Grand Hotel Londra

The second nicest place to stay in Istanbul

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Tepebası, Mesrutiyet Caddesi 117, 80050 Beyoglu, Istanbul, phone: + 90 212 245 0670

Constructed in 1892 by the Glavani Family, the Büyük Londra Oteli, or the Grand Hotel de Londres, was considered “the most prestigious establishment in the area of Pera, at that time,” according to one guide. Most other sources cite its more elegant and famous neighbor, Hotel Pera Palas, as the superior of the two. Having opened a year earlier to host Orient Express travelers en route from Paris to Istanbul, the Pera Palas subsequently enticed Agatha Christie to set a murder mystery there, accommodated Kemal Atatürk, and received extensive restoration work and remains a luxurious hotel to this day.

But this review is not about the Pera Palas; I mention it because one’s appreciation of the Londra stems from, or is at least enhanced by, an understanding of its charisma in relation to the stately other.

For starters, the Londra is a more dilapidated, far cheaper, though nevertheless friendlier version of the Pera Palas. The price for a single room can drop as low as twenty-five dollars if you have friends in the right places, or try your luck with a few words of Spanish to Azimet at the front desk. Several rooms have been renovated, while the rest retain a worn and rather blemished appearance; you can tell someone stayed there before you. And always remember to take an alarm clock, as a pre-booked wake-up call will come late, sometimes the day after you requested it.

The Londra’s most iconic feature is its lobby. Recently renovated, the decor remains close to the original Tudor style, and fortunately the proprietors recognized the room’s previous eclectic charms: The parrots, jukeboxes, trunks, record players, majestic furniture and looming chandeliers remain intact.

The record player is available for patrons to use freely: Put a needle to vinyl and listen to anything in the hotel’s record collection. Taking advantage of this hospitality, Joanna Stella-Sawicka and I organized We’ll Meet You in the Lobby in 2003. We inserted a selection of artist-made vinyls from the UK into the hotel’s Abba, Leonard Cohen and “Best Of ” album collection (the project will be repeated at the 9th Istanbul Biennial with a wider range of artists’ vinyls again slipped into the existing stack and available to play).

To the rear of the lobby stands a stained-wood bar, its stools unsteady enough to allow one to lean comfortably forward after way too many elegant martinis. Beverages are served by a limping bartender who, the story goes, once shot himself in the leg. Imported drinks are affordable, local beer cheap; you can host a party, invite as many guests as you wish and request to play your own music. Forget stuffy restrictions: At the Londra anything goes and it goes until dawn. Finally, the Londra boasts a guest list unlike any other in Istanbul. It was rumored that Hemingway stayed at the hotel in the 1920s, and artist Daniel Bozhkov, himself a dedicated Londra fan, recently found a letter in the writer’s archive to substantiate the claim. At the 9th Istanbul Biennial, Bozhkov will launch Eau d’Ernest in the hotel’s lobby — “a scent, which will capture the very essence of contemporary man, evoking bold masculinity with some sensual and vulnerable tones.”

Oddly enough, the Buyuk Londra is, post-Venice and Basel, the place to be seen. With recent guests spanning the spectrum (Martha Rosler, Jonathan Watkins, Jens Hoffmann, Anton Vidokle, Tino Seghal, Maria Lind, and Jack Persekian, to name but a few), it has become an institutional watering hole for art gliteratti. On any given night spent in this very special lobby you are bound to bump into at least one person you know, a visiting lecturer from Platform Garanti Contemporary Art Center, an artist participating in the Istanbul Biennial, and quite possibly a Hemingway lookalike at the bar, with whisky in one hand and a bottle of Eau d’Ernest in the other.