Start packing and let’s go! DELSEY PARIS has joined forces with the travel review HOLIDAY MAGAZINE to bring you insider tips every month and enhance your enjoyment of unmissable destinations – because some secrets are meant to be told.
Hammams to absolutely try in Istanbul by HOLIDAY MAGAZINE & DELSEY PARIS
The sybaritic traditions of Istanbul’s Turkish baths are still alive and
well, long after the demise of the Roman and Ottoman Empires. Think warmth,
pampering, envelopment in masses of soap bubbles and a marvelous feeling of
cleanliness, all to be had in a spectacular setting, and you have an idea of
the unique experience that lies ahead.
A visit to one of Istanbul’s Turkish baths is far more than a simple spa experience. The city’s hammams are imbued with history, tradition and ritual, whether they architectural masterpieces that survived the Ottoman Empire or modern interpretations. They offer a rare moment of peace, relaxation and self-indulgence in the midst of this bustling and sometimes overwhelming city.
Istanbul’s storied hammams are a two-millennium old legacy of the Roman occupiers, who brought plumbing and heating – among many other infrastructural innovations – to their widespread colonies. Istanbul’s steam baths are not preserved as relics of Roman times, however, as they are in other countries (in the Cluny Museum in Paris, for example). Instead, the tradition itself has lived on, and new hammams have been built over the centuries.
The tradition of Roman-style public bathing in Istanbul
eventually dried up because of droughts and the disapproval of the Byzantine Church. When they were revived by the Ottoman Empire, founded in 1299, a new
era began of building magnificent hammams, one more spectacular than the last, whose domes still punctuate the city’s skyline. The continued use of the Roman hypocaust system for heating ensures the comfort of bathers to this day. The hammam’s typically Islamic interiors featured decorative tiles and stonework, fountains, archways and natural lighting streaming through the perforated domes.
The decline of these public hammams began in the 18th century, when the construction of new ones was banned because of their excessive use of water and wood. A new era began during which the wealthy, the military and religious and cultural institutions built sumptuous private baths for their own use.
After the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the foundation of the Turkish Republic in 1923, many of the most notable hammams gradually disappeared along with galloping Westernization.
Today, some of the most beautiful hammams still stand and are being joined by more modern (though not necessarily less luxurious) versions. While the baths no longer play an important role in Istanbul society as places to gather, visit with friends, gossip and celebrate, and as status symbols for the leaders who built them, they still attract locals for special occasions and visitors who want to experience the famous “Turkish baths” celebrated by Western artists and writers over the centuries.
What happens during a typical treatment at a hammam? You will be given a pestemal (a highly absorbent, quick-drying flat-woven “Turkish towel”) to wrap around yourself for modesty’s sake. After bathing, you will lie down for a short time on a göbek taşı, a heated marble platform that will warm and relax you while encouraging your pores to open, after which you will be vigorously scrubbed all over by an attendant with a kese (exfoliating mitt). After rinsing, the ritual is finished off with a foam wash involving a mass of frothy bubbles. Depending on what you have signed up for, you may then have a massage or other treatment on a marble table. You can then repair to the relaxation room for a glass of tea while you enjoy a rare feeling of pure cleanliness.
Here are some of the most notable Istanbul hammams:
The Kılıç Ali Paşa hammam, with its awe-inspiring dome, carved marble doors, wall decorations and painted ceilings, is one of the most beautiful Turkish baths still standing in Istanbul. Designed by Mimar Sinan (1488/90–1588), the Ottoman Empire’s premier architect, and named after the Ottoman admiral who commissioned it, it dates back to the late 16th century. After falling into disuse, it was restored in the 2000s over a period of seven years to its current impressive state.
Cağaloğlu Hamamı, another surviving architectural gem, dates back to 1741 but has never been restored. A trip back to the Ottoman Empire, it was built by Sultan Mahmud I to raise funds for libraries and the Hagia Sofia. Outside, it has both Ottoman and Baroque architectural features. Inside, light streams in from openings in the majestic domes supported by elaborate arches. This was the last public bathhouse built before their construction was banned in 1768 by Sultan Mustafa III.
Hürrem Sultan Hammam in Sultanahmet, one of the most popular Turkish baths for tourists with its opulent interior, tastefully updated facilities, and separate but identical sections for men and women, was also designed by the famed Sinan, the architect of Kılıç Ali Paşa. Restored in the mid-20th century, it retains its exterior Ottoman architecture and high-reaching domes. It was named for the woman who commissioned it, Hürrem Sultan, a.k.a. Roxelana (c. 1533-58), who was captured in her native Eastern Europe, enslaved and taken to Istanbul, where she ended up in the harem
of Suleiman the Magnificent. As his favorite and, unusually, legal wife, she became one of the most powerful women in the Ottoman Empire.
Yet another hammam designed by Sinan, the Süleymaniye Hamamı, was built in 1557 and is located next to the mosque of the same name, considered by some to be one of the best examples of Ottoman Islamic architecture in Istanbul. Unprepossessing on the outside, it has a beautifully appointed interior in the traditional style. Closed in 1924, it was later renovated and reopened in 2004. Note that this is a couples-only hammam with male masseurs.
Those seeking a modern yet luxuriant Turkish bath experience might want to try Çukurcuma Hamamı in Cihangir. Built in the first half of the 19th century and recently renovated into a “boutique hammam,” it still has such traditional architectural features as skylit domes and intricate decorative details, combined with elegant modern furnishings.
If you prefer the opposite extreme, try the Ağa Hamamı in Beyoğlu, which claims to be the oldest hammam in Istanbul. Built by Mehmed the Conqueror in 1454, it was originally a private hammam in a hunting lodge. Renovated in 1844, it continued to be used by Ottoman sultans until the fall of the empire at the beginning of the 20th century. In the early days of the Republic of Turkey, it fell into private hands and was turned into a public bathhouse. Currently being renovated, it is less lavish than the bathhouses mentioned above but offers an authentic hammam experience. Men and women are not separated except for intimate treatments.
While you’re in Istanbul, don’t neglect to take the plunge and visit one of its hammams. You will never forget it.