We were enjoying our lunch at a small cafe near the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. Looking up from my lunch I noticed across the narrow road was the Cagaloglu Hamami, with a sign announcing this was one of the “1,000 Places To See Before You Die”. So with some uncertainty we booked an appointment for later that evening.
A Turkish hammam or bath is an essential part of Turkish culture, involving a steam bath, exfoliation, relaxation and socializing with friends. Traditional hammams are segregated by sex, but there are some tourist ones that are coed.
Cagaloglu Hamami was built in 1741 in order to provide revenue for both the library of Sultan Mahmut I, and for the Hagia Sophia Mosque. Little has changed here, so a visit is a step back in time. It’s believed that King Edward VII, Kaiser Wilhelm II, Franz Liszt and Florence Nightingale have all visited its marble steam rooms. More recent patrons include Tony Curtis, Cameron Diaz, Brian May and Harrison Ford.
Being scrubbed from head to toe
When we arrive I leave Darrell at the men’s side, and I’m directed to the women’s side. First I’m led to my changing booth, where I’m instructed to remove all of my clothes. Everything? Yes, everything. But I’m provided with a thin towel to wrap myself in and clogs for my feet. I’m a bit nervous walking in the clogs on the wet floor.
I’m led to the historic steam room dominated by a massive heated marble platform, large enough to accommodate several guests. There is a high domed ceiling, and marble sinks surround the main platform.
I notice nervously a guest lying naked on top of the marble slab. My host tells me to place my towel on the marble, lie on top of it and to relax. Okayyyyy. Thankfully the room is steamy and the lighting is soft, so I throw my inhibitions to the wind and do as instructed.
I do manage to relax, and after about 20 minutes of steam bath my masseuse begins the exfoliating scrub. She is very thorough, and after she has finished one side she instructs me to flip over. I’m scrubbed from head to toe — no kidding, she scrubbed my face and my toes, and even washes my hair. After I’m scrubbed, I’m doused with buckets of warm water as my masseuse cheerfully exclaims “Opa!”. (Maybe she’s Greek)
“Opa!” I say back. After the scrubbing there is about a 10 minute body massage, then more relaxing in the steam room. Patrons will often linger here and socialize.
Letting go of our inhibitions at a historic Turkish bath was a bucket list experience, and we left feeling squeaky clean and relaxed. When you visit Turkey, it is something to try at least once.
Have you experienced a traditional Turkish bath?
If you go:
- Ask at your hotel for recommendations for a historic hammam.
- Cost: 50 Euros for the exfoliation and massage package we experienced. We both tipped, and I hear it is customary.
- At most establishments customers on the women’s side are nude, but some I have heard provide disposable panties. Personally I would feel more comfortable with this. Check before you book your appointment. On the men’s side, customers always keep their towel wrap on during the treatment.