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.
AyaSofya Hurrem Sultan Hamam
Perhaps the most opulent of the Turkish hammams in Istanbul is the AyaSofya Hurrem Sultan Hamam.
Originally built in 1556 for Roxelana, the bewitching wife of Suleiman the Magnificent, it reopened in 2008 after a three-year, multi-million dollar restoration. It follows the classical Ottoman bath style, but men and women today each have their own sections in the white marble hammam.
The hammam experience
In a private change room, you strip and tie a silk-and-cotton pestemal (wrap) around your waist. You’re 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.
Indeed, 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.
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!
These days, you may not have to leave your hotel to enjoy a hammam.
Turkish hammams in Istanbul hotels
At the Ritz-Carlton Istanbul’s spa, in the cocoon of its marble Turkish hammam couples suite, a steam, scrub and soap bubble massage helped us get over jetlag.
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…
Travel tips for visiting hammams in Istanbul
Where to stay in Istanbul:
On our most recent trip to Istanbul, we checked into two 5-star hotels: the Ciragan Palace Kempinski and the Ritz-Carlton Istanbul:
- Ciragan Palace Kempinski: 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.
- Ritz-Carlton Istanbul: The Ritz-Carlton Istanbul 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 high-rise hotel 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.
On a previous Istanbul visit, we stayed at the chic Sumahan on the Water (a converted Ottoman distillery).
Top Turkish hammams in Istanbul:
- Istanbul’s most luxurious public hammam is the AyaSofya Hurrem Sultan Hamam, located in the Old Quarter next door to the famed Hagia Sophia.
- Kilic Ali Pasa Hamami is another recently restored and elegant public Turkish bath, located near Taksim Square.
Bath culture and etiquette:
- Some hammams in Istanbul have separate hours for men and women.
- You’ll be given flip-flops and a waist wrap (which you may leave on when bathing).
- Don’t splash and dash. Once finished, you can stay in the hot room and relax over tea for as long as you like. Make your hammam visit a leisurely, languid one.
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We’re Janice and George Mucalov, professional award-winning travel writers, sharing tales of luxury travel with a twist of adventure.