The five-star Pera Palace is undoubtedly Istanbul’s most iconic hotel, with its palatial rooms and suites named after the legendary guests that stayed there, such as Agatha Christie, Alfred Hitchcock, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Ernest Hemingway. Practically synonymous with the Istanbul of a century ago, it is the subject of a lovely tome, Midnight at the Pera Palace by Charles King, that locates the hotel – once upon a time a hub for spies, diplomats and other colorful figures – within the fantastically tumultuous years leading up to and following the establishment of the Turkish Republic.
Though we admire the Pera Palace and cannot understate its importance to the city’s modern history, it is not our favorite Istanbul hotel. That honor is reserved for the Büyük Londra (Grand Hotel de Londres), located just a stone’s throw away on the opposite side of the stately Meşrutiyet Avenue, which still exudes memories of the city in the early 20th century owing to its row of elegant European buildings.
Like the Pera Palace, the Büyük Londra was completed in 1892 for the purpose of accommodating travelers arriving via the famous Orient Express. Unlike the Pera Palace, the Büyük Londra is a star or two short of five with a reputation as the destination of choice for a bohemian, intellectual crowd. The hotel features two excellent bars: the stunningly elegant lobby bar, which makes one feel as if they have taken a time machine back to the late 19th century (if they ignore the TV and small cooler holding energy drinks) and the lofty, picturesque terrace bar, which remains one of the city’s best-kept secrets and boasts breathtaking views of Beyoğlu and the Golden Horn.
Built by two Greek business partners and designed by an Italian architect, the hotel has been owned and operated by the Hüzmeli family – hailing from the seaside district of Samandağ in the southern province of Hatay – since 1967. İlhan Hüzmeli mans the lobby bar in addition to attending to other hotel operations. The 45-year-old Hüzmeli has worked at Büyük Londra since 1990, right as nearby Istiklal Avenue, the city’s busiest and most well-known street, was closed to traffic.
The pedestrianization of Istiklal kicked off a sweeping transformation in the area, and the atmosphere of Beyoğlu’s backstreets shifted from one of a moderately-shady, men’s-only nightlife – a glimpse of which is captured in this 1989 BBC documentary on Istanbul – to the coolest part of town where students, musicians and intellectuals went to drink and watch live music in dive bars.
“I love Beyoğlu, because everything can be found here and there is 24-hour activity,” Hüzmeli said during a conversation at the lobby bar.
The owners of Büyük Londra have made a concerted effort to preserve the lovingly faded, century-old ambiance of the hotel, and it remains an affordable option for travelers. In an area that has changed time and time again since the Büyük Londra’s inception, the hotel has remained a constant.
In an area that has changed time and time again since the Büyük Londra’s inception, the hotel has remained a constant.
Today, Beyoğlu has lost much of its status as the heart of Istanbul’s nightlife, as many of the beer-soaked rock bars and debaucherous student-packed nightclubs have closed, while dessert shops and hookah cafés have popped up in their place, appealing to the increasing number of non-imbibing Middle Eastern tourists who frequent the area.
“That’s not the real Beyoğlu,” Hüzmeli said, referencing this spike of inauthentic baklava retailers. The Büyük Londra, on the other land, is quintessentially Beyoğlu, bearing witness to the district’s past in a way that feels accessible to all – although Ernest Hemingway has a suite named after him at the swanky Pera Palace, he also stayed at the Büyük Londra in 1922 while reporting on the Greco-Turkish war as a young journalist for the Toronto Star.
Beloved by an intellectual crowd of artists, academics and journalists (Hüzmeli says it fills up with artists coming from abroad for the Istanbul Biennial), the Büyük Londra has even been championed by the acclaimed Turkish-German director Fatih Akın; the hotel appeared in his feature films Against the Wall and The Edge of Heaven (in which Hüzmeli himself had a small credited role) and in his documentary Crossing the Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul. “The Büyük Londra is very important for me. It’s like home, and I’m very much at ease. The people there, those who come and go, and the drama that has transpired interests me,” Akın said in a 2005 interview.
Yakup, a talkative parrot perched in the corner of the lobby, has been a fixture of the Büyük Londra for around the same time as Hüzmeli himself. “Yakup is one of the symbols of this hotel. He speaks very well,” he said with a smile. On a parching and oppressively bright August afternoon, the lobby and its adjacent bar were empty except for an older Turkish gentleman reading a newspaper and the nearby Yakup, keeping quiet in his cage. “This is one of the most quiet hotels in the center of Istanbul,” Hüzmeli said, adding that this was in spite of the fact that it was fully booked.
The efforts of management to maintain the hotel’s historic charm cannot be understated. In the lobby, Hüzmeli points to a broad wooden armoire that has been there since Büyük Londra opened its doors, as well as a lavish, sparkling chandelier hanging from the ceiling that is now electric, but was once candlelit. Exiting the elevator on the fourth floor, the carpeting, wallpaper and other décor retain this sense of originality. The small metal signs displaying the floor number are in both Turkish and French, a memento from a past era in Turkey where English was not the lingua franca. Walking up one flight of stairs takes you to the terrace bar, an expansive space on two levels where small circular tables beckon toward the Golden Horn, which gleams as the sun sets. The bar is mainly patronized by locals, and while the tables with the best views are usually occupied during peak hours, the tables on the other side offer an equally commanding view of the heart of Beyoğlu. Prices are reasonable, standard even for a beer in Istanbul. We paid 18 TL ($3.25) for an ice-cold bottle of Bomonti on our last visit.
As the sun sets over Istanbul, from the terrace we can observe many of the recent developments that have occurred in this perpetually-transforming metropolis, both in the immediate Beyoğlu area and on the broader horizon. Though we may never get used to the breakneck pace of change in our beloved city, we take solace in places of refuge like Büyük Londra, fortresses of consistency that we don’t have to worry about going anywhere. Between its proud facade, the impeccably preserved bar downstairs and the sultry, serene appeal of the terrace, it is without a doubt that Büyük Londra sits among the city’s most prized and unique gems.
“There isn’t this kind of atmosphere anywhere else,” Hüzmeli said.
Our “Behind Bars” series celebrates drinking establishments and especially the people who pour the drinks there.