Most travellers to Istanbul stay in Sultanahmet, in the shadow of the Ayasofya and Topkapi palace, or down on the shore of the Bosphorus, but that is about to change if Philippe Starck has his way.
The French designer caused a stir in 2008 with the opening of Mama Shelter, the Parisian hotel he created in partnership with former Club Med chief executive Serge Trigano. Though undeniably chic, it was in the decidedly un-chic 20th arrondissement, not far from Père-Lachaise cemetery, and had very un-designer room rates: €89 for a double room that comes with iMac and free wi-fi.
Its success was followed by Mama Shelters in Marseille, Lyon and – as of Thursday last week – Istanbul. And, true to form, instead of opening along the Bosphorus or in the old city, Mama has bucked the trend and perched on the roof of a new department store on Istiklal Caddesi.
Istiklal used to be the centre of fashionable Istanbul but that was in the 19th century, when it was known as the Grand Rue de Pera. The street, which runs from Taksim Square downhill towards Galata and the waters of the Golden Horn, was the centre of the progressive part of town, the antithesis of the “old” city of bazaars and alleys across the water. Lined with palatial embassies, huge apartment buildings and arcades, this was where Asia and Europe met, for a while, until the life drained out of it during the last century.
Now the life is flowing back. Istiklal Caddesi has become one of the liveliest streets in one of the world’s liveliest cities, and it is mostly pedestrian, a rare thing in traffic-choked Istanbul. A controversial renovation programme has cleaned up the area but also robbed it of some character, and some characters – the streets behind Mama Shelter were until recently home to many Roma and Anatolian immigrants. At the same time, the new initiative encouraged big name brands to open stores.
By day, Istiklal is busy with shoppers, business people, students and demonstrators – there were three separate marches on one of the days I was there, noisy but peaceful groups protesting over job cuts, work conditions and women’s rights. By sundown, it is clogged with people out for fun – a drink, a meal, a club, a late-night haircut or early-morning snack. As many as 3m people are said to walk this way each day. In the middle of this human river, hidden on top of a new building, sits the three-storey Mama Shelter.
Starck’s design sense is a winning mix of cool, comfort and humour; and Mama Shelter Istanbul continues the trend. A lift takes you to the fourth-floor reception that leads into a huge, open-plan public space of lounge, bar, pizzeria, restaurant, open-plan kitchen, performance area and terrace. The ceiling is a vast blackboard on which a couple of graffiti artists have been let loose with chalk. Strip lights above the island bar are covered with inflatable rubber rings, the small stage where DJs play some nights is decorated with a selection of guitars (and, this being Istanbul, also an oud or lute) and screens dotted around the walls show a shifting panorama of quirky images.
The food is an indicator of the hotel’s commitment to quality at a reasonable price: the short menu was created by Alain Senderens, a Michelin three-star chef, and his protégé Jérôme Banctel, but the delicious grilled sea bass and spinach I ate cost less than £10. The brilliant baked pumpkin slice, served as a dessert and with all the concentrated burst of a pâte de fruit, was £8.
Upstairs, bedrooms are compact, though the space has been meticulously planned and exploited. Whitewashed walls are relieved by the odd slab of white marble in the bathroom or stripe of grey in the bedroom. There’s fun here too – Batman and Disney character masks hang over bedside lights and, in case you forget where you are, the rugs announce Byzance, Constantinople, Stamboul, Istanbul. Some rooms have teak-decked balconies, some have views over the terracotta-tiled roofs of Istanbul, all have smart TVs. One downside might be noise – I could hear people in the corridor, and music from Istiklal’s clubs at night.
Above the rooms, the vast roof terrace will become a favoured nightspot once the evenings warm up, not least because of its extraordinary view of the Bosphorus and the classic Istanbul skyline of minarets and domes.
Up there, you might wonder why you are not staying among the minarets of Sultanahmet, or within splashing distance of the Bosphorus, or perhaps in a hotel with a stronger Ottoman flavour. But Mama Shelter, like Istiklal itself, belongs wholeheartedly to the new Istanbul, and the combination of style, comfort and price makes it hard to beat.
Anthony Sattin was a guest of Mama Shelter Istanbul, doubles from €79, www.mamashelter.com