The Peninsula hospitality group’s new perch on the Bosphoros floats our boat. Monocle takes an early peek at how this vast new hotel is helping to transform Istanbul’s Karaköy neighbourhood.
It’s difficult to decide where to look first when you step into the grand lobby of the new Peninsula Istanbul hotel. To the stained-glass ceiling with its geometric, orange-and-yellow panels? To the iridescent shine of the marble floor, worn by decades of footfall? Or perhaps out through the huge windows at the minareted cityscape outside? It’s dizzying in the best sense: a visual assault that captures the intoxicating comings and goings of Istanbul.
“We see ourselves as custodians of this site,” says Jonathan Crook, the hotel’s managing director, an Englishman with polished manners who arrived here after a decade heading up the hospitality brand’s site on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue. In Istanbul, the Peninsula has picked an ambitious site for its 11th hotel: three adjacent historic buildings and a newly built fourth on a stretch of waterfront in the heart of the city that lay unseen behind hoardings for years. “It’s a unique location,” says Crook as he shows Monocle around. “It is our job to protect it, to bring it back to life.”
Even before the catastrophic recent earthquakes, Turkey was undergoing plenty of turbulence but tourism roared back in 2022 and the Peninsula, which opened on 14 February, occupies a breathtaking space. From the terrace of its penthouse, there’s a 360-degree panorama taking in the Topkapi Palace, Suleymaniye Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Galata Tower and a hotchpotch of apartment blocks. Between them is the bewitching Bosphorus, where ferries and pleasure boats chug their way between continental Europe and Asia.
“Our memories of places should be the basis of new ideas. This is a place of arrival”
Crook’s genteel manner perfectly complements the Peninsula’s ethos. Founded in 1866, the Hong Kong- based brand is one of the world’s oldest and most respected. Nodding to this heritage, the Peninsula Istanbul’s 177 guest rooms are fitted with valet boxes and staff in starched, white uniforms topped with pillbox hats greet guests at the entrance – as they do at all of the brand’s locations, from Hong Kong to Beverly Hills. But the Peninsula’s emphasis is on place rather than brand (or bland) consistency. In Istanbul, that local flavour comes in many forms, including the brass buckles of the staff uniforms, created by craftsmen in the nearby 15th-century Grand Bazaar, and the subtle fragrance of fig and pomegranate that wafts through the hotel’s rooms.
Zeynep Fadillioglu, an Istanbul- based interior designer who was “born on the Bosphorus”, has reimagined the buildings, preserving their humming energy from their days as a hub for travellers arriving in Istanbul by sea. “We should not lose our memories of places,” she tells Monocle. “Those memories should be the basis of new ideas. This is a place of arrival.”
Fadillioglu has turned the lobby at the centre of the three historic buildings into a destination in itself. This cavernous space was once the international cruise-ship terminal of Istanbul, designed in 1936 by Rebii Gorbon, an architect known for providing a Turkish twist on the Bauhaus spirit. It remained in use until 2014. The original structure, with its modernist clock tower, was demolished but it was faithfully reconstructed to meet current earthquake standards. The original marble floor, however, was mostly preserved and Gorbon’s aesthetic was given a twist.
“The glass in the lobby is like a textile,” says Fadillioglu of the ceiling and internal windows, which remain faithful to the geometric designs of Gorbon’s original but have been upgraded with sumptuous new panes created by a Turkish glass artist. “We are using the layers of Istanbul in a sophisticated way.”
Over afternoon tea in the glow of the lobby’s waterfront windows, visitors can look out over the manicured lawns and olive trees in the Enzo Enea-designed garden that lines the shore. Glass walkways link the 20th- and 21st-century buildings on either side, which were once home to the city’s port authorities. The Merkez Han building is a stuccoed mansion adorned with the turquoise mosaics and arched windows that are emblematic of Eastern architecture, while the six-storey Cinili Han structure to its right is coated in gold tiles. The guest rooms are spread across the four, while the new ballroom on the site of a former warehouse is at the end of the chain.
Creating a sense of continuity between the buildings while respecting their original features was “like composing music on four different instruments”, says Fadillioglu. “Each should be composed to create harmony. We repurposed the buildings without changing their main characteristics, combining them into one symphony.”
The hotel isn’t just a paean to the past. It also offers a snapshot of modern Turkey’s creative scene, with 80 pieces of artwork, mostly commissioned from Turkish artists, scattered across the rooms and gardens. Fêted Istanbul chef Fatih Tutak, whose restaurant Turk Fatih Tutak was recently awarded two Michelin stars, will run the rooftop restaurant, opening in June.
The Peninsula site’s redevelopment is part of a wider regeneration of the Karaköy district, a well-appointed neighbourhood scarred by decades of shoddy city planning. An ugly multistorey structure behind the hotel will be pulled down to create a new park, a rare green space in central Istanbul. Meanwhile, the Galataport development next to the hotel sits alongside the new Renzo Piano-designed Istanbul Modern museum. Karaköy’s backstreets are morphing from a maze of dingy neighbourhood bars and cafés into something more upmarket. “We’re saying to our customers, ‘We’re here, so you should be too,’” says Crook with a grin. “We believe in Turkey. There is a strong future here.”
In this neighbourhood, you’ll still find shops dedicated to fishing and sailing equipment. At the port next to the Peninsula, people fish in the waters of the Golden Horn, a Bosphorus tributary that cuts through the oldest part of Turkey’s largest city. To eat, Karaköy Lokantasi is a favourite of Monocle editors. The Peninsula, however, represents a new chapter for the neighbourhood and is part of a €1.7bn redevelopment of the waterfront.
The city’s best homegrown brands are invited. Fahri Konsolos, a cocktail bar that has become an institution on Istanbul’s Asian side, is opening a branch. Around every corner in the backstreets are windows onto Istanbul’s past. Look out for the four Orthodox churches established by White Russians who fled the Bolshevik Revolution and the grand buildings of its bigger boulevards, which housed the city’s financial district in the late Ottoman era. Visit the excellent Salt Galata, an art space, library, archive and café in the old central bank. The 16th-century Kilic Ali Pasa hammam is the city’s best spot for a traditional steam bath.