Nick Leech finds the newly renovated Pera Palace part museum, part monument to its city of Istanbul, and part myth
Despite its name, illustrious history and a two-year, €23 million (Dh124m) renovation, there is nothing remotely grand or intimidating about the Pera Palace Hotel. I’m greeted by a smiling doorman who immediately makes me feel like I’ve just returned to a sumptuous private members club after a long absence. The atmosphere is calm and genteel, my fellow members include Atatürk, Hemingway and Agatha Christie, and I’m happy to collude in this delusion for the rest of my stay.
In the 19th century, Pera was Istanbul’s most contemporary quarter. Today the area, now known as Beyoglu, is one of the city’s most vibrant, being just as popular with fashionable Istanbullus as it is with tourists. Both promenade the nearby Istiklal Caddesi, Beyoglu’s main pedestrianised shopping street, and flock to its many chic bars, restaurants, boutiques and cafes. In comparison given the hotel’s refined interior, some streets are still decidedly down at heel, but with nearby neighbours such as the excellent Pera Museum (http://en.peramuzesi.org.tr/) and the Istanbul Culinary Institute (www.istanbulculinary.com/eng/), the area attracts a smart, sophisticated crowd looking for the best of Turkish culture and cuisine.
Intelligent, articulate staff act as ambassadors for the hotel and for the city as a whole, and I feel genuinely welcome in both. When I ask for directions to a particularly obscure museum but insist on walking, the receptionist provides me with a map and written instructions before calling ahead to check that it will still be open by the time I arrive.
On the top floor with a Golden Horn view, my deluxe room would have housed servants in the hotel’s heyday. The 145 original rooms were reconstructed to create 115 modern ones, but these still feel small and the lack of space means bathrooms, except those in suites, come with baths or showers but not both. Despite sumptuous marble finishes, a heated floor that’s perfect for winter and a hammam-style hot seat in the shower, my bathroom felt cramped. Each room also includes original hotel furniture but the modern interiors disappoint, being more suited to a smart business hotel than to the glorious public spaces outside. There is complimentary Wi-Fi access in each room and a spa with a hammam and indoor pool in the basement.
The hotel’s main restaurant Agatha pays tribute to the three major stops made by guests as they originally travelled to the hotel on the Orient Express: Paris, Venice and Istanbul. It serves a combination of French, Italian and Turkish dishes that are available à la carte or from the chef’s six-course degustation menu (125 Turkish lira; Dh300) and it’s the Turkish dishes that really stand out. For à la carte offerings try the saffron-infused artichoke soup cooked in olive oil (18 lira; Dh43) or marinated saddle of lamb stuffed with dried aubergine and green beans wrapped with pastrami and mint sauce (46 lira; Dh110).
Judging by the designer glasses, high-concept luggage and artfully unkempt hairstyles, the Pera Palace seems to be a favourite with slightly older writers, journalists, academics and architecture junkies out of season, as well as alternative business people looking for a suitable venue for their breakfast meetings. During high season, the hotel attracts larger, organised tour groups of foreign tourists for one or two nights who come to see the hotel’s in-house Atatürk museum as well as room 411 – Agatha Christie’s favourite and reputedly the suite where she was inspired to write her novel Murder on the Orient Express.
Afternoon tea (55 lira; Dh130) served in the Ottoman splendour of the courtyard-like Kubbeli Saloon and Tea Lounge is a culinary and architectural pleasure that should feature on every tourist’s itinerary. However, coffee and cake in the fondant intimacy of the Patisserie de Pera is enjoyed by Istanbullus and visitors alike and provides an even better spot for a mid-morning rendezvous or people watching.
For visitors unused to Istanbul’s mottled beauty, the immediate vicinity of the hotel is likely to disappoint, flanked as it is by a busy road and a football stadium on one side and an ugly municipal car park on the other. However, the hotel’s beauty, views across the Golden Horn and proximity to excellent restaurants, shops and nightlife more than make up for this.
Istanbul rightly claims to be one of Europe’s hippest and most exciting cities, and the renovation of the Pera Palace has put the hotel right back where it belongs, at the heart of the city’s cultural and urban renaissance. Part museum, part monument, part myth, the rejuvenated Pera Palace is a hotel where visitors can experience the glamour of travel from a bygone age in surroundings that are as romantic as they are authentic.
The bottom line
A double room costs from €250 (Dh1,347) per night, including taxes and breakfast. Pera Palace Hotel, Mesrutiyet Caddesi No: 52, Tepebasi – Beyoglu, Istanbul (00 90 212 377 4000).
This article originally appeared in The National, Abu Dhabi