With its magical mosques, decadent palaces, harems, spice-filled markets and bazaars, Istanbul is a city of sensual delights where dipping your toe in the waters of a traditional Turkish bath (hamam) is a quintessential experience for any holiday goddess.
Dating back hundreds of years, the hamam was to the Ottomans what the day spa is to the modern goddess – a place to bathe, relax, be pampered and gather with other women. Today, modern hamams are scattered throughout the city, but the historic hamams built by the sultans to serve the imperial mosques and the ritual cleansing dictates of the Koran are beautiful examples of the kind of breathtaking marble work and rich decoration that only Islamic architecture can do.
But a trip to the ‘hamami’ (in the local lingo) can be intimidating if you don’t know what to expect. For a start, it’s not a place for the prudish, but its worth baring your breasts and a bit of your soul for the indulgence.
Based on my experience at the famous Cağaloğlu Hamamı, you can expect:
- Nudity, but it’s not mandatory. If you feel uncomfortable being completely starkers, there’s nothing wrong with wearing a g-string or bikini.
- There’s separate baths for men and women. In days of old, the punishment for men found in the women’s baths was death! These days, men folk may get away with a surly chastising by lady masseurs, but the better option is to go your separate ways and meet up for a tea in the café afterwards.
- When you enter the women’s area you’ll come to a lounge area where you chose what you’d like from the menu – ranging from a self-service steam through to the full exfoliating scrub, shampoo and massage. (If you are opting for an hour massage, allow two hours for the full steam, treatment and relaxation afterwards). You’ll be given a key for your own lockable dressing room, which also serves as the ‘ticket’ and number in the queue for your treatment once you’re inside the baths.
- Once you’ve disrobed, you’ll be given a light towel to wrap yourself in before you’re escorted into the bath. The ‘baths’ are more like a big steam room in that there’s no big tubs or mineral baths. Instead, you’ll find yourself in a white-marbled room with an enormous slab in the middle covered with naked women being scrubbed and massaged by mostly buxom middle-aged Turkish ladies wearing special issue all-in-one bathers. If you don’t know where to look, look up at the beautiful domed star-studded ceiling!
- Once you’ve been steamed, vigorously scrubbed and massaged you can enjoy a rest on the divan in your dressing room before dressing and enjoying a cup of tea and a tasty snack in the café in the common areas. There’s also a shop full of hamami products (scrubbing mitts, soaps, Turkish towels and lotions).
What to bring:
- Rubber flips flops – the wooden clogs you’ll be issued with are treacherous on slippery wet floors.
- Face and body moisturizer and your own hair shampoo and conditioner. Avoid getting the shampoo – it will leave your hair dry and tortured for days.
In the old city of Sultanahmet the most famous traditional baths are:
Cağaloğlu Hamamı (Prof. Kazım İsmail Gürkan Caddesi 34, tel: (212) 522 24 24)
Built as gift to the city in 1741 from Sultan Mehmet I, it is considered be one of the most astonishing architecturally. The Cağaloğlu Hamamı café is almost as the baths and Florence Nightingale, Kate Moss and Cameron Diaz are amongst the list of star-studded famous bods that have bathed here.
Çemberlitaş Hamamı (Vezirhan Caddesi 8, Çemberlitaş, tel: (212) 520 18 50)
Built in 1584, this hamam is rumoured to have been popular amongst the Sultans and is considered to be one of the most important examples of 16th century Ottoman architecture in the city.
Galatasaray Hamamı (Turnacıbaşı Sokak 24, Galatasaray, tel: (212) 252 42 42)
First built in 1481 by Sultan Bayezid II, the Galatasary hamam consist of göbektaşı, sweating and Turkish massage sections. The men’s section can be reserved for couples or groups of at least 20 people where you can watch belly dancing and taste the delicious Turkish meals near the pool in the garden.
© Kris McIntyre 2011