Letting Go of Our Inhibitions at a Historic Turkish Bath

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.

Change booths surround a marble fountain at Cagalogu Hamami.

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.

 

10 Things You Will Love About Istanbul

Istanbul is currently number one on TripAdvisor’s “Top 25 Destinations in the World”, so our expectations were high for our first visit to Turkey’s largest city. Sometimes it’s hard for a destination to live up to the hype but in Istanbul we weren’t disappointed. Modern and ancient, European and Asian—it is a completely unique place in the world.

Old meets new in Istanbul

Istanbul is exotic but we felt safe, and it has great tourist infrastructure. The sights and experience below are all within walking distance of each other, or easily accessible with public transit. There is such an abundance of things to see and do, that no matter how much time you have, it will not be enough. To get you started, here are 10 things you will love about Istanbul:

1. Turkish Hospitality

“Come in, sit down, have some tea…you are at home now.” said our host as we arrived at the Oba Hotel in the Sultanahmet District. Throughout our stay Turkish hospitality was outstanding…and often involved tea.

The Oba Hotel is a boutique hotel in a former mansion, walking distance to many of the major sites, yet in a calm historic neighbourhood. Our host was also able to book our Bosphorus cruise for us cheaper than we could on our own.

Oh, and if you want to remember how to say “thank you” in Turkish, just say “tea, sugar, a dream” (teşekkür ederim).

Apple Tea

2. The Hagia Sophia

A definite must-see—Hagia Sophia was completed in 537 AD, and is considered the epitome of Byzantine architecture. For nearly a thousand years it was the world’s largest cathedral, then was a mosque, and now is a museum. We spent hours inside and it was a highlight of our trip. See more about the Hagia Sophia here.

A street near the beautiful Hagia Sofia

3. The Blue Mosque

Also known as the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, this is another must-see for it’s impressive domed interior, beautiful tiles and stained glass windows. It can be visited in about an hour as there is limited access to non-muslims. (dress modestly, bring socks as you must remove your shoes, women bring a scarf to cover hair)

Beautiful tiles and stained glass in the Blue Mosque

4. Take a Bosphorus Cruise

Istanbul occupies a unique place on the Bosphorus strait, which forms part of the boundary between Europe and Asia. I highly recommend taking one of the Bosphorus cruises to see beautiful views of the city from the water, and colourful mansions and summer cottages on the waterfront. We actually got a cheaper rate by booking through our hotel.

If you don’t take one of the tourist cruises, you can still view the city from the water by taking one of the frequent, inexpensive ferries from the European to the Asian side.

The Galata Bridge near sunset.

 

Mansions and summer residences along the Bosphorus

 

A woman with colorful scarf on the ferry between Asia and Europe.

5. Topkapi Palace

This fifteenth century palace was the primary residence of the Ottoman sultans for approximately 400 years. There is much to see here with the palace itself, great views of the Bosphorus, and displays of Ottoman treasures and jewelry. There is an extra fee to visit the Harem, but worth seeing in my opinion.

Building detail of the Topkapi Palace

 

Ceiling detail in the Topkapi Palace

6. Basilica Cistern

For a unique experience, go see the Basilica Cistern, which is the largest of several hundred ancient cisterns that lie beneath Istanbul. Don’t miss the two Medusa heads. (How did they end up there?) It looks like a movie set, and in fact was a location for the James Bond film “From Russia with Love”.

It’s easy to imagine James Bond in the Basilica Cistern

7. Visit a Haman (Turkish bath)

I saw this on a list of “things to do before you die”, so we went way out of our comfort zone, and got scrubbed (and I mean scrubbed!) from head to toe (literally) at a historic haman. Definitely a unique and Turkish experience.

Individual change rooms surround a marble fountain. The Turkish bath takes place in an adjoining steamy marble-clad room.

8. Strolling through Taksim Square

This is modern Istanbul, where locals gather for both celebrations and demonstrations. Off the main square is a pedestrian street with numerous shops, restaurants, and street performers.

Taksim pedestrian street.

 

Young men singing Turkish ballads.

9. Bargaining in the Grand Bazaar

Touristy for sure, but still a must see for it’s size, colour and atmosphere. We found the merchants to be persuasive, but friendly and with a sense of humour. The area just outside the Grand Bazaar is also fascinating, with delivery men carrying heavy loads of merchandise to the shops on the steep streets, and others carrying trays of tea to seal the deal. Also be sure to check out the spice market near the New Mosque for Turkish delight, gold and jewelry, dried fruits and nuts, and of course, spices.

Wishing I bought some spice while I was there.

10. Eating Turkish Food

I loved the food in Turkey! There is great street food and fast food, including simit (a bagel-like chewy bread covered with sesame seeds), doner kebab, pide (Turkish pizza), and fresh squeezed pomegranate juice. The meals we ate were all delicious, well-presented and good value, with tasty meats, fish and vegetables including eggplant, peppers, and other local produce. For dessert there is heavenly pistachio baklava, and to bring home for gifts, Turkish Delight.

Chicken and vegetables enveloped in eggplant.

If you go

Istanbul is a very hilly city, so wear comfortable shoes. Consider the hotel location if walking steep hills are a problem. Hotels closer to the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque are at the top of the hill and won’t require quite as much hill walking as the hotels close to the water. However, you will be rewarded if you don’t mind the hills, as those areas have a more calm and authentic Istanbul neighbourhood feel.

Have you been to Istanbul?

I would love to hear your favorite Istanbul experience. Tea, sugar, a dream!

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Ten Things to do in Istanbul, Turkey

Hagia Sophia – Byzantine Architectural Wonder

If you love architecture, then you probably love visiting cathedrals as much as I do. Besides their historical and religious significance, they represent the best engineering and architectural achievements of their day. So I was really looking forward to our visit to the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.

Hagia Sophia is considered the epitome of Byzantine architecture, and for nearly a thousand years it was the world’s largest cathedral.

The vast, central basilica has a central large dome supported by two half domes on the eastern and western sides.

 

 Historical context of Hagia Sophia

  • 532 AD Emperor Justinian I orders the Hagia Sophia church built.
  • 537 Hagia Sophia is completed.
  • 1296 Il Duomo in Florence, Italy—construction begins and is completed in 1436 with the dome engineered by Brunelleschi.
  • 1453 Hagia Sophia is converted to a mosque. Repairs are made and minarets are added.
  • 1506 Construction begins on St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City.
  • 1609 Construction begins on Sultan Ahmed Mosque (Blue Mosque of Istanbul), and is completed in 1616.
  • 1626 St. Peter’s Basilica is completed.
  • 1935 The Turkish government secularizes the Hagia Sophia, and it opens as a museum.

The Church

The first two churches on this site were destroyed by riots and fire. Emperor Justinian I orders a new church that will be the largest building in the world. This new building, designed by Greek architects Anthemios of Tralles and Isidoros of Miletos, was completed in 537, incredibly in less than six years.

The structure features a central dome with a diameter of over 101 feet (31 meters) and a height of 160 feet (48.5 meters).

Byzantine mosaic detail

Mosaic detail of Jesus Christ.

Materials for construction were brought from all over the empire, including columns from the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus.

The Mosque

After Mehmed II’s conquest of the city in 1453, Hagia Sophia was used as a mosque until the early twentieth century. During this period, minarets were added, Christian symbols and mosaics were covered or removed, and exterior buttresses were added for structural support.

Portion of cross removed.

A few Christian symbols survived, and others are being restored as the Hagia Sophia is now a museum.

Islamic tile detail.

In the 15th century, during the Ottoman period, many structural repairs and improvements were made. In the 16th century the minarets were added.

The Museum

In 1934, the Turkish government secularized the building, converting it into a museum. Today repairs are being made and the original mosaics are being restored. The Hagia Sophia has fewer treasures than Saint Peter’s in the Vatican, for example. But perhaps because of this we could really focus on and appreciate the structure itself, and the treasures that have been revealed through restoration.

Detail of a restored angel.

With the Ottoman additions, you can see the influence of the Hagia Sophia on future mosques such as the Blue Mosque.

Hagia Sophia by night