How a new luxury hotel helped make Istanbul a Champions League
Oct 25, 2023
The city is in the sporting spotlight this weekend, but there is more history being written in the city's thriving new Galataport district
It is, briefly, the rudest of awakenings; an extended, insistent honking of a horn that pierces the outer shell of my slumber. My eyes are peeling open. It is only after a minute that I remember my location – and pull back the curtains to admire it. There it is, the Bosphorus – sparkling in the Istanbul morning; the ferry that has woken me, busy with travellers, just commencing its slog across the currents. And there it is, immediately to the south, across the side-channel of the Golden Horn; the core of the ancient city, resplendent in the sunlight, the Topkapi Palace preening on its hilltop, the heavenly hybrid of Hagia Sophia behind it.
I burrow out of the duvet and step on to the terrace with a coffee to gaze across a place that is enjoying a moment. On October 29, it will be exactly a century since Turkey's largest city was superseded by Ankara as the national capital (it would subsequently lose its most celebrated name, Constantinople, in 1930) – but Istanbul does not seem too fazed.
The city will stage the foremost fixture in European club football on June 10 – Man City and Inter Milan taking to the pitch at the Ataturk Olympic Stadium for the Champions League Final; a showpiece Istanbul will host with belated gusto, having had the 2021 fixture torn from its grasp by the pandemic.
Beyond this, the city has a spring to its step in a raft of new developments – of which the Peninsula hotel, the scene of my ferry-punctured sleep, is perhaps the most sophisticated.
Here is the 11th property in the global empire of the Hong Kong-based five-star hotel brand, and the second in Europe – but only just. The ferries setting off from the Karakoy Pier, just around the corner, are bound for Kadikoy, on the other side of the Bosphorus. While this is a ride of just three miles, it swaps one continent for another, ending in Asia.
The hotel sits much nearer – a short stroll past the fishermen casting their lines from the Galata Bridge – to the old-town districts of Fatih and Eminonu. But even with this close proximity, you cannot strictly say that the area was a part of ancient Constantinople.
Karakoy is the modern name for Galata, which rose to prominence (in around 1273) as a Genoese colony; a separate entity on the east bank of the Golden Horn. Captured, like the rest of the city, in the Ottoman conquest of 1453, it would be consumed by the wider metropolis, becoming its main port in 1895; a hub of trade and traffic, boats and business.
The Peninsula Istanbul is an intriguing alliance of old and new. Its 177 rooms are dotted across four buildings – three of which are sensitive conversions of historic structures. The main building was the port's passenger hall – the vast space where the Lobby Restaurant now holds court, serving genteel Mediterranean fare, once thrummed with passport desks and customs officials. Walking around the first-floor balcony that encircles the room, I can just about picture that 20th-century scene – partly because some of the fittings remain. The ceiling – a swathe of coloured glass, in squares and strips of gold, black and brown – dates to the structure's 1937 Bauhaus birth.
In other senses, the hotel has shifted the building a considerable distance from its roots, replacing port pragmatism with refined luxury. The spa is a subterranean world of its own, fanning out around a gorgeous 82ft (25m) pool. The rooms tucked on either side are temples of massage and indulgence; further into the maze, a hammam adds an inevitable element of Turkish authenticity.
Away on an upper floor, the signature Peninsula Suite is a five-star hotel within a five-star hotel, equipped with a hammam of its own – as well as a grand piano, a cinema room, a gym and a private pool.
Up on the roof of the main building, meanwhile, the Topside Bar and the Gallada restaurant are chic places to spend an evening, both beneath the pale face of the original clocktower – also restored as part of the construction work.
The restaurant looks out across the wider "Galataport" – the seven-year regeneration project that has transformed Istanbul's dingy wharves into one of the city's hippest areas. Where once were windowless warehouses are now trendy cafés, lively bars and elegant shops. The latter are particularly present in the Galleria Paket Postanesi – a cavernous thing, integral to the dockside since 1905, that has served as a passenger hall, a maritime hospital and a post office (this third role is acknowledged in the name). Now it gleams with jewellers and boutiques.
In part, these "retail opportunities" are aimed at the cruise passengers who pour from the ships moored outside – although Galataport has achieved its transformation by cleverly concealing the very elements that make it a port. The cruise terminal is hidden underground, an airport-sized area, hemmed in by a 115ft (35m) reinforced concrete wall; not so much an exercise in land reclamation as a mould-breaking pushing back of the sea.
"Galataport is a mega-project," explains the development's chief marketing officer, Mehmet Bali. "But our goal is that, really, you should not feel like you are visiting a mega-project. It is designed to be a proper neighbourhood – an organic part of the city."
His argument plays out at the waterside, where the coffee shops’ mid-morning clientele is roughly an even split between Turkish locals enjoying a day off and floating tourists around for a few hours. "This is one of the most special areas of Istanbul in terms of history," Bali continues. "We wanted to preserve that. The project has been developed with full respect to the heritage of the area, and we want it to be accessible to everyone."
The centrepiece of the district, at least culturally, is Istanbul Modern – a splendid treasure-trove of contemporary art. Despite its newness, it, too, has been reinvigorated. The warehouse it had occupied since its launch in 2004 has gone; a dynamic structure in steel and glass, crafted by the Italian architect Renzo Piano, was inaugurated last month.
The galleries shine a light on Turkish artists of the mid-20th century onwards – some of them with close connections to the area. Gulsun Karamustafa's Neworientation (1995) is as unsettling as art comes – a series of maritime halyards, tethered taut between ceiling and floor. Each is flying a pink or white ribbon – on each of which is stamped the initials of a vanished sex-worker, and the date she was last seen alive on the docks outside.
The years in focus are 1993 and 1994, a different era for Karakoy, but there are 78 ribbons in total, and the effect is numbing – a darkness amid all this shiny renovation.
There are less discomfiting pieces, however – Mubin Orhon's Untitled (1961), a rich swirl of abstract red; Neset Gunal's paintings of agricultural Cappadocia, all sun-weathered farm-workers, splayed-armed scarecrows and ochre soil.
And if this is not enough, then the most compelling image is still there through the windows; the Bosphorus as glorious a blue as any old master can muster – even with its ferries, still chugging across the canvas.
Airlines including British Airways (0344 493 0787), Turkish Airlines (020 3991 1993), easyJet (0330 551 5151) and Wizz Air (0330 977 0444) all fly into Istanbul's main airport, from a variety of British airports.
Rooms at The Peninsula Istanbul (0090 212 931 2888) start at £907.