Built as a bank, The Bank Hotel in Istanbul has been given a slick modern facelift to become its on-the-rise neighbourhood’s cool cultural hub. It’s gained a spa, plenty of elegant decor and an in-house art curator, but kept the stately bank facade (and the imposing vaults that give it its name).
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A traditional 'evil-eye bead' and a box of chocolates
Double rooms from £83.26 (€98), including tax at 8 per cent.
Rates usually include buffet breakfast, spa access, and use of a smartphone with an Istanbul city guide, free local calls and free international calls to the USA, UK, Australia, Germany and France.
At the hotel
Spa (guests get a 15 per cent discount) with sauna and steam room, hammam, gym and treatment rooms; free WiFi. In rooms: flatscreen TV, radio, iPod dock, bottled water, tea and coffee.
Our favourite rooms
Book a Terrace Penthouse Suite (154 or 155) for incredible views over the Bosphorus bridge, the Old City and the Golden Horn, all from your freestanding bath tub. Executive Suite 147 has a separate living room with a beautiful original fireplace.
With showstopping views, cutting-edge art and a cool and relatively undiscovered neighbourhood at your disposal, you’d be remiss not to bring your camera; or, maybe your phone will suffice – it’s all infinitely Instagrammable.
Welcome, but not particularly catered to – you won’t find games or childrens’ menus here. A cot or extra bed can be added to the Deluxe Twin Rooms and higher categories (free for under-7s, €10 a day for 7-to-12 year-olds and €20 a day for over-12s).
Grab one of the private apple-green upholstered booths, with illuminated and laser-etched glass panels.
You’re in Istanbul’s artiest neighbourhood – go creative rather than couture.
Kasa Lokanta serves up Modern Mediterranean dishes – seabass with caper sauce, perhaps, or lemon chicken with spinach on black quinoa – below its grand wrought-iron chandeliers; hotel guests get a 15 per cent discount.
The circular gold bar, with a drinks cabinet set in one of the original bank vaults, is within the restaurant.
You can breakfast 6am–10am, lunch noon–2pm and dine 6pm–10pm.
Snacks – burgers, fries, spaghetti and the like – are available whenever you’re peckish, day or night.
The formerly commercial Karaköy neighbourhood of Istanbul is across the Galata bridge from the Old City; the hotel's a few blocks from the river.
It’s a half-hour drive from Ataturk Airport (http://www.ataturkairport.com); services include British Airways from Heathrow and Air France from Paris.
You could drive, but the nearest carpark is 2km from the hotel, so you’d be much better off taking public transport or taxis.
The Karaköy tram station is a minute away, and has services to the Old City and other destinations around Istanbul.
Worth getting out of bed for
Karaköy is home to Istanbul’s one-time financial district, as well as an industrial hub, but today it’s being reinvented as something of a culture hub – art galleries are popping up all over. It’s also long had a reputation for good eats, so come hungry and ask hotel staff for their personal cafés.
Right next door, fellow former bank Salt Galata is an art gallery and cultural centre – check their events calendar to see which exhibitions and talks are scheduled during your stay. Visit Istanbul’s first non-profit museum, the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art – it hosts events and screenings, too.
It’s a gallery, a festival, an art blog, a design agency… Istanbul’74 has plenty of exhibitions and artistic collaborations for visitors to view, as well as a constant stream of events. Fancy taking home some unique – and very cool – souvenirs? Hit up Atölye 11, in a building that was originally an Orthodox church, and shop for clothes, handmade jewelry, accessories and even furniture.
If you’re planning a romantic evening, Ferah Feza is the fine-dining place to be. As well as good food, it has views of the Old Town and peninsula: it’s one of the best rooftops in the city on which to hang out. Unter is a locally loved spot has with tasty food, outside seating and a bohemian vibe – it’s friendly and lively. For a modern take on traditional Turkish dishes, head to Munferit: the starters are enough to fill you up without ever moving on to main courses. It’s great for lunch, and on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights DJs take to the decks and there's more of a lounge atmosphere. Eat-in delicatessen Karaköy Lokantasi (+90 212 292 4455) has fresher-than-fresh food to choose at its counter (the squid, octopus and aubergine dishes are particularly delicious). Book ahead to get a table – it’s almost always really busy.
Waking up in our split-level suite in the Bank Hotel Istanbul, Mr Smith is in heaven. He presses the remote-control button and our olive-green, five-metre-long ‘curtains’ silently glide open to reveal morning in Istanbul. From the shower I hear Mr Smith singing along to MTV – he’s discovered a further remote, which raises a television from the at-foot-of-the-bed cabinet.
Wide-eyed teenager button-pressing aside, the Bank Hotel Istanbul is a sophisticated affair. It’s set in a grand 19th-century bank and the architect has made great use of the original features: a large steel safe is the bar, and the wine cellar has taken over the old vault, complete with a two-foot-thick steel door and turning wheel. Beside the vault is a contemporary touch I appreciate: a marble-and-rose-gold hammam.
Over a breakfast feast of quinoa, tomato, smoked salmon and capers (plus pastries and fruit), we leaf through a huge book containing of photographs of the Grand Bazaar, which is just 20 minutes away, over the Galata Bridge and the Bosphorus. Pictures of Mehmet Usta, one of the world’s last traditional gramophone-makers pique my curiosity. Excited by all we can see just outside the door of our hotel, we gulp down our Turkish tea and head out into the sunshine.
Our first stop, a stroll away along cobblestone streets, is the Museum of Innocence. Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk wrote a novel and created this display in tandem, spending over a decade collecting objects that would become part of both. The book contains a free-entry ticket, which I happily take to be stamped. Cabinets are filled with artefacts that are the memory traces of the love affair at the heart of Pamuk’s story. The result is a superb art installation that blends reality and fiction – Mr Smith declares it the best museum he has ever been to.
We emerge three hours later, blinking into the Turkish afternoon light. A glass of fresh pomegranate juice from a street stall in hand, we cross the Galata Bridge. We gaze at the city as it stretches both sides of the Bosphorus with a unique blend of European and Asian influences. It’s exhilarating to be in a city that spans two continents.
Fishermen line the bridge and a crowd is enjoying fried mackerel filets stuffed into loaves of bread beside the water. We go local and order one each (easily done as they’re the only thing on the menu) from a boat tied to the dock – lunch comes to a grand total of the equivalent of £3. We can’t come to Istanbul without a baklava-fest, so we also try lots of specialities with Turkish tea at waterside restaurant, Hamdi; their double-pistachio special is divine.
On our way to the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, we join the crowd in the spice market and look at nuts, teas and aromatic herbs, and sample sweet, fragrant Turkish delight. It’s closed for prayer, so we sit in the courtyard of what’s known best as the Blue Mosque as sun sets, and rain begins to fall. Lights are switched on, seting the wet stone of the six-minaret mosque aglow as people pray inside. The call to prayer used to be sung by 16 people standing atop the high minarets singing to different directions; I wish I could have heard them – it must have been beautiful.
We buy umbrellas and leg it back to the Bank Hotel Istanbul to warm up in the hammam. Nicely snug, steamed and sauna’d, we stay in for dinner. It’s buzzing but quiet enough to chat and the service is excellent – the young, staff at the hotel are charming and friendly. Under beautifully lit paintings, surrounded by stacks of art books, I tuck into a fish casserole with puff pastry; it lets out a perfect puff of steam as I put my fork into it. Best of all is dessert, a tahini soufflé served in a teacup.
Hagia Sophia begins the next morning’s escapades; built in the sixth century, it was the largest cathedral in Christendom for over a thousand years until the Ottomans converted it into a mosque in the 15th century. It is now a museum with blends of both religions. Heads tilted backwards we admire the epic dome of the church, adorned with angels and Islamic symbols. Next comes a whirl around former royal residence Topkapi Palace, once home to the Ottoman sultans. It starts to rain, so we jump in a taxi and our driver Mustapha lures us to his nephew’s shop; we end up with three kilim rugs.
Next, it’s time to feel the modern vibe of Istanbul. A friend is director of contemporary art fair ArtInternational, and she’s invited us to meet at Haliç Congress Center where it’s in full swing. Hundreds of galleries – international and local – have come to show their artwork and collectors and connoisseurs have flocked to browse and buy.
Dinner is at Nopa Restaurant and Grill in trendy, leafy Ni?anta??, an enclave of Art Nouveau buildings, European-style cafes, and designer shops. Plants grow up the sides of the walls and the roof is open to the sky in summer. It’s owned by the same group as the Bank Hotel Istanbul but it has a different feel, for this is the super-rich end of town. It’s fun to see this side, but I like our hotel’s bohemian feel– it’s warmer and more unusual – and feels further from home.
Over cocktails, 12-hour-roasted lamb and wine, we swap stories of what we’ve been up to in Istanbul this weekend. The others have been on boat trips on the Bosphorus, tasted Turkish breakfasts, danced in designer nightclubs and acquired Turkish names from their guide on a visit to the Basilica Cistern (made by the Romans to bring water to the city, also featured in the Bond movie From Russia with Love). With so many Turkish delights on offer in this epic city made for time-travelers, it’s easy to dream of coming back. For nowhere else in the world does East kiss West in such a stylish, celebratory fashion.