Turkish baths or "hamam" are something of an institution in Istanbul and a must-do for most visitors calling in on Turkey's largest city. Hamamlar range from historic to luxurious; cheap to cleverly decorated. While they don't necessarily hold the restorative powers of mineral-rich hot springs, Turkish baths are wholly and solely dedicated to the art of relaxation.
Recognised as the crux of east meets west, Istanbul is bathed in Byzantine heritage, serrated with minarets across its cityscape and always eager to get a little steamy. Indulge in a little historic hedonism and be taken back to the Ottoman Empire with this handy guide to Istanbul's Turkish baths.
Choosing Your 'Hamam'...
After a demanding day traipsing along the Bosphorus waterfront, there's nothing quite like surrendering your senses to the hamam. The only catch is choosing which bath is right for you, depending on price, services offered and location.
While the number of Istanbul hamamlar is dramatically less than it was during the 18th Century boom, there are still several soapy sites scattered across the city. From the legendary Kilic Ali Pasa to the resplendent marble-clad Ayasofya Hurrem Sultan, even the likes of the Four Seasons hotel honours the luxurious art of bathing.
Dip your toes into history at the Cemberlitas Hamami, conveniently located near the Grand Bazaar. Dating back to the late-1500s, Cemberlitas oozes distinct character and innovative architecture, where high arches and grand columns stretch to the domes above.
Alternatively, visit the Cagaloglu Hamam for a treat for the eyes as well as the body. With streams of natural light piercing the sculpted ceiling and a lush interior garden, Cagaloglu attracts the likes of kings, composers, movie stars and models.
Like the Roman thermae hamam were originally modelled off, typical Turkish baths have three interconnected rooms: the aptly named hot room, warm room and cold room. Start by working up a sweat in the hot room, lolling around on the heated marble stone (gobek tasi) that takes centre stage, or by bathing in hot water at one of the basins (kurna).
While in the hot room, you can opt for a therapeutic exfoliation scrub and bubble wash given by the attendants on hand – whether you prefer to DIY or be pampered is entirely up to you.
The attendants, called tellaks or natirs, use a “kese” bathing mitt to gently scrub, detoxifying and restoring vitality to your skin. To get the most out of your hamam experience, the general rule is to rest, perspire, wash and repeat as long as required.
Minding Your Manners...
As you enter a hamam, you will generally pay according to the different bathing options available: self-service, wash with attendant, oil massage, etc. A hamam experience will generally set you back between 40TL ($AUD25) for entry, up to 100TL ($AUD56) for more intensive treatments, with most baths open from early morning until late evening.
Hamamlar are inclusive, peaceful spaces and are usually separate for men and women, though couples treatments can sometimes be an option. When undressing, you will be given a pestemal (Turkish towel) to cover from the waist down, but swimwear can be worn if you feel more comfortable. Wooden clogs or slippers are also provided to tackle the notorious wet marble.
Don't forget to tip your attendant after a particularly revitalising loofah session, to remain respectful of other patrons who are there to unwind as well, and to keep hydrated before, during and after your visit to the hamam.
If you've fallen into a deep state of calm but Istanbul still beckons to be discovered, reawaken your senses with a thick, velvety Turkish coffee and a sugary square of lokum.