There are two Four Seasons in Istanbul. One is along the Bosphorus and the other is in the Sultanahmet. Neither are barbaric, but the latter really was an Ottoman jail originally built between 1918 and 1919. We were particularly drawn to the detail that the jail housed intellectual dissidents, and most notably writers like the Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet and novelist Orham Kemal. The site in later years became a military jail house. It was then empty until the Four Seasons gave it a makeover. (And no, the Four Seasons prison isn't the one Billy Hayes stayed in.) The property went from the Turkish Big House to luxurious lodging of a five star caliber.
So while it is really offensive to the Turkish to associate them with having a terrifying penal system, the Four Seasons Sultanahmet is totally cool with honoring it's structural past. (They are not cool, however, with us trying to take video or in-room photos. The successfully scared us from politely asking more than twice.)
The façade of the southwest wing is still adorned with it's original decorative tiles designed by a respected Turkish artist. Chic for a prison! It's now the lobby and reception and most importantly, the bar.
The hotel also keeps things authentic by holding onto the original wooden doors, multiple-arched hallways, some floor tiles by the elevators, and an old marble pillar that still has etchings from a communicative inmate.
So while the Turkish will proudly defend that their prisons are actually "no more lousy to stay in then other Western prisons" (lets not even go there!) they do enjoy sharing details like how the stunning courtyard was the jail's old exercise yard and the elevator shafts were the watchtowers.
The dungeon cells were enlarged and revamped to make what is now 65 guest rooms. The guest rooms may have tiny windows, but they along with the brass rings are vintage slammer windows and brass rings.
Instead of the minimalist past, the rooms have the requisite Turkish touches. Ottoman tapestries flank the walls, Turkish kilims cover the floors, there are mural-style pieces by prized Turkish artists, and the bathrooms all resemble high-end hammams with details like mosaic trims, high quality marble and deep brass basins.
There are 11 super deluxe suites and two presidential suites. We toured a deluxe room. Deluxe rooms have ceilings are surprisingly high and accents like bed posts shaped like minarets and a bed frame inspired by a dome. (Our probing did not reveal if President Obama has stayed in either of Istanbul's Four Seasons during his visit.)
Location, Location, Location
The views from the Four Seasons Sultanahmet are truly remarkable. They're killer! From the rooftop, inmates may have found inspiration (or disdain) from the nearby Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, and Topkapi Palace. The Basilica Cistern, Roman Hippodrome, Grand Bazaar and Spice Market are all within shooting distance.
Rates are steep in a country where the dollar still has some clout. One dollar equals 1.57 Turkish Lira so rooms will cost ya a pretty Lira when they start at $540 a night. Expensive yes, but not criminal.