KEMPINSKI HOTEL VIER JAHRESZEITEN
Unlike the Bayerischer Hof, which is tucked away on the leafy Promenadeplatz, the Vier Jahreszeiten is smack on Maximilianstrasse, Munich's busiest boulevard. Built in the 1850's at the command of Maximilian II, the hotel has long been the city's unofficial residence for visiting royalty, heads of state, and celebrities.
The façade, restored after Allied bombings in 1945, is a bizarre piece of architecture: rows of Gothic windows broken by niches harboring heads, busts, and full-length statues of cherubs, Chinese men, and nubile ladies. But beyond the revolving door I find the Grand Hotel, just as in the 1930's Hollywood movie. The dark, wood-paneled foyer leads to a larger, lighter salon, where guests—well-robed Arab women, Japanese in their new Jil Sanders and Helmut Langs, Euro-flashy businessmen—are schmoozing under a great, round, stained-glass skylight. Since the reception desk is also here, the room is a prime people-watching spot, where guests can check out who's checking in. It's the "lobby as theater" concept that American hotelier Ian Schrager claims to have reinvented, but which has been going on here for nearly 150 years.
My room is a bit of a disappointment. The price is right, but despite the gold-framed prints and tall walls, overall it's dark and uninspired. Quickly upgrading myself, I'm transferred to a bright, newly renovated nest with burled-wood built-ins, just down the hall from the small, spankingly modern glassed-in pool. Like the Bayerischer Hof, the 316-room Vier Jahreszeiten offers almost too many room styles—from utilitarian singles and doubles to lavish antiques-filled corner suites to glamorous Deco extravaganzas with oversize chaises and neo-Empire beds.
The same range of possibilities is not part of the dining picture. Alas, the famed Walterspiel Restaurant, once a favorite of Munich society, is no more, and the more casual Bistro Restaurant isn't on the same level. Plus, the fanciful wood-paneled Biedermeier Room and frescoed Nymphenburg Room are reserved for private functions.
What the hotel lacks in food it makes up for with its location, steps away from some of Munich's hottest restaurants (the competent concierge will happily book your tables). But nothing beats the lobby, where I keep returning—ostensibly for a salade niçoise or an evening martini, but really just to watch the people come and go. 17 Maximilianstrasse; 800/223-6800 or 49-89/2125-2700, fax 49-89/2125-2000; doubles from $223.
THREE SMALLER CLASSICS
Advokat 1 Baaderstrasse; 49-89/216-310, fax 49-89/216-3190; doubles from $128, including breakfast. Hip, affordable member of the Design Hotel group, with 50 minimalist, Philippe Starck—style rooms.
Hotel Admiral 9 Kohlstrasse; 49-89/216-350, fax 49-89/293-674; doubles from $166, including breakfast. A charming 33-room hotel on a quiet residential street. The best rooms overlook the rear garden, where breakfast is served in good weather.
Hotel an der Oper 10 Falkenturmstrasse; 49-89/290-0270, fax 49-89/2900-2729; doubles from $133, including breakfast. Steps away from the opera house, this unpretentious 68-room hideaway is popular with singers and classical musicians. Try for a renovated room, or splurge on one of the smart new "apartments."