A visit to the Pera Palace Hotel is a great way to get out of the touristy area of Sultanahmet. Starting from the New Mosque area, cross the Galata Bridge over the Bosphorous – the top tier of the bridge is full of fishermen hanging out while their lines dangle into the water below. If fishing isn’t your thing, you could instead brave the bottom tier lined with restaurants and waiters all vying for your attention. Once on the other side of the bridge, you again have options. Either you walk up the steep hill through interesting side streets (and pass by the Galata Tower) or you can take the Tünel, an underground funicular that connects the neighbourhood of Karakoy with Beyoğlu (also known as Pera). The Tünel is the second oldest subterranean urban rail line in the world. The funicular drops you off near Istiklal Caddesi, a street worthy of exploration as well. The neighbourhood up here is a different world from Sultanahmet – much of the European-style architecture dates from the 19th century. There is an air of faded grand elegance and you can almost see the rich ghosts parading up and down the street. The whole area seems to be in the grips of gentrification and I can only hope that it will be a sympathetic gentrification. Thankfully, Pera Palace Hotel’s $30 million renovation between 2006 and 2010 was exactly that.
Pera Palace Hotel was built in 1892 to host Orient Express passengers and today, it is considered to be a museum-hotel. It retains the original blend of neo-classical, art nouveau, and oriental styles, making for a very striking and unique hotel: antique furniture, mother-of-pearl, cast-iron, wood panelling, white marble, grand staircases, hardwood, glass domes, red velvet, mirrors. Opulence from a by-gone era. There is even Europe’s oldest working elevator as well as an original painted sedan chair that was used to transport passengers from the Orient Express to the hotel. Historical romance positively drips from every corner of Pera Palace and you can practically see Agatha Christie, Ernest Hemingway, Alfred Hitchcock, King Edward VIII, and Greta Garbo lounging about with their scotch.
Pera Palace was designated a museum-hotel because Room 101 was converted into the Ataturk Museum – this was his room whenever he stayed at the hotel. It is full of his personal belongings and even if you know nothing about him, you can tell he was a politically-minded man who enjoyed his comforts. Room 101 consists of a little entryway, the main sitting room, a bedroom, and a bathroom. All rooms have touches of Ataturk – clothes, a tapestry, documents, photos, and mementos.
Pera Palace was very quiet when I went with my sister. No surprise there as it was right in the midst of the 2013 protests. We felt like we were the only tourists around. The upside to this was that we got to see Ataturk’s room when it was technically closed. The downside was that the afternoon tea experience made us feel a little like “all dressed up and nowhere to go”. I won’t lie – I was disappointed with our Tea experience. But at the same time, it wasn’t totally Pera Palace’s fault. It was an unusual time and they had no control over the fact that their country was in a bit of an upheaval and that foreigners were staying away. We had made reservations for Tea a couple days in advance but when we did arrive, they seemed to have forgotten we were coming. Or they assumed we weren’t coming as they had had no one in for Afternoon Tea all week due to the political situation. Did I mention that Taksim Square and Gezi Park, the centre of the uprising, is only a few blocks away from Pera Palace Hotel? Though they were surprised to see us, their kitchen still managed to pull together some cakes, dainties, and tea: multi-coloured triangles of cake, puff pastries, mini scones and mini cakes, tarts, and little rectangles of sandwiches. We had the whole Kubbeli Tea Lounge to ourselves. Picture this: tall ceilings with 6 domes inlaid with glass, chandeliers, hardwood floors, tall windows, antique European style furniture, paintings, and fresh flowers. Being serenaded by the grand piano that normally plays would have capped it off but unfortunately, we weren’t important enough to warrant this. Oh well. However, the staff was very attentive, ensuring we had plenty of dainties and fresh tea when we asked. The General Manager also came out to personally apologize and explain the situation. The he offered us free drinks on the Orient Terrace and of course, we gladly took him up on his offer! It was a nice way to cap off our Pera Palace Hotel experience. I definitely would like to go back, though, when there are no protests to get in the way of the true Afternoon Tea at Pera Palace Hotel!
Tip 1: Unless there are protests again, make sure you book ahead for the Afternoon Tea. If there are protests, you just may have the place to yourself like we did!
Tip 2: Ensure you wander around the hotel – see the elevator, peek into the various eating/drinks places, and always remember to look up at the ceilings!