Checking into three top hotels in Munich, where old and new alike are finely tuned

Odile Hain
| Credit: Odile Hain

I had known Munich only in winter. It can be a magical time of year — especially if snow has just fallen and the moon is shining on the newly iced Baroque buildings. But summer here was a revelation: the city, with its sun-drenched pastel façades, open-air cafés, and surprisingly laid-back people, seemed more Tuscan than Teutonic. I found myself captivated by this sultry, practically Mediterranean Munich. To make a good thing even better, I had come to sample three of the city's best hotels — two of them with histories stretching back to the mid 1800's, the other a newer gem that had just changed hands — all of them classics. In any season.

I thought I'd start with the best: the elegant 73-room hotel formerly known as the Rafael, acquired last year by the Mandarin Oriental group of Hong Kong. The creation of German hotelier George Rafael, Munich's first luxury boutique hotel opened in 1990 in a handsome, wedge-shaped 1880's building just outside the walls of the medievalcity. The Rafael was a dream of Portuguese marble, Biedermeier furnishings, and contemporary art. Having stayed there three years ago, I remember fondly my junior suite with its Empire chairs and mirrors, huge desk, lavish bathroom and dressing room, and complimentary mini-bar. And I remember going up to the hotel roof on my last night, taking in the floodlit views of the Old Town, and vowing to return in summer to enjoy the scene from the little swimming pool there. So here I am, on the hottest day of the year no less, ready to keep my date.

Arriving at 2 p.m., the official check-in time, I'm surprised that my room isn't ready. Could I sit in the lobby and wait for a few minutes?Since it's a lovely lobby, no problem. But 20 minutes later, still no room, no explanation. I am fast slipping into a make-my-stay kind of mood. Two-thirty and I'm finally shown to my room, which is a virtual double of the one I stayed in before, and every bit as luxurious. The main difference: the TV now has a wireless keyboard for surfing the Internet.

In the evening, my dinner at Mark's, the hotel's mezzanine restaurant, is superb. Amid blazing candelabra and extravagantly spaced tables covered in starched pink linen, I am looked after by four friendly young men and women. They bring frequent, unexpected "gifts from the chef" (such as ravioli of artichokes and wild thyme), and present my steamed loup with caviar and potato blini with great style, precisely snapping off the covers of the silver serving dishes.

There are glitches to come, however. The next morning, my requested newspaper fails to appear, and my expensive room-service breakfast includes undrinkable, preservative-ridden orange juice. I make my way to the pool and find it as enchanting as I'd remembered, with views of red-tiled roofs and weathered green domes. But as I stretch out on a chaise and ask the attendant for a cappuccino, he instructs me to dial "1-4" on the house phone at the far end of the roof, and then allows another guest, himself in need of a coffee and familiar with the drill, to get up and play waiter for me.

Perhaps what I've experienced is simply an unfortunate breakdown in the chain of command, brought on by the recent shift in management. That problem should remedy itself in time, particularly given Mandarin Oriental's reputation for service. Or maybe the hotel was just having a bad day. Either way, the Mandarin Oriental Munich remains one of the most beautiful hotels in town, one that should, with some tweaking, soon have consistent service to match.1 Neuturmstrasse; 800/526-6566 or 49-89/290-980, fax 49-89/222-539; doubles from $325.

There's a buzz about the Bayerischer Hof. You feel it the moment you enter the lobby, swirling with guests, guests of guests, and locals. Check-in is strictly business, yet friendly. Seeing that I'm traveling with just a garment bag, the clerk asks if I need any help. When I decline, he simply gives me the key and directions to my room. No need to waste a porter's time, not to mention my money on a tip for unnecessary service.

My room is equally no-nonsense: a small double that reminds me of a cabin on a good cruise ship. I like its well-proportioned marble bathroom, double casement windows, and two sets of doors between the interior of the room and the hall, offering total soundproofing and privacy. And this is just one type among many in the 399-room hotel. There are sumptuous suites furnished with priceless antiques in the adjacent Palais Montgelas, an 18th-century palace that the hotel lavishly restored in the seventies. There are also Laura Ashley rooms with enough chintz to do you for a lifetime, Art Nouveau suites with stained-glass ceilings, and extraordinary Tyrolean cottages, where every available inch is wood-paneled.

Choice is what the Bayerischer Hof is all about. Take dining. You can go posh in the flower-filled Garden Restaurant . . . or go native in the timber-beamed Bavarian basements of the Palais Keller . . . or go crazy in that landmark of American kitsch, Trader Vic's (you'd be surprised how well the blowfish lamps and upside-down outriggers work in Munich—honest). You can even have a night on the town without leaving the hotel, since there's a piano bar, jazz club, and small theater on the premises.

But before I make any decisions, I want to test out the swimming pool, which, like the Mandarin's, is on the roof. An elderly attendant, with perfectly coiffed Marlene Dietrich blond hair and an accent to match, sternly instructs me to remove my shoes before ascending. Needless to say, I do as I am told. The pool turns out to be big and open to the skies, thanks to a retractable glass roof. An attempt has been made at tropical landscaping, with mixed results, but the view of the twin towers of the Frauenkirche cathedral is spectacular. I swim and swim, until it looks as if we're about to have a summer cloudburst. Marlene, now in Earth Mother mode, miraculously appears and informs me that she has moved my towel from the terrace to a protected spot inside.

The next day, lunch at the Garden Restaurant—a bastion of the new, light ("lighter" would be more appropriate) German cuisine—is the perfect finale. I have velvety red-pepper soup with baked shrimp before moving on to a pike perch fillet in a mustard-horseradish crust. Despite the waiter's encouragement, I forgo the mocha parfait. But my resolve is tested when my espresso arrives, accompanied by a silver stand holding five little chocolates. I eat every one.2—6 Promenadeplatz; 800/223-6800 or 49-89/212-0901, fax 49-89/212-0908; doubles from $209, plus required $17 breakfast.

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.

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."