Back when there was no tourism but only travel, the rich would take steamers and luxury trains to Constantinople to visit one of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities. A century later, Istanbul is as international as ever—it’s been named Europe’s Capital of Culture this year—and many of the grand old hotels have new face-lifts, while many boutique hotels are opening in historic buildings.
The grande dame of the hotels, the Pera Palace, was the last word in luxury when it was built in 1892 for travelers on the Orient Express. This month the hotel reopened after a four-year, $50 million renovation. Every stick of furniture and window frame has been lovingly restored. The original elevator—complete with a velvet bench—has been given a new lease on life, and the glass domes over the Orientalist lobby have been cleaned. The overall effect is both magnificent and a little sad. The rooms are beautifully appointed with antique furniture, but much of the place’s soul has been stripped away along with the crumbling plasterwork; the magnificent old lavatories, replete with French ceramic fixtures and black-and-white tiles, have been turned into offices. Cozy corners are now brightly lit, and light wooden flooring has replaced dark carpets. It did not need to be so—the Forte Group’s Brown’s Hotel in London is an example of how historic properties can be renovated while retaining the connection to the past that makes a grand old hotel so satisfying.
The saddest loss is the Orient Express Bar, which ranked—along with the Hemingway Bar at the Paris Ritz and the tearoom at the Sacher Hotel in Vienna—as one of the great hotel salons of the world. The old bar was dingy, smoky, and dark, but you could easily imagine Ernest Hemingway guzzling whisky with fellow correspondents covering the First Balkan War of 1912, or Agatha Christie correcting the manuscript of Murder on the Orient Express, which she partly wrote in room 411. The new-look bar is bright, white, and completely characterless. For a glimpse of what the old Pera Palace looked like, it’s worth walking a couple of hundred meters up the street to the Grand Hotel de Londres, still magnificently tatty. But stay at the Pera Palace for modern style and five-star comfort.
Farther up the Bosporus, the Akaretler development in Besiktas is the biggest urban-reconstruction project since war-damaged Warsaw was re-built in the 1970s. Two streets of houses constructed in 1875 for the courtiers of the modernizing Sultan Abdulaziz have been completely rebuilt, preserving handsome sandstone façades. On a V-shaped corner in the heart of Akaretler, the W Istanbul hotel recently opened in a building that is Victorian on the outside and radically innovative on the inside. The bar and restaurant combine exposed brickwork, Ottoman-inspired wood paneling, and wide divans for lounging by the windows. Some of the rooms boast private gardens and tentlike cabanas with deep divans. The top-floor suites have private terraces overlooking the Bosporus. The one drawback of the W is that it’s a little too designed; in places the profusion of purple spotlights, mirror-tiled pillars, and odd-shaped sofas might inspire a hasty retreat. But it has a powerful chic cachet, and is well placed for the thriving nightlife of the Bosporus-side community of Ortaköy, once a fishing village and now a warren of restaurants and teahouses.
Across the water from Ortaköy on the Asian side of the Bosporus sits Sumahan on the Water, a wonderfully imaginative conversion of an Ottoman alcohol factory. A married couple, both architects, recently converted the derelict family heirloom into a striking blend of historical and ultramodern design. The building’s cast-iron roof beams and rough-hewn stone walls are juxtaposed with cool hardwood floors and white Scandinavian furniture, all suffused with the brilliant light reflected off the water. The only drawback is that the hotel is far from the city center, but Sumahan provides a free shuttle boat to downtown. The upside is that it’s a wonderfully tranquil haven from the bustle of the city. The property features a beautiful garden on the water, and every room has a spectacular view of the endless ballet of tankers, ferries, and fishing boats on one of the world’s most picturesque waterways.
One of my personal favorites is the tiny Misafir Suites, a boutique hotel in a warren of tiny streets right in the heart of the European quarter of Beyoglu. The handsome 19th-century Greek building has been converted into a restaurant, an art space, and seven guest suites, each with a different ultramodern décor. The rooms are enormous—between 45 and 55 square meters—with giant baths. The furniture is handmade from solid hardwood by contemporary Turkish designers, the pictures on the walls are collages of vintage Ottoman letters and photographs, and the carpets are modern twists on old Anatolian designs. Peaceful it’s not. On weekends the nearby pedestrian mall Istiklal Caddesi, once the Grand Rue de Pera, is packed with revelers out sampling the restaurants, bars, clubs, cinemas, and narghile-smoking cafés. But the Misafir Suites is the perfect place to settle for a comfortable night’s rest.