Review: Kempinski Istanbul, Budapest and Bratislava

Three countries in one week is no hardship for us as we city-hop between Istanbul, Budapest and Bratislava, given the wondrous sights to explore and the grand hospitality of Kempinski Hotels

Our Istanbul adventure begins with a beautiful sunrise on what promises to be a clear, crisp spring day. The ride from the airport to Ciragan Palace Kempinski provides glimpses of the city’s famous landmarks, including the Blue Mosque and the Spice Bazaar, and amazing views of the Bosphorus. In the early hours men, young and old, fish along GalataBridge. On this spring day, blooming tulips in vibrant shades of pink, red, lemon and orange greet us everywhere we go – more than 11 million flowers have been planted for Istanbul’s Tulip Festival in April. Contrary to popular belief, tulips originated from Turkey not Holland; the Dutch obtained the seeds from the edge of Europe.

Istanbul, recently voted the most popular destination in Europe, is the largest city in Turkey and the only city in the world that spans two continents: the western districts are in Europe, the eastern side is in Asia. Rich in history, it is a four-time imperial capital, once heading the Roman, Byzantine, Latin and Ottoman empires.

At the hotel, we enjoy a sumptuous breakfast buffet at Laledan restaurant overlooking a palm garden and the Bosphorus, after which we freshen up in the Sanitas Spa (our 7am arrival time is too early for check-in) before venturing out for a tour of the old city. We visit historic multi-purpose Hagia Sophia (also known as Aya Sofya), which was consecrated as a church in 537, converted to a mosque in 1453 and declared a museum in 1935. Nearby, the Blue Mosque’s interior of blue iznik tiles makes a fascinating visual feast, though the overwhelming number of visitors renders the experience somewhat less enjoyable.

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Istanbul as seen from the Bosphorus

After a hearty lunch of Turkish meatballs, we visit a traditional coffee house before shopping at the Grand Bazaar, one of the oldest markets in the world. Abuzz since 1461, it sells everything from jewelry, textiles, homeware and glassware to tourist trinkets and fake designer leather goods. I pick up some Turkish slippers as souvenirs for my two nieces before making my way through the maze of endless alleys where vendors solicit business by calling “hello” in a cacophony of languages.

The next day, after soaking in a traditional Turkish hamam at the hotel spa, we enjoy the Kempinski’s famous Sunday brunch at Laleden. Sweet teeth are sated by the selection of homemade ice creams and forays into the decadent Chocolate Room filled with chocolate cakes, tarts, cookies and other sinful small bites.

A visit to Istanbul would not be complete without a cruise on the Bosphorus, and though the sky is blanketed with clouds sprinkling occasional drizzle on our second day, our mood is not dampened. We stop by the Museum of Innocence (www.masumiyetmuzesi.org), which opened last year inspired by Nobel Prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk’s 2008 novel. Housed over four levels in a small building in Beyoglu, the meticulous displays of everyday objects – newspaper clippings, postcards, hair clips, jewelery and photos – reflect daily life in Istanbul during the second half of the 20th century. The museum’s 83 boxes correspond to the 83 chapters of the novel; on my way out I purchase the English version from the gift shop.

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Historical Hamam

Afterwards, we browse at Taksim Meydam, the heart of the city’s shopping area. While there, make sure you drop by Hafiz Mustafa (www.hafizmustafa.com), the confectionary opened in 1864 during the early years of Sultan Abdulaziz’ rule of the Ottoman Empire; the Turkish tiles on the shop walls and floor inject a traditional flavor, while an inner sanctum houses a cafe serving desserts and beverages. The colorful display of Turkish delights – including baklava and halva as well as the infamous gooey candy – is an appetizing sight for first-time visitors.

Walking along the wide Avenue of Istiklal reminds me of the hustle and bustle of Barcelona’s famous Las Ramblas. Exploring the arcades housing small local shops on the side streets instead of cruising down on the main street of international high-street labels is recommended.

Dinner back at the hotel’s Tugra restaurant is an elegant affair and the perfect way to end the day. Located on the first floor of the Ciragan Palace, Tugra serves fine Ottoman cuisine in a contemporary interior that artfully incorporates classic touches. Local wines go particularly well with the mixed appetiser platter and signature mains such as kebab and lamb kulbasti; in warmer months the terrace opens for romantic river-view dinners.

Of all the sights in IstanbulTopkapi Palace stands out as perhaps the most interesting – and time-consuming. It served as the court of the Ottoman Empire between the 15th and 19th centuries, housing sultans, courtiers and concubines, as well as an army of palace staff. Its size and layout reflects the opulent sophistication of the Ottomans at the height of their power. Allocate at least half a day at this amazing spot, and don’t miss the sections housing the imperial treasury; unfortunately we only see part of the collection, as we have to wing it to Budapest that afternoon.

 

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Budapest Parliament, as seen from the Danube

Budapest

From Turkey to Hungary, and another stately Kempinski hotel... After a delightful breakfast of fresh fruits and cold cuts in Corvinus suite, the largest in the Kempinski Hotel Corvinus Budapest, we enjoy a leisurely morning of exploring the neighborhood. Very close to the hotel, which is conveniently located in the financial district and main shopping area, we encounter two charming stores: Bomo Art (www.bomoart.com), a stationery shop specialising in leather-bound notebooks, cards, papers and wrapping paper printed with Hungarian motifs, and Folkart Kezmuveshaz (www.folkartkezmuveshaz.hu), which has been selling traditional handicrafts such as embroidery, lace and pottery since 1962.

Lunch at Michelin-starred restaurant Pierrot (www.pierrot.hu) near Budapest castle gleefully satisfies our appetites. Housed in an historical building, the restaurant has a quaint garden at back – in the castle vicinity, buildings are owned by the local government and leased for commercial or residential use. On an afternoon stroll, we admire key landmarks such as Matthias Church, built at the end of the 19th century and named after a Hungarian king who ruled during the Renaissance, and Fisherman’s Bastion. The latter, with seven towers representing the seven Magyar tribes that conquered the land that became Hungary, offers spectacular views of the city including the imposing Parliament building across the river. We continue our city tour with stops at Gallert Hill, Heroes’ Square and St Stephen’s Basilica – the largest church in Budapest featuring neoclassical towers – before heading back to the hotel for dinner.

Nobu opened in 2010 and marks the celebrity chef’s first outpost in central Europe. About 80 per cent of the menu comprises Nobu signatures, with the remaining dishes inspired by local ingredients and tastes. Crispy duck teriyaki and salmon foie gras salad are favorites here. A wide selection of cocktails makes the bar a popular spot for the city’s stylish set.

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View of the Danube as it flows through Budapest

Besides Nobu, the hotel boasts a newly revamped lobby and a very happening bar called Blue Fox. We also like the Herend suite named after the famous Hungarian porcelain brand; featuring a soothing green and cream decor it is furnished with the floral and butterfly motifs synonymous with the brand, as well as actual pottery. The next morning we visit the Herend shop in Andrassy Street, just a 15-minute walk away, to glimpse the intricacies of creating porcelain flowers.

Before departing this majestic city, we enjoy a scrumptious lunch of special cold cuts and breads, mains of Wiener schnitzel and stewed beef, and a dessert of apple strudel. This is at Es, the hotel’s other restaurant, which serves Hungarian and Austrian cuisine in a modern and jovial bistro setting.

Bratislava

Driving to Bratislava from Budapest takes between two and two-and-a-half hours depending on traffic. The scenery during the ride is uninspiring, making this the ideal time to nap, especially after a heavy yet satisfying lunch. Slovakia’s capital shares borders with Hungary to the south and Austria to the west; Vienna and Bratislava are the two closest European capital cities geographically. 

Opened in 2010, the Kempinski Hotel River Park is the only five-star hotel in the city. Its prominent location by the Danube makes it a popular spot for high-level meetings.  Indeed as we arrive, the hotel is preparing for an important conference involving heads of state and tight security is enforced. We escape officialdom, taking an hour-long tour courtesy of Bratislava Tourism Board through the cobblestone streets on a small train, which affords an overview of the cityscape.

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Another view of the Danube, this time in Bratislava. The Kempinski here is on the banks

Back in the hotel we meet the executive chef at the main kitchen, who gives us a behind-the-scenes glimpse of dining facilities at a deluxe hotel, and then sit down to a lovely dinner at River Bank restaurant. The meal is enhanced by our introduction to a few Slovakian wines selected by the hotel’s award-winning sommelier.

A tour of the hotel tempts us to extend our stay: the indoor swimming pool has amazing city and river views, and our luxurious one-bedroom suite boasts state-of-the-art technology and adjustable lighting. The youngest of the Kempinski hotels we sampled during this whirlwind visit to the eastern edge of European, it is the most contemporary and luxuriously furnished of the three.

 

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Most rooms at the Ciragan Palace Kempinski have views of the Bosphorus

Ciragan Palace Kempinski

  • Rooms: 302 including 11 luxurious Palace suites and 20 hotel suites
  • Restaurants: Laledan (all-day dining serving international cuisine, buffet breakfast and Sunday brunch); Tugra (classic Turkish and Ottoman cuisine); Ciragan Bosphorus Grill (grilled specialties open in summer)
  • Bars: Gazabo Lounge (all-day drinks and dining including Continental breakfast and afternoon tea); Ciragan Bar (open from October to April); Le Fumoir (with semi-outdoor area)
  • Recreation: Spa with five treatment rooms; indoor and outdoor swimming pools; authentic Turkish hamam, fitness centre, beauty salon
  • Observations: At a starting rate of US$2,000 per night, Palace guests are the world elite who appreciate the privacy and luxury of a grand (and private) entrance complete with red carpet. Madonna and Oprah Winfrey have both hosted parties at the Palace. The Palace offers meeting and banquet rooms featuring breathtaking views of the Bosphorus and the grandeur of exquisite chandeliers and high ceilings.
  • Location: Ciragan Caddesi No. 32, Besiktas, Istanbul, tel: +90 212 326 46 46, www.kempinski.com

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The newly renovated lobby at the Kempinski Cornivus Budapest

Kempinski Hotel Corvinus Budapest

  • Rooms: 359 including 33 suites
  • Restaurants: Nobu (contemporary Japanese); Es Bisztro (Hungarian and Viennese dishes in a contemporary setting; also buffet breakfast)
  • Bars: Blue Fox The Bar; the Living Room (serves breakfast, fine teas and rich coffees during the day, high tea in the afternoon, and rose-only champagne in the evening); Nobu Lounge Bar (separate menu from the restaurant, wide selection of cocktails)
  • Recreation: Fitness club; swimming pool; spa; tennis and squash courts and golf and equestrian courses nearby
  • Observations: Opened in 1992, the hotel recently completed a major redesign and renovation of the ground floor, making the lobby and surrounding area a modern and stylish space in which to chill out. The Kempinski Gallery exhibits contemporary Hungarian art on the first floor.
  • Location: Erzsebet ter 7-8, BudapestHungary, tel: +36 1 429 3777, www.kempinski.com/budapest

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Junior suite at the Kempinski Hotel River Park Bratislava

Kempinski Hotel River Park Bratislava

  • Rooms: 271 including 40 suites
  • Restaurants & bars: River Bank (all-day dining serving international cuisine, buffet breakfast and a famous Sunday brunch); Art Lounge and Bar; Churchill Cigar Club (fine spirits and smokes in a cosy setting)
  • Recreation: Indoor swimming pool; relaxation pool; Zion Spa with five treatment rooms
  • Observations: Located in the city centre on the banks of the river Danube, the hotel is only a 10-minute drive from Bratislava airport and 35 minutes from Vienna international airport.
  • Location: Dvorakaova nabrezie 6, Bratisvala, Solvakia, tel: +421 2 32238 222, (www.kempinski.com/bratislava)

Flight of Fancy

Turkish Airlines offers international passengers a free city tour in Istanbul if their transit time is six hours or more. Simply sign up for a half-day or full-day program at the airline’s Hotel Desk at Istanbul airport once you exit immigration. Itineraries are posted on www.istanbulinhours.com.

Our City Tour, on the last day of the trip en route back to Hong Kong, covered sights we had not managed to visit when we stayed in the city – namely the Basilica Cistern, Spice Market and Pier Loti Cafe, where patrons can savor panoramic views of Istanbul and the Golden Horn. At the Spice Market, look out for Kurukahveci Mehmet Efendi (www.mehmetefendi.com), founded in 1871 and the most famous coffee supplier in the city. It is located on the corner of Hasircilar Caddesi near one of the market entrances.

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