24-Hour Room Service: Hotel Empress Zoe, Istanbul

Rhiannon Batten
Saturday 31 May 2003 00:00 BST

Istanbul's Haghia Sofia was once the greatest church in eastern Christendom, then the chief mosque of the Ottoman Empire. Now it is an iconic museum, and one of the most impressive sights is a mosaic up in the gallery. It isn't the depiction of Christ that's so striking but the figure next to him, a deceptively demure-looking Empress Zoe. In 11th-century reality she wasn't just one of the few women to rule Byzantium but, more scandalously, after losing her virginity at the age of 50, she went on a sexual spree, enjoying a succession of husbands and lovers in the years she had left.

Fortunately for those in search of a good night's sleep, things are a lot less racy at her modern-day namesake, the Hotel Empress Zoe.

One of the most unusual places to stay in the city, it's run by American émigrée Ann Nevans. And, with a small flower-filled garden, a rooftop bar that looks over the Sea of Marmara and the ruins of a 15th-century hammam all on site, things could hardly be more peaceful.

The al fresco breakfast is superb: fresh coffee, thick yoghurt with home-made fig jam and as much Turkish bread, cheese, olives, tomatoes and eggs as you can manage.


Hotel Empress Zoe, 10, Adiye Sokak, off Akbiyik Caddesi, Sultanahmet, Istanbul (00 90 212 518 2504, www.emzoe.com).

The main sights - the Blue Mosque, Haghia Sofia and Topkapi Palace - are less than 10 minutes' walk.

Time from international airport: the 30-minute taxi ride costs around £5. Buses run half-hourly from the airport into Istanbul but the drop-off point is inconveniently across the Golden Horn.

Transport: once you've covered the main sights on foot there's always the tram that whizzes through Sultanahmet every few minutes, costing 30p per journey.


At first sight, the rooms appear almost monk-like in their simplicity but, like Empress Zoe herself, looks can be deceptive. The beds may be built from bricks but they're actually really comfortable. Likewise, there may only be a small shower rather than a bath (the suites have small steamrooms too) but it will be set in either terracotta or marble and be kept immaculately clean and function without fail. And, in a city as frenetic as Istanbul, the soothing effect of the minimalist surroundings soon begins to make sense. Each room is different - some are darker than others, some have a bed tucked away in a corner, others are hung with kilims and one has a small private patio - so choose with care. More are being built in an adjoining building.

Freebies: locally made olive oil and laurel soaps.

Keeping in touch: with a phone your only means of access to the outside world, your best bet is to talk to the well-informed staff.


Single rooms start at $55 (£34), doubles $70 (£43) and suites at $100 (£61), including breakfast and tax; 10 per cent less if you pay by cash.

I'm not paying that: the noisy but popular Orient Hostel (Akbiyik Caddesi 13, 00 90 212 517 9493) has dorm beds from around £5 or basic but clean doubles from about £12. It also offers airport transfers for about £2 per person.

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