Established some 20 years ago by American Anne Nevans, the Empress Zoe ticks all the right boxes for many visitors to this great city. The hotel—named after an 11th century Byzantine empress, adulterer, and husband killer whose likeness can be seen in a brilliant mosaic in the gallery of the Hagia Sophia, which rises just behind the hotel—has real character, spread out as it is over several linked townhouses that back onto to perhaps its greatest draw, an absolutely delightful and secluded courtyard garden. Filled with greenery (not least a fir tree, a couple of palms, a fragrant bay tree and masses of climbing plants), two sides of the garden are bound by the crumbling brick- and lichen-crusted stone of a long-abandoned, domed Ottoman bath house—itself built on the ruins of an earlier Byzantine structure.
What a setting for a leisurely breakfast or early evening pick-me-up after a day's sightseeing, especially with the tinkling of water into a couple of marble basins and the purring of a resident feline or two as background noise. With some really advanced planning, budget travellers may be able to bag the only (viewless) budget double for €70. Otherwise pick from a series of air-conditioned doubles for twice that amount, or even more expensive suite rooms that climb to €285. Individually decorated, all rooms have a period/ethnic slant, with bare boards, Central Asian embroidered throws and drapes, and antique furniture. There's a fine roof terrace too, with stunning views of the Hagia Sophia.