Normally I would recommend travelers stay as far away from Turkish prisons as possible when visiting Istanbul. I now have one huge exception to that rule. The Four Seasons Istanbul at Sultanahmet, now one of the city’s most desired destinations for overnight accommodations, was formerly its most dreaded. The hotel was created in 1994 out of what was formerly the Sultanahmet Prison.

With only 65 rooms and suites, I found the hotel to be a luxurious oasis in the heart of the old city. It was always a pleasure to return to that entrance (on a street still called House of Detention Street) after a day of sightseeing, always manned by a pair of smiling doormen looking on-point in their suits. Then to walk through the elegant lobby, take a shortcut through the beautiful courtyard (formerly the prison exercise yard) and walk down the hall into my big, luxurious room, was all a nice routine to get into.

Location (location, location)
The heart of Istanbul is Sultanahmet, the original core of the city. The Four Seasons puts you in the middle of it, only steps from the big monuments like the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque.

My room
I had a spacious “Premier” room with high ceilings, a very comfortable space to spend time. The decor was modern and stylish, with Turkish touches in things like the linens, artwork, fabrics and accent pieces. Very inviting and elegant. I had three huge double windows facing a cool archeological site (the whole area formerly was a Byzantine palace) and the amazing Hagia Sophia. The windows (soundproof, if not close to it) were beautiful, wood-framed constructions, with arched tops. Those large windows had automated black-out shades, controlled by a switch next to the bed. Sitting at the desk, looking out the window at the Hagia Sophia and listening to the daily Muslim call to prayer really reminds me I’m in a very different place than America, which is why I love to travel.

There was an entry foyer with large walk-in closet, a dressing area (which could use an electrical outlet) with a table, large mirror and bench seat, then a large living space and sitting area on one end of the main area and the bed on the other. The sitting area had a couch, coffee table and chairs and was quite inviting.

The Premier room featured a big marble bathroom with a soaking tub, double sinks, 15″ flat-screen TV and glass-walled rain shower. Bathroom amenities are from L’Occitane (Bvlgari in the suites). There is twice-daily room housekeeping services.

I also had a chance to check out the hotel’s two Presidential suites, called the Marmara Suite and the St. Sophia Suite. Both were huge, with kitchens, guest bathrooms, large, luxurious living spaces and bedrooms the size of an apartment. The St. Sophia Suite features balconies overlooking the monument, while the Marmara Suite overlooks the sea.

The food
Executive Chef Savas Aydemir, who I interviewed, makes Turkish food accessible at the hotel’s Seasons Restaurant. With a menu offering a range of Turkish specialties, he also knows some of his guests want food from their own culture, so he has a range of cuisine, most with some kind of delicious Turkish twist. Innovative dishes like his crushed wheat appetizer with lamb neck ”Asur”, served with roasted hazelnut, red plum and frisee salad. I judge a hotel a great deal by their breakfast and the daily morning buffet breakfast, included with some of the room rates, was consistently fresh and delicious.

One highlight for me was the daily sweet surprise delivered to my room. Each afternoon upon returning from my adventures in Istanbul, there was a special, amazing dessert waiting for me in my room. Two favorites were the macaron assortment (so fresh and delicious) and the chocolates. The chocolate plate featured an assortment of dark, milk and white chocolates. The desserts were also as beautifully presented as they were delicious.

The building
The history of the building, a former prison, is fascinating. An active prison until 1969, it housed everyone from killers to intellectuals and political enemies of the state. With a prisoner population that far outnumbered the staff, the inmates were able to govern themselves, within the confines of the prison. Prisoners with the financial means could enjoy outside food and other “amenities”. My room came with a small book about the history of the prison (which I use as a source for this article) and the book was incredibly detailed and informative.

Small remnants of the prison remain, such as some original floor tiles and architectural details. The most interesting and chilling reminder is a series of etched writings on the marble pillars, scratched by prisoners during their incarceration.

Four Seasons Istanbul at Sultanahmet
The Four Seasons Istanbul at Sultanahmet is in the heart of Istanbul’s historic core. The hotel offers car service from IST airport or a taxi will be about $30. Deluxe room rates start around $480 per night, Premier rooms from $740. Guests seeking a different, more resort-like Four Seasons experience in Istanbul have an alternative in the form of the Four Seasons Istanbul at the Bosphorus. A much larger property with 195 rooms and suites, the Bosphorus hotel is mainly housed in a former palace on the waterfront.