Steam, scrub, soap suds and a silky massage. Ahhhh… Few bathing rituals in the world generate the decadent pleasure (and squeaky clean feeling) of a Turkish hammam experience.
Spending some time in one of the traditional Turkish hammams in Istanbul is a must when visiting the city.
Hammams in Istanbul
There are some 237 Istanbul hamams; about 60 are still used today.
Of course, you want the hammam to be spickety-clean and highly reputable. Especially, since, well, you’ll be naked.
By the way, “hammam” is the original Arabic spelling while “hamam” is the Turkish spelling – both are used today to refer to Turkish baths. (“Hamma” in Arabic means “heating up.”) Sometimes you see the word “hamami” too.
History of Turkish hammams
Historically, traditional Turkish hammams were a place to cleanse both body and soul. They were often found near mosques so the Muslim believer could cleanse the body before praying – not only did you sweat out toxins, you achieved spiritual purification too.
A carry-over from the Roman social bathhouse, when Istanbul (then Byzantium and Constantinople) was under Roman control, public hammams also played an important role in the social fabric of everyday life as gathering places to gossip and discuss events.
Women could escape the confines of their home to mingle with other women – and even look for suitable brides for their sons.
And get this: Two centuries ago, if a husband didn’t pay for his wife to visit the Turkish bath twice a week, she could ask for a divorce!
5 Best Istanbul hamams
We tried out several luxurious Turkish baths in Istanbul. Here, then, are some of the top hamams in the city.
1) AyaSofya Hurrem Sultan Hamam
One of the best hammams in Istanbul – and perhaps the most opulent – is the AyaSofya Hurrem Sultan Hamam.
The hamam was designed and built in 1556 by Sinan, the chief Ottoman architect, for Roxelana (Hurrem Sultan), the bewitching wife of Suleiman the Magnificent.
A young red-haired woman from Poland, Roxelana was kidnapped and given to Suleiman as a gift when she was only 15. She became his favorite concubine and later his powerful and influential wife, bearing him six children.
The Aya Sofya Hamam was operational until 1910. It then closed down for many years and was later used as a prison when the Sultanahmet Prison was full.
In 2008, a multi-million dollar restoration of the hamam began. Almost 14,000 square feet of Marmara marble was used and 160 gold-coated bath bowls were crafted for guest use. After three years, it reopened to the public in 2011.
The AyaSofya hammam experience
In a private change room, you strip and tie a silk-and-cotton pestemal (wrap) around your waist.
You’re then led to the “hot room” – a large, octagonal-shaped, marble room with a high domed ceiling, marble basins and gold taps. Clouds of steam swirl about.
Seated on a marble slab, you lazily pour warm water over yourself from a gold-plated bowl as you unwind and luxuriate in the heat.
An attendant next scrubs you down from head to foot with an exfoliating goatskin mitt until your skin is baby smooth.
Now comes the dreamy part – from what looks like a pillowcase, your attendant squeezes huge clouds of tiny soap bubbles all over you, covering you in a comforter of fluffy softness, as you’re lying on warm marble.
Finally you’re massaged with soapy foam.
After our two-hour hammam treatment, we felt as if we could float away – light in body and spirit.
Women and men:
The Hurrem Sultan Hamami follows the classical Ottoman bath style, but men and women today each have their own sections in the white marble hammam.
2) Kilic Ali Pasa Hamami
Like the Aya Sofya, Kilic Ala Pasa Hamam (or Hamami) was also designed by the great architect, Mimar Sinan. But located in Istanbul’s harbor district, it was built between 1578 and 1583 to serve the Ottoman navy, not the sultan’s wife.
Restored in modern times after seven years of work, it’s another elegant Turkish bath in Istanbul. The impressive main dome is one of Sinan’s largest domes in Istanbul (a soaring 55 feet high and 45 feet across).
Start with sipping a home-made sherbet in the lounge before being guided to the dressing rooms, where you change into your pestemal.
In the hot room, you lie down on the heated hexagonal marble stand in the middle for at least 10 minutes. Then you’re led to a marble water basin for the body exfoliation and a bubble soap wash.
If you wish, you can add a partial or full-body massage to your Turkish bath experience.
Women and men:
Open every day, Kilic Ali Pasa Hamami has separate hours for men and women:
- Women: 8:00 am to 4:00 pm (last reservation 2:30 pm)
- Men: 4:30 pm to 11:30 pm
3) Cağaloğlu Hamam
Another beautiful hammam in Istanbul is the Cağaloğlu Hamami, built in 1741.
Listed in the New York Times bestseller, “1,000 Places To See Before You Die,” these historic baths have been featured in more than 138 movies. Over the years, they’ve attracted a flock of famous customers, from Florence Nightingale and Franz Liszt to, more recently, Kate Moss and Cameron Diaz.
You can’t help but be wowed when you enter.
Think marble fountains, an inside garden and white marble columns. Natural light streams in through cut-outs in soaring cupolas. Thousands of tiles are decorated with tulips.
The standard bath treatment includes 15 minutes of “hot room rest,” 10 minutes of exfoliation with a bath glove and 20 minutes of bubble soap wash.
After, you’re offered Turkish tea, home-made sherbet and a Turkish delight.
Turkish baths in Istanbul hotels
These days, you might not even have to leave your hotel to enjoy a hammam. Some of the best hotels in Istanbul have their own Turkish baths.
4) Ritz-Carlton Istanbul hammam
Spa Soul at the Ritz-Carlton:
At the spa in the Ritz-Carlton Istanbul – in the cocoon of its marble Turkish hammam couples suite – a steam, scrub and soap bubble massage helped us get over jetlag on one visit to Istanbul.
The high-rise hotel is right around the corner from Istiklal Street, the famous pedestrian-only shopping avenue (be sure to duck into the pretty glass-covered “Flower Passage”).
The Ritz-Carlton is also close to the tram which takes you to the Old Quarter of Sultanahmet, where you find the Topkapi Palace, Blue Mosque and other historic sights.
5) Ciragan Palace Kempinski hammam
We also tried a private couple’s treatment at the storied Ciragan Palace Kempinski’s spa.
Towel headrests on the marble slabs, soft Turkish music and the choice of an easy, medium or hard scrub added to the comfort of our experience.
After, we relaxed on a red velvet divan sipping mint tea.
Definitely an indulgent ritual fit for a Sultan and his princess!
Built on the banks of the Bosphorus Canal, the Ciragan Palace Kempinski has welcomed kings and queens as well as celebrities like Madonna, Oprah Winfrey and fashion designer Giorgio Armani.
A gorgeous outdoor infinity pool overlooks boats plying the sparkling seaway – a treat at the end of a day of sightseeing.
Most rooms have balconies with Bosphorus views. But if your wallet allows, splurge on one of the 11 suites in the 19th century Ottoman palace building.
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Lead photo courtesy Ritz-Carlton Istanbul