Ahh, Istanbul. Between the music drifting from the baglama and a skyline featuring a thousand minarets,
you can distinctly hear the ancient Turkish baths calling your name.
And while the ultimate form of relaxation is appealing by nature, pondering the nitty-gritty details and a fear of the unknown can curb many a tourist's curiosity.
First off, let's discuss the difference between a Turkish bath house in Istanbul, called a "hamam", or say a "Turkish-style" bath in Budapest. I had visions of floating in hot baths in ancient buildings, like my sister experienced at the Szechenyi Baths, but Istanbul is far different. A Turkish bath in Istanbul consists of steam slab time, wash/exfoliation time, massage time, dry time, and cool down time. At no point was I submerged in any pool or hot tub. It's a refreshing and relaxing experience, but just different than what I had envisioned.
Istanbul offers a variety of traditional Turkish bath house experiences, but only you can decide which option matches your style. There's the uber-traditional, where men only bathe with men, and women only bathe with women. There's the less-foreign, more day-spa-inspired hamam offered by luxury hotels like the Gaia Spa at Grand Hyatt, or, if like me and my husband, you wanted to experience the traditional ritual of the baths but as a couple or family, there is really only one place that offers it, the Suleymaniye Hamam. This hamam was designed by famed architect Sinan and was constructed for Sultan Süleyman, ruler of the Ottoman Empire between 1520 and 1566, so the sultan himself actually bathed in this beautiful domed space. Can't get any more historic than that.
Advantages to Suleymaniye Hamam:
No singles are allowed, so there's no gawking or nudity, and you can even bring your mature children along. It's a perfect place for a couple or small groups of family/friends.
Somewhat pricey, and only payable in cash Euros (Turkish lira are the standard currency in Istanbul).
If you have any allergies to certain plants, please ask ahead of time at any hamam about what they use in their treatments. For example, my extreme allergy to eucalyptus helped me choose the Suleymaniye Hamam over the the Grand Hyatt. I communicated via email to inquire about plants and oils used in the treatments.
Making a Reservation:
The Suleymaniye Hamam features a helpful website complete with pricing, FAQs, and package details in English, Spanish or German. We made our reservations online, but opted out of the free hotel transfer as reviews from others insinuated it was difficult and not very timely. We made a morning appointment, as the website noted that it was less crowded, and it made sense to wash my hair in the morning and just get ready after the bath. The bathing process takes about 90 minutes.
We took a taxi from our hotel near Sultanahmet Square, but we were cheated pretty heavily by the taxi driver. They kept insisting it was really far away, and then proceeded to drive us around the entire city twice before circling back to the bath. Total ripoff. My tip for next time would be to take the tram to stop Beyazıt-Kapalıçarşı and walk the rest of the way down Fuat Paşa Caddesi or take a taxi from Beyazit (but know your direct route so taxis won't take you on a longer-than-necessary route). Alternatively, you could take a tram to Eminönü and cab it uphill to the hamam. Whatever you choose, just map it out beforehand and you can save at least $20 U.S. in taxi fare each way.
Cost, Clothing & Security:
The rate for my husband and me was 35 EUR each and was payable in cash Euros only, so be prepared for that. Upon entering the great hall, you will be directed to a small changing room. The lighting is dim, but this is where you will remove your clothing, store your belongings and change into the clothes provided. The men are to wear a plaid sarong around the waist, and women wear a plaid bikini top and plaid boxer shorts. But beware of the top, it is surprisingly skimpy. I made it work, mainly because I preferred it over carrying around my own wet bikini top afterwards. You must also wear the wooden sandals they provide, which are quite treacherous, so tread carefully. Your belongings will be safe as the key to the dressing room will be worn around your wrist during the bath experience.
Once you have changed, exit the dressing room, lock the door, and an attendant will lead you into the main steam hall. This is a beautiful marble atrium, thick with steam, centered around a marble slab. Soft strains of traditional music can be heard, and you are to sit for about 30 minutes here to bask in the steam. Nick and I were alone for all but the last 5 minutes of our steam time. I laid out my sarong on the marble slab and relaxed, periodically standing up to walk to one of the faucets nearby and throw cold water over my steaming body. (if you have heart problems, breathing issues, or sensitivity to heat, or are pregnant or nursing, then the baths are not for you). When you are in here, remember to RELAX. The attendants will come and get you when it is time to proceed to the actual bathing. Don't worry, they won't forget about you.
Once your steam time is up, a male attendant for each of you, dressed in traditional clothing called a pestemal, will lead you to a corner of the main atrium. Here is where they will wash each of you and scrub you vigorously with a rough cloth. Vigorous is an understatement, as you will be thoroughly exfoliated. I almost laughed when I saw my spray-tanned skin particles lying on the floor, but my skin was certainly refreshed.
From a female perspective, the male attendants were respectful at all times. I admit that I was a bit nervous at first about the washing part, but the attendant avoided any areas of privacy. Just be aware that it is normal practice for them to wash anywhere that is not covered by clothing, so don't be surprised when the cloth goes between your breasts or along the side of them, depending on how skimpy the top is on you. But like I said, it was never inappropriate and my husband was right next to me. At no time did I feel objectified or threatened.
Once the exfoliation process is complete, you will be washed the first time. They use water and bowls from the wall faucets, which is usually refreshingly cold. They use a soap made from honey that is inside of a cloth similar to a pillow case. When they open it, they catch air inside, and then wring out the air to create an enormous amount of suds. You may have bubbles towering a foot over your head. The attendant will ask if you want your hair washed. I declined since I have extremely tangly hair, but they will wet it no matter what.
Once the first washing is complete, each of you will lie down on your stomachs on the marble slabs in the corner room and again be covered with suds for your massage. I asked for a gentle massage as I am quite sensitive, but I shudder to think what the normal one would be like, as it was still very rough. It was pleasant, but intense. I was pretty sore a few hours later. Ladies, again be aware that the attendant does untie your bikini top for the massage, but your modesty is still intact.
Rinsing & Drying:
After the massage, the attendant will direct you to return to your washing spot, and you will be washed a second time. Once this is finished, you may opt for more steam time (which we declined as sweat seemed counterintuitive after being bathed). Then you will be taken to an antechamber where you are each given three new cloths. You step aside into another changing room, where you remove your wet clothing and wrap yourself like a towel in one new cloth. When you step outside, the attendant will take your wet clothes and then will wrap your body again in the second cloth, your arms included. The third cloth will be wrapped tightly around your head.
Now you will be taken into a cool down room, where you are invited to relax and allow your body temperature to slowly lower itself back to normal. You can recline on cushions, and are offered refreshments for purchase. We passed on the refreshments, but they ended up bringing us apple tea anyway as a treat. I was trying not to laugh as sitting on cushions was difficult when your arms are tied up, and drinking tea is even funnier. To top it off, Nick and I looked ridiculous, and our faces were incredibly red from the steam and being thoroughly scrubbed.
After relaxing about 20 minutes or more, we decided it was time to change and continue exploring the city of Istanbul. We entered our dressing room and changed back into our clothes. The staff offered me a hairdryer, but I had plans to wash my own hair and style it at the hotel immediately afterwards. A hat that I brought along did come in handy, though. We made sure that we had all of our belongings, returned the dressing room key to the front desk, and refused the offer of the lotion or perfume at the door. It is horribly musky and you will smell like an old lady.
Nick and I really enjoyed our time at Suleymaniye Hamam and would recommend it to any couples looking for a "traditional" experience while traveling in Istanbul.
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