
Disaster struck again in 1910, two months after Turkey’s second Imperial Parliament convened on the palace grounds. Çiragan (pronounced chir-AHN) burnt to the ground along with its priceless furnishings, art, and vast book collection. Only the high marble walls and bridges remained. A skeleton suddenly glowered on the European banks of the strait, casting a deathly stare at Asia on the opposite shore.
Luckily for travelers and architecture buffs, the Kempinski luxury hotel group restored the baroque palace and re-opened it to great fanfare in 1991. Today, the former palace, returned to its original opulence, is divided into 11 stunning suites serviced by butlers working in shifts and situated not far from the justifiably famous Tugra Restaurant. Lush lawns with gardens, palm trees, and gazebos line a long promenade leading to the new “wing” of the palace, where guests can enjoy a Moet & Chandon champagne bar, heated infinity pool, and spacious balconies.
If indulging yourself in a Sultan’s palace sounds callous in light of the ongoing student protests in nearby Taksim Square at the center of Istanbul, remember that the city’s young people are crying out for cosmopolitanism. The palace has always been a hub of multiculturalism sitting at the exact point where East meets West – where the curses of the past are transformed into a gilded present.
More information: Still surrounded by its ancient marble walls, Çiragan Palace sits on the European shores of the Bosporus, between the districts of Beyoglu and Ortakoy. It has a total of 313 rooms.