Hamams (Turkish Baths) of Istanbul
Other than the personal hygiene, there were other prospects in attending the hamam – catching up on the neighborhood gossip, discuss the daily trading rates of goods, finding prospective brides for their sons by prospective mother-in-laws, etc. Now that many people have bathrooms in İstanbul, hamams are nowhere near as popular as they used to be, but some carry on, no doubt due to their role as local meeting places. Others have become extremely successful tourist attractions.
The city’s hamams vary enormously. Some are dank dives where you may come out dirtier than you went in (remember – Turks call cockroaches ‘hamam insects’); others are plain and clean, servicing a predominantly local clientele. An increasing number are building a reputation as gay meeting places (we’re talking truly steamy here) and a handful are geared exclusively towards tourists.
One of the two hamams you may want to visit while you’re in town are Cağualoğulu and Çemberlitaş. Sure, they’re touristy, but they’re also gorgeous, historic buildings where most of the clientele will be having their first experience of a hamam, so you won’t feel out of place. They’re also clean and have some English-speaking staff.
Tel: 212-522 2424
Address: Yerebatan Caddesi 34, Cağaloğlu
Prices: standard/luxury bath, scrub & massage YTL54/72, bath only YTL24
Hours: 8am-10pm Men, 8am-8pm Women
Reach: Take tram to Sultanahmet
This is one of the city’s most beautiful hamams. It’s pricey, but the surroundings are so impressive that they have featured in everything from soap ads to a movies. Separate baths each have a large camekan (reception area), where it’s possible to have a nap or a tea at the end of your bath. Be warned: staff here have a reputation for hassling for tips.
Tel: 212-522 7974
Address: Vezir Hanı Caddesi 8, Çemberlitaş
Prices: bath, scrub & soap massage YTL40, bath YTL28, 30-min oil massage YTL28
Reach: Take tram to Çemberlitaş
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. Just off Divan Yolu near the Grand Bazaar, it’s a double hamam (separate baths for men and women) that’s particularly popular with tourists. Although the splendid camekan is unfortunately for men only (women must put up with a utilitarian corridor filled with lockers and benches), the sicaklik (hot room) in each section is a glorious space with a large marble göbektaşı (raised platform above the heating source) and domed ceilings with star-like apertures admitting filtered light. In the women’s sicaklik it’s not unusual for one of the masseuses to break into song. For your money you’ll get lots of heat and a thorough and very soapy massage. There’s a 20% discount for ISIC student-card holders.
Upon entry you are shown to a camekan (entrance hall or space) where you will be allocated a dressing halvet (cubicle) or locker and given a peştemal (bath-wrap) and naiŀn (wooden sandals). Store your clothes and don the peştemal and naiŀn. An attendant will then lead you through the soğukluk (intermediate section) to the sicaklik (hot section), where you sit and sweat for a while, relaxing and loosening up, perhaps on the göbektaşı (central, raised platform atop the heating source).
Soon you will be half-asleep and as soft as putty from the steamy heat. The cheapest bath is the one you do yourself, having brought your own soap, shampoo and towel. But the real Turkish bath experience is to have a tellak (attendant) wash, scrub and massage you.
If you have opted for the latter, an attendant douses you with warm water and lathers you with a sudsy swab. Next you are scrubbed with a coarse cloth mitten loosening dirt you never suspected you had. After a massage (these yo-yo between being enjoyable, limp-wristed or mortally dangerous) comes a shampoo and another dousing with warm water, followed by one with cool water.
When the scrubbing is over, stay in the sicaklik relaxing or head for the cool room and grab a towel. You then go back to your locker or cubicle to get dressed – if you’ve got a halvet you can even have a rest or order something to drink. If you want to nap, tell the attendant when to wake you. The average hamam experience takes around one hour.
Traditional Turkish baths have separate sections for men and women, or have only one set of facilities and admit men or women at different times. Bath etiquette requires that men remain clothed with the bath-wrap at all times. In the women’s section, women sometimes wear their underwear (but not their bra). It’s up to you – most tourists seem not to do this.
During the bathing, everyone washes their private parts themselves, without removing the bath-wrap or underclothes.
In touristy areas, some baths now accept that foreign men and women like to bathe together. No Turkish woman would let a masseur touch her (it must be a masseuse), but masseurs are usually the only massagers available in these foreign-oriented baths. We suggest that women willing to accept a masseur should have the massage within view of male companions or other friends.
Soap, shampoo and towels are provided at all of the hamams; if you’re just having a bath, you’ll need to pay for the soap and shampoo separately – it’s usually included in the cost of full treatments. Çemberlitaş is the
only hamam where the price includes tips; others will tell you that tipping is at your discretion, but frankly, you’ve got as much of a chance of leaving without tipping as you have of approaching the Blue Mosque and being ignored by the touts selling postcards. We suggest giving 10% to 20% of the total fee (depending on service). You’ll get drenched, so make sure you take a comb, toiletries, make-up and (if you choose to wear underwear during the massage) a dry pair of replacement knickers.
Tel: 212-519 5569
Address: Mimar Sinan Caddesi 20, Süleymaniye
Prices: YTL51 – YTL60
Reach: Take tram to Beyazıt
Mixed bath with only male masseurs, meaning that some women will not feel comfortable here. The price includes bath, scrub and soap massage, as well as a free pick-up and drop off from your hotel. Don’t beileve the fact that they offer life insurance included in the price of its hamam treatment!
Tarihi Galatasaray Hamami
Address: Turnacıbaşı Sokak 24, Çukurcuma
Prices: full treatment YTL63, bath YTL30
Hours: men 6am-10pm, women 8am-8pm
Reach: Take tram to Kabataş, then funicular to Taksim
This quiet place off İstiklal Caddesi is one of the city’s best, with lots of marble decoration, small cubicles for resting and sipping tea after the bath, pretty fountains and even a shoeshine service. The interiors are much nicer in the men’s section than the women’s. It’s famous for having one of the hottest göbektaşı in town!
Ambassador Hotel Spa Center
Tel: 212-512 0002
Address: Ticarethane Sokak 19, Sultanahmet
Prices: Turkish bath with soap & oil massage YTL50
Reach: Take tram to Sultanahmet
The 75-minute Turkish massage treatment gives you the same package that you get in the big hamams (bath, scrub and soap massage), but what makes this place superior is the 30-minute oil massage after the bath, which is given by Zeki Ulusoy. Zeki is trained in sports, remedial and aromatherapy massage and he really knows his stuff – you’ll float out of here at the end of your session. You can also book the hamam for private use (YTL17 per person per hour).
Tel: 212-251 8925
Address: Sadri Alisik Sokak 29/1, Beyoğlu
Prices: admission YTL30, massage per hr YTL50
Unabashedly proclaiming itself as ‘the only gay sauna in Istanbul’, Aquarius can also lay claim to having the only swimming pool in its premises, which means it comes closest to what most Western gay sauna-goers are used to – most notably a clean environment. An added attraction is the stable of 14 hunky, delicious masseurs who take you into the private cubicles for a massage – be sure to negotiate the price and the service parameters clearly.
Address: Tersane Caddesi 74, Azapkapi
Prices: bath YTL20, with massage YTL30
This spacious, well-maintained hamam (located across from Azapkapı Sokollu Mehmet Paşa Camii at the base of the Atatürk Bridge) with all the traditional trappings is crowded with testosterone-laden bathhouse lovers – among them expats and in-the-know tourists. Very discreet.
Tel: 212-252 3441
Address: Yeni Çeşme Sokak 9, off Perşembe Pazari Caddesi, Karaköy
Price: with/without massage YTL15/25
Favorite among bears and pot-bellied moustachioed types. Its maze-like location in a backstreet behind the hardware stores that litter this part of town often discourages the non-local bathhouse action seekers.