Some travellers prefer to avoid thinking about the previous occupants of their hotel rooms, but a new crop of Israeli and Palestinian boutique hotels have begun repurposing historic buildings such as hospitals, villas and even prisons into suites and spas, as they seek to cater to visitors who deliberately choose lodgings which claim a long roster of historical tenants.
Scattered all over the region, these luxury accommodations combine inimitable patina and charm with the modern amenities that sadly evaded the buildings' earliest residents. There is no shortage of timeworn structures here, and reusing them as hotels often provides a solution for the costly architectural restoration process that would be unaffordable for individual owners. Whether you choose to stay for a night or just have a drink at the bar, these Israeli and Palestinian hotels are storied destinations in and of themselves.
The Jaffa, Jaffa, Tel Aviv
Atop a hill overlooking the shimmering Mediterranean and a boat-bedecked Jaffa port stands an imposing neoclassical building, purpose-built in the 19th century as a French hospital and later used as a convent. But as of mid-2018, its seaside vista is no longer reserved for the sick or the celibate. After a painstaking restoration process, the long-shuttered building reopened as The Jaffa, a combination of luxury hotel and apartments. The coexistence of old and new is immediately visible in the sleek modernist lobby, where a 13th-century Crusader bastion wall pairs with chrome and mid-century mod orange lounge chairs. But it is most obvious in The Chapel, a sanctuary transformed into the hotel bar, complete with sangria and stained glass windows.
The Setai, Jaffa, Tel Aviv
For years, the corner prison cell window of Jaffa’s Kishle (Turkish for ‘jailhouse’) was patched over with concrete, discouraging passersby from taking justice into their own hands and maiming an inmate, but now that cemented inlay has been cleared. Lodgers in the cell-turned-posh suite – part of The Setai, a luxury hotel that opened in 2018 – can freely enjoy unfettered views of Clock Tower Square as well as privileged access to one of the best preserved ancient structures in Jaffa. Originally constructed as a 12th-century Crusader fortress, the five-structure compound was used by every conquering force that barrelled through Jaffa and was still a police station until 2005. Today, the rooftop infinity pool with ocean sunset views and subterranean Turkish hammam are places you might be thrilled to be imprisoned.
Drisco Hotel, Tel Aviv
When this modest three-storey building at the entrance to Tel Aviv’s American Colony neighbourhood was first constructed by the entrepreneurial Drisco brothers in 1866, it offered well-appointed rooms and European-friendly menus to pilgrims en route to Jerusalem. Journeys to the Old City during the 19th-century were long and bumpy; the Jerusalem Hotel (as it was originally named) provided familiar creature comforts along the way. But circumstances changed in the mid-20th century, and the structure repeatedly changed hands: first as a British military headquarters, then immigrant housing and eventually as the Israeli Ministry of Education. During the 1960s, the building was abandoned and forgotten, until a decade-long restoration process revived the building’s original glory as the Drisco Hotel, opened in 2018 and named for its original developers.
Efendi Hotel, Akko
Recycling old walls isn’t a new concept, and that’s abundantly clear at the Efendi Hotel, where two Ottoman palaces built on the foundational remains of Byzantine buildings have been re-envisioned as a 21st-century boutique hotel. Embellished with interior design features of yore – decorative plaster, fresco paintings and vaulted ceilings – the hotel stands out, no small feat in the enchanting ancient city of Akko, where arched stone buildings cluster impossibly narrow alleyways. Beyond its visual charms, Efendi is a five-star culinary destination as well. The hotel is the passion project of local and legendary restaurateur Uri Jeremias, whose namesake seafood eatery Uri Buri is conveniently located a short walk away.
Dar Sitti Aziza, Bethlehem
The front door of this Ottoman-era merchants’ house was built wide enough for a pack-laden camel to walk through; today it welcomes Bethlehem travellers wishing to stay in a historic setting with a warm, familial atmosphere. Located steps away from the Church of the Nativity, the home now known as the Dar Sitti Aziza hotel has remained in the same family for generations and is named for a beloved matriarch, Aziza Shaheen.
As a former private residence, Dar Sitti Aziza has a modest collection of nine rooms and advertises the original function of each one. The most spacious chambers are the former horse stables and Bride of Bethlehem rooms (the last one adorned with stonework windows meant to display the family’s wealth and assure a bride-to-be that she would be well cared for, a message that still carries today). The homegrown charm extends to the breakfast included with every stay, where tables on the terrace are laden with housemade date and semolina cakes, Turkish cardamom coffee, freshly baked bread topped with zaatar (a Middle Eastern spice blend that includes oregano, sumac and toasted sesame seeds) and local cheeses and vegetables.
American Colony Hotel, Jerusalem
Room number 1 at Jerusalem’s American Colony Hotel was once the bedroom of Ottoman pasha Effendi El Husseini, and each of his four wives had separate chambers for the winter and summer seasons. But despite all the possible heirs that the pasha’s full house might have produced, he was childless upon his death in 1894, and the spacious home was put on the market. With its wealth of rooms facing a leafy cloistered courtyard, it was perfectly designed to serve as a hotel, and it’s still one of Jerusalem’s finest.
But first, it was bought by a commune of spiritually motivated Americans and Swedes who decided to make Jerusalem their home. To support themselves, they opened local businesses, tended livestock and eventually began using their spacious compound to host out-of-town guests. Word quickly spread among savvy travellers, and it is a favourite auberge of the well-to-do and diplomats to this day, named after the emigres that first unlocked the building to the tourism industry. Those not spending the night can still enjoy historic flair – head underground to the vaulted Cellar Bar, which was once the colony’s dairy and now serves other forms of liquid refreshment.
Talitha Kumi Guest House, Beit Jala
From the Beit Jala hilltop where Talitha Kumi Guest House sits, visitors can see the valleys surrounding Bethlehem, Jordan (on a clear day) and schoolchildren at the neighbouring Unesco Associated School founded by 19th-century German missionaries. Talitha Kumi began as a school for Arab girls in Jerusalem, but over time (and after a few venue changes), it has expanded to include a modest inn whose proceeds support the educational program. Rooms are modest, but opulent greenery and a thriving vineyard surround the guesthouse. Meals at the dining hall are a generous array of traditional local fare.
Villa Brown, Jerusalem
When Dr Isaac D’Arbela built this stately Jerusalem stone house in the early 20th century, convenience was a major factor: it was across the street from the clinic he was appointed to manage. The hospital no longer exists, but D’Arbela’s home is still a convenient post for hospitality. It is a centrally located oasis within short walking distance of the Old City, and the hotel’s complimentary bikes can also be used to explore Jerusalem’s modern city centre. A new addition to the Jerusalem hotel scene, Villa Brown redesigned the doctor’s home to expose the original boulders of the stone walls while enlarging the property with two extra floors and some contemporary touches. Even if D’Arbela didn’t think of adding a rooftop spa and jacuzzi himself, it’s hard to imagine that he would have disapproved of their wellness-promoting potential.
Scots Hotel, Tiberias
A century ago, a Church of Scotland mission sent a young Dr Torrance to the town of Tiberias to provide medical attention to all patients, regardless of their religious beliefs. The doctor and his team built a hospital near the banks of the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus is said to have preached and performed miracles, hoping to perform a few of their own. But with time, and as more modern medical facilities sprouted up in the area, the hospital became obsolete. The Church of Scotland didn’t want to give up its property overlooking the lake, but it needed to find another use for it. In 2004, it was refinished and transformed into the Scots Hotel, amenities like canopy beds and a spa were added, and it is now a place where, in apt Scottish fashion, guests checking in are greeted with a glass of scotch. Dr Torrance is still supervising, from his burial plot in an area near the hotel pool.