If you're a spa lover going to Istanbul, you won't want to miss the city's famous baths, called hamams (or hammams in the West). These are not baths as you know them, but a series of rooms of various temperatures to stimulate circulation and the process of detoxification. The centerpiece of the experience is a very thorough body scrub (kese) with coarse mitts, a soapy cleanse with white, frothy bubbles (achieved when the attendant blows through a lacy bag, and a thorough dousing with buckets of warm water.
This can be a DIY treatment, or you can use the services of an attendant. It's affordable, especially in the magnificent public baths of Istanbul like Cağaloğlu Hamam, but the services are briefer and less soothing than we are accustomed to in the West.
All you do is tell the receptionist what services you want and pay ahead of time. You get a cotton wrap (pestemal) and pair of wooden slippers (terlik), along with a key to your cubicle, where you remove your clothes and wrap yourself up sarong-style. (You might want to bring your own soap and shampoo, as it's expensive to buy in the public baths and not always great quality). Men and women are in the hamam on different days.
You enter a magnificent room, and after heating up for about 15 minutes on a heated marble platform (called a goebektas), you get thoroughly washed by one of the attendants in one of the bathing cubicles around the perimeter. You can stay here a while — heating up and dousing yourself with water to cool down — as long as you wish, and this is the true heart of the hammam experience.
The oil massage takes place in a separate room and is both more vigorous and perfunctory than Westerners are used to, so you may want to skip it unless you are a true spa explorer. Afterward you are handed towels and taken to the cool room to cool down and drink orange juice or tea.
If this all sounds a bit too intense you can always have a hammam experience at a fine hotel, which specializes in meeting the expectations of high-end world travelers. There are also some couples-only options that break from tradition, but provide an otherwise authentic experience.
Close to the massive dome and four minarets of Hagia Sophia (once the world's largest Christian church), Cağaloğlu Hamam was the last hamman to be built during the Ottoman Empire, in 1741, by Sultan Mahmud. By far the most spectacular of Istanbul's hammams, it is absolutely stunning and a must for spa pilgrims, or merely curious tourists. That said, some consider it a tourist trap, with so-so services and inflated prices.
Tourists in search of an authentic hammam are the main customers here, but they are in good company: Florence Nightingale, Kaiser Wilhelm I and Tony Curtis are all said to have come here.
As Cağaloğlu Hamam is near the Grand Bazaar, Blue Mosque and Topkapi Palace, it is a good place to refresh after a day of sightseeing and exploring. In the old days women and men had separate days to visit, but now it offers separate baths for men and women and a range of services. The Istanbul Dream which includes an exfoliating and washing is 50 euros. The Ottoman Luxury Service includes exfoliation, washing and 45-minute massage and costs 120 euros. Self-service treatment is 30 euros.
Some tourists complain that the treatments here are too rough and expensive, but you're not going to be able to scrub yourself with anywhere near the efficiency of the attendants, so go ahead and spring for it. It's an experience.
Built by the famous architect Mimar Sinan in 1584, this is a classic hamam experience. The bath was established by Nurbanu Sultan, wife of Selim II and mother of Murat III, for the purpose of bringing in revenue to support the Valide-i Atik Charity Complex in Toptasi, Üsküdar. According to the Tuhfet’ül-mi’mârin(1), the bath is one of the structures built by the architect Sinan, in 1584.
There won’t be too many times in your life when you’ll get the opportunity to have a Turkish bath in a building dating back to 1584, so now might well be the time to do it – particularly as this twin hamam was designed by the great architect Sinan and is among the most beautiful in the city.
The building was commissioned by Nurbanu Sultan, wife of Selim II and mother of Murat III. Both of its bath chambers have a huge marble sıcaklık (circular marble heat platform) and a gorgeous dome with glass apertures. The camekan (entrance hall) for men is original, but the women's version is new.
It costs extra to add an oil massage to the standard bath package, but all massages and treatments here are perfunctory, so we'd suggest giving this a miss and opting for the cheaper self-serve option. Tips are meant to be covered in the treatment price and there’s a 20% discount for ISIC student-card holders.
Those who would like a hamam experience with a higher luxury quotient can experience at The SPA at Four Seasons Hotel at the Bosphorus. It has an elegant Turkish hammam, complete with heated marble slab and dreamy lighting, to enjoy privately or with friends, family or a partner. You do have to make some adaptations, like coming early for time in the sauna and steam bath, to warm up before getting your treatment in the actual hammam.
It's also quite a bit more expensive: 120 euros for the scrub (30-minutes); 155 euros for the scrub and foam massage (45 minutes); and 185 euros for the scrub, foam massage and body mask (60 minutes). Add on a 60-minute massage of your choice afterward, and you're up to 265 euros. What you do get is atmosphere and service a bit more in keeping with Western expectations and genteel sensibilities.
The menu includes Swedish massage, Thai massage, hot stone massage and a number of Ayurvedic treatments, along with Western facials and body treatments. And (of course) there's a fitness studio, with classes in yoga and TRX, personal training sessions and a Pilates reformer.
Once home to sultans, the Çırağan Palace Kempinski İstanbul was built right in 1871 on the Bosphorus (not a river, but a narrow sea channel) and has been the city's most iconic luxury hotel since 1991. A pinnacle of Turkish elegance, the opulent hotel with 282 rooms and 31 suites can be reached by yacht, helicopter and limousine.
Çırağan Palace Kempinski Spa is absolutely gorgeous, and offers an authentic Turkish bath. Here, the combination of exfoliation with a mitt and cleansing with frothy soap is called the Pasha; it lasts 40 minutes and costs 135 euros. Add a 15-minute massage with aromatic oils and circular massage movements (with particular attention paid to the scalp, hands and feet) and it's the Sherazad treatment, which costs 165 euros for 55 minutes.
Along with several Ayurvedic therapies, the spa has an array of international massages— Thai, lomi-lomi, shiatsu — along with anti-aging facials and yummy body treatments. The Coffee Peeling uses a blend of granulated Turkish coffee and a blend of aromatic oils to remove dead skin and stimulate circulation. (It is also a good cellulite treatment.)
The hotel also has an indoor swimming pool, sauna and steam rooms, whirlpool, fitness center, and a makeup room. A favorite is the heated, outdoor, infinity pool.
Ayasofya Hürrem Sultan Hamamı
Purists are more enthusiastic about this meticulously restored twin hamam, which dates to 1556 and offers the most luxurious traditional bath experience in the Old City. Designed by Mimar Sinan, it was built by order of Süleyman the Magnificent and named in honour of his wife Hürrem Sultan.
After a $13 million restoration, it reopened in 2011 to great applause. It retains Sinan's original design but endows it with an understated modern luxury. There are the traditional separate baths for males and females, and both have a handsome soğukluk (entrance vestibule) surrounded by wooden change cubicles.
The basic 30-minute scrub and soap massage treatment, given expertly, costs 55 euros and includes olive-oil soap and a personal kese. In warm weather, a cafe and restaurant operate on the outdoor terrace.
If you're traveling as a couple, and want to visit a hammam together, this is the place for you. Hammams are usually segregated by gender, but this one welcomes couples and families — only. If you are a single man or woman, you will be turned away. (And even groups and couples must make reservations in advance.)
Built in 1557, Suleiman the magnificent commissioned this bath. Its architect is Mimar Sinan, the same architect who built Çemberlitaş Hamam in 1584. This is one of the more affordable options. The self-service option, which includes lockable changing rooms, peştemal for men or bra and shorts for women, wooden slippers and access to the hammam is 40 euros and includes kese, and a soap massage.
Said to be the first Turkish bath in Istanbul, Aga Hamami was originally built in 1454 as part of a hunting lodge for Mehmed the Conqueror. It underwent a large-scale renovation in 1844 by Abdulmecid (the 31st Ottoman Padishah) and was used until the final years of the Ottoman Empire, after which it was open to the public.
Today it serves the tourist market and couples in a mixed setting. It's extremely relaxed, and another bargain: 15 euros for entrance; with massage, it's 30 euros; add a facial mask and you're up to 34 euros.
A glass high-rise, this hotel may lack in traditional Turkish atmosphere but it has all the fine service you expect from a Ritz Carlton — plus great views of the Bosphorus. The spa features two traditional Turkish Hammam for men and women separately, as well as a Couples Hammam Suite.
Guests can also enjoy the 60-foot indoor pool with its twinkling ceiling, Jacuzzi, sauna, steam room and fitness center.
This is the most western-style spa, and it doesn't have the large and lovely traditional Turkish hammam of the other bathhouses and spas mentioned here. However, The Spa at Park Hyatt Istanbul Maçka Palas does adapt the traditional hammam ritual to take place in one of five individual spa suites, which include a Turkish bath complete with a heated stone seat and a private steam room. This is a treatment that can be experience alone, or as a couple.
First, you warm up in the steam room or in a hydrotherapy bath scented with Turkish rose. Next up is the kese (scrub), then the foam massage with a lovely rose soap. It's all followed with a little rest and herbal tea. The Turkish Hammam Delight is a 2 hour treatment that costs 600 Turkish lira, or around $165.
Additional features of The Spa include two treatment rooms, male and female locker rooms, a sauna, relaxation lounge, juice bar, an open air pool, and a fully equipped gym.
And if you have had your fill of kese and foam massages by now, there's a menu of western massage, facials and body treatments to keep you busy.