Two Luxe Hotels Afford the Best of Old & New Istanbul

by  Elissa Garay | Nov 10, 2011
Haga Sophia in Istanbul
Haga Sophia in Istanbul / Explora_2005/iStock

On my recent travels to Istanbul last month, I made sure to investigate two of the most buzzworthy luxury hotel happenings, each offering a Smart Luxury experience all its own: One, reflective of the storied Istanbul of yore, and the other, a modernized mecca for travelers in search of the cutting edge. The 119-year-old landmark Pera Palace Hotel emerged fresh from a $32 million restoration last fall, oozing with all of the elegance and grandeur of its late 19th-century heyday – it’s the go-to lodging for nostalgia buffs looking to be in the heart of it all. Meanwhile, on the opposite side of the coin, travelers with a flair for cutting-edge contemporary in a secluded 'hood can look to Swissôtel Living – the newest arm of luxury mainstay Swissôtel the Bosphorus, conceived by renowned designer Khuan Chew (of Burj Al Arab in Dubai fame); it debuted to guests in late spring. Read on for the firsthand reviews.

Pera Palace Offers Century-Old Heritage, Restored to its Former Glory

Tucked away in the vibrant hills of cosmopolitan Pera, the legendary Pera Palace Hotel, today classified as “museum-hotel” (with its conservation protected under Turkish law), has been luring luminaries to its lush lodging since the late 19th century, when the property debuted as the accommodation of choice for elite travelers disembarking from the nearby Orient Express terminus. The landmark 5-star hotel's architectural mélange of East and West, a mix of neoclassical, Art Nouveau, and Oriental styles, has permitted its beauty to withstand the test of time, especially so upon its emergence from a lavish (and by all accounts, much-needed) 4-year-long, $32 million restoration, which was unveiled in September of last year.

Kubbeli Saloon Ceiling resized / Pera Palace Hotel

Guests enter to the courteous greetings and flawless service of uniformed staff, giving way to dramatic, lofty public rooms, rich with marble and gold-leaf accents and dangling Murano chandeliers. The six-domed Kubbeli Salon-Tea Lounge (pictured right) conveys the avant-garde architectural prowess of its designer (Alexander Vallaury); above the domes, the old rooftop was replaced with glass to let natural light in (creating a sparkling effect on the domes’ turquoise glass). Soak up the atmosphere in the salon during afternoon tea service; linger over a drink in the nostalgic Orient Bar (or outside on the open-air terrace in season, a new addition post-renovation); sample some sweets in the adjacent pastry shop (the brie cheesecake is an adventure for the palette); or dine in the refined Agatha restaurant, with French, Italian, and Turkish dishes inspired by the three major stops on the former Orient Express route (Paris, Venice, and Istanbul); it’s also the setting for the hotel's buffet breakfast (30 per person).  A spa (featuring a marble hammam), steam room, small indoor swimming pool, and fitness center round out the common offerings.

Head up to your room via the property’s original cast iron and wood elevator (in fact, it was the very first to debut in the city; note a more modern elevator is also installed), where 115 guestrooms (16 of which are suites) are defined by hand-woven Oushak carpets, antique furnishings, and plushly appointed beds (a pillow menu is available). Flat-screen TVs, complimentary WiFi, and spacious safes ensure technological hankerings are fulfilled, while the marbled bathrooms impress with their trio of showerheads (one rainshower, one handheld, and one waterfall spout) and artistic glass dividers that allow sunlight to stream through from the bedroom windows. Ask for a room with a wrought-iron French balcony to best enjoy the hilltop property's sweeping city and/or Golden Horn views.

If interested in following in the footsteps of illustrious former guests, notables have included the leader and founder of Turkey, Kemal Atatürk (his room, 101, is now used as a museum); Agatha Christie (whose Murder on the Orient Express is said to have been inspired by the author’s stay in room 411); Ernest Hemingway (he helped deplete the whiskey supplies in the Orient Bar); Greta Garbo; Alfred Hitchcock; Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis; and Winston Churchill . . . the list goes on and on.

Rates start at €185 ($251) per night in fall and winter;

Luxury Mainstay Hotel Launches New Swissôtel Living Concept

Swissotel Living resized / Swissôtel Living

The modern 5-star Swissôtel the Bosphorus, a member of the Leading Hotels of the World, has served as an epicenter for luxury-minded travelers for two decades. Set on the slopes of the European side of the Bosphorus, just uphill from the Dolmabahçe Palace, the hotel grounds are set on 65 acres of what were once the palace gardens. The brand is reaching out to a new clientele base with the launch of its sleek Swissôtel Living arm, a $27 million, 2.5-year undertaking designed for long-stay and enriched shorter-stay experiences, as well as permanent private residencies, with exclusive apartments featuring all of the comforts of a 5-star hotel with the accoutrements of a cutting-edge contemporary apartment. The designer and architect behind the concept, Khuan Chew, counts work on the Burj Al Arab in Dubai among her most heralded recent accomplishments.

Sixty-three studio, one-, two-, or three-bedroom units comprise the new property, defined by earthy color schemes heavy in mocha and cocoas, steel accents, rich fabrics, and sleek, polished finishings. Even the most basic units are incredibly spacious, featuring a living room and dining area, fully-equipped kitchenette (replete with dishwasher and refrigerator), a working space niche, and a bedroom area, large enough for a king-size bed. State-of-the-art technological trimmings, include LCD TVs, home cinema systems, WiFi, and custom-designed lighting systems, while panoramic views of the Bosphorus from the hilltop location are carefully incorporated with ample windows.

Swissôtel Living counts a communal lounge (site of the daily breakfast buffet and a library) and a rooftop pool and terrace among its own exclusive offerings, but also shares amenities with the 497-unit Swissôtel the Bosphorus, the main hotel, set just a stone’s throw away with its numerous restaurants (Gaja’s gourmet continental dining and stellar views comprise our top pick), lounge areas, fitness center, indoor/outdoor pool, three tennis courts, and world-class Amrita Spa & Wellness center, complete with a Turkish hammam.

The one caveat, besides the splurge-worthy price: The hilltop, off-the-beaten path location leaves hotel guests pretty much resigned to relying on taxi service (albeit reasonably priced) for the bulk of their transportation needs.

Look for the Swissôtel Living brand, a new concept for the Swissôtel, to be unveiled in more global markets in the very near future.

Rates at Swissôtel Living start at €600 ($816) nightly. Look for specials on their website, like 10 percent off discounts on advance bookings, or packages that offer stays of four nights for the price of three;

See our Istanbul Travel Guide for more trip-planning information, then use our Travel Search price comparison tool to find the lowest rates on flights and more travel deals.

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