After numerous visits to Istanbul, I am still enthralled by its diverse and fascinating neighborhoods. On a recent trip, I chose Beyoğlu — known as “Pera” in Greek, the language of historic Constantinople—an arty and lively district, the local equivalent of New York’s Greenwich Village, and home to one of the world’s most storied hotels, the Pera Palace.
Once the mandatory address for passengers alighting from the Orient Express, the Pera Palace has a rich literary history that includes mystery writer Agatha Christie, who is said to have written “Murder on the Orient Express” while staying in Room 411, and Ernest Hemingway, who was a loyal patron of the famed Orient Bar.
When it opened in 1895, the Pera Palace was the most luxurious hotel in Istanbul. Designed by French- Turkish architect Alexander Vallaury, the building mixes art nouveau, neoclassical and Oriental styles. First in the city to boast an electric elevator and running hot water, it quickly attracted a beau monde clientele from every corner of the globe. But after World War II, when airplanes and the Iron Curtain brought an end to the golden age of European train travel, this grande dame aged and her glamour faded.
My recent visit came shortly after the 115-room hotel reopened following a $30 million renovation. The danger inherent in any such project is that the period ambience of the property will vanish. Fortunately, the Pera Palace avoided this fate, thanks to a brilliantly sensitive overhaul, and entering the lobby you are instantly aware of the hotel’s romantic history. Four glass-paned domes glow above the central atrium. And up a short flight of stairs, the grand public rooms — a tourist attraction in themselves — are furnished with magnificent Ottoman and European antiques. An outdoor terrace now adjoins the Orient Bar, and nearby is a French patisserie and a glittering tearoom.
Room 101 occupies a special place in the history of the hotel and the nation, as it was the favorite of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish republic. He stayed there numerous times after his first visit in 1917. Still painted “sunrise pink,” his favorite color, the room has been converted into a small museum displaying his personal belongings, books and other memorabilia.
Our corner suite, named after French novelist Pierre Loti, retained only one or two original antiques, but it was stylish and comfortable. The sitting room came with a Murano glass chandelier, Oushak carpets, an oak parquet floor, a velvet sofa and a writing desk. Heavy Wedgwood- blue brocade curtains framed tall windows. And from the quiet bedroom, French doors led to a small balcony that overlooked the Golden Horn, the historic inlet of the Bosphorus that divides the old city of Istanbul. The white Carrara marble-faced bath held a replica Victorian claw-foot tub and separate rainfall shower, along with a single vanity.
At Agatha, the hotel’s gourmet restaurant, chef Maximilian Thomae offers a menu of French, Italian and Turkish dishes that echo the principal stops on the original Orient Express: Paris, Venice and Istanbul. Service here was excellent, as it proved to be throughout the hotel. Our Turkish-style room service breakfast — tomato, cucumber, cheeses and smoked meats with jams, honey in the comb and kaymak (a clotted cream) — was delivered on the dot of the requested hour. And the concierge desk was consistently helpful and proficient.
In terms of leisure facilities, the Pera Palace cannot compete with its chief rivals, the Four Seasons and the Ciragan Palace on the banks of the Bosphorus. It has no gardens or outdoor pool, although it does offer a luxurious spa with a traditional Turkish bath and indoor jet-streamed pool. Still, it is an atmospheric place for anyone who wants a taste of the great age of steamer-trunk travel.
Pera Palace 92 Deluxe Room (Golden Horn View), $545; Corner Suite (“Pierre Loti”), $1,010.
Illustration ©Melissa Colson
Free of advertising since its inception in June 1979, Hideaway Report is a private monthly publication for sophisticated travelers. The selection of hotels, resorts and restaurants for inclusion in this publication is made on a completely independent basis, with Andrew Harper, LLC paying full rate for all meals, lodging and related travel expenses. Andrew Harper and his editors travel incognito to write candid and unbiased travel reviews for a subscription service, which provides personalized travel-planning assistance, bespoke tours and valuable travel privileges to its subscribers. For questions regarding this article please contact email@example.com.