Traditionally known as a hamman, signing up for a Turkish bath in Istanbul is one of the most culturally enriching experiences you can have while travelling within the country.
You may have already dipped your toes into the natural hot springs of a Japanese onsen or sat through the birch-bashing banyas of Russia. Still, the experience of a traditional Turkish hammam stands alone.
Once the social houses of Sultans, the Turkish baths in Istanbul have become a must-visit for the brave tourist, or simply those looking to relax, reset and renourish.
It really is something to experience at least once in your life.
Let’s break it down for you.
A Brief History of Turkish Baths in Istanbul
Before Istanbul became the capital of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires, the city (back then, known as Constantinople) was part of the Roman Empire, a kingdom famed for its bathhouses. During the early years of the Ottoman Empire, Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror took inspiration from the Roman bath, building 19 of their own grand hammams in Istanbul and around the country.
What sets the Turkish baths apart from the Roman bathhouses are their design, which often mimics the facade of a mosque, with domed roofs and star-shaped windows. Traditionally, hammams were built close to mosques, allowing Muslims to cleanse their bodies before praying, not just physically but spiritually too.
It didn’t take long for this bathing ritual to become more than just cleansing the body and soul, and hammams soon became a social house for all members of society.
7 Benefits of Turkish Baths For The Body and Mind
The benefits of a Turkish bath in Istanbul goes far beyond just being a means of getting clean; this ritualistic experience can be a treat for the mind as well as the body. If you still need a little convincing about bearing all at a hammam, here are a few health-related reasons to go.
For many, a hammam is a perfect excuse for a few hours of self-care and relaxation. Unlike a sauna, the moderate heat temperature allows for longer and deeper relaxation, allowing you to leave the outside world behind you, forget your anxieties and de-stress. The deep tissue massage combined with soothing essential oilsare particularly effective at reducing those stress levels.
2. Sleep Better
What goes hand in hand with the ultimate relaxation? A proper night’s sleep. Insomniacs rejoice as they leave a hammam with better blood circulation, cleansed skin and completely relaxed, so don’t be surprised if you’re feeling a little tired after your visit.
3. Decreases muscle tension
Intensive heat treatment dilates blood vessels and improves the circulation of blood around your body. Better blood circulation carries more oxygen to damaged muscles, speeding up recovery and reducing pain.
4. Nourishes your skin
When our body is warm, it sweats, opening our pores and allowing toxins to escape, which is exactly what you’ll achieve in a hammam’s steam rooms. What’s more, during the scrubbing process, dead skin is removed, and young skin cells are left behind, leaving the skin soft and nourished.
5. Anti-ageing properties
With high humidity in the air, a Turkish bath hydrates your skin and encourages it to get rid of any dead skin cells, replacing them with new, younger skin cells. Allowing the skin to stay soft and supple.
6. Fights Acne
It is said that the heat and steam from a Turkish bath make the pores in the skin dilate, allowing for deep cleansing. Coupled with a healthy scrub to get rid of any dead cells, hammams are a no brainer when it comes to acne-prone skin.
7. Eliminates toxins from the body
As your body heats up, it expels toxins, including salt, heavy metals, alcohol and nicotine in your sweat. By stimulating your heat glands, the Turkish bath is the perfect place to get rid of any nasties.
5 Brilliant Turkish Baths in Istanbul: Hammam Happiness
There are a whopping 235 Turkish baths in Istanbul. Chances are you’ll only be in Turkey’s magnificent capital once in your life, so you’ll want to choose the best one out there. Lucky for you, I did a little hammam tour along with some additional research, which narrows your choices down to Istanbul’s top five hammams depending on what you’re looking for in your Turkish Bath encounter.
1. Aga Hamami (Oldest Turkish Bath in Istanbul)
At the ripe age of 567, Aga Hamami is the oldest hammam in the city. Originally built as a private hammam for Fatih Sultan Mehmet, the hammam underwent considerable renovations in 1844 to make it accessible to the public. It’s also one of the more affordable Turkish baths Istanbul has to offer. While you won’t find opulent marble rooms or grand domed ceilings, you will get a glimpse into a more humble hammam experience enjoyed by your average Turk.
Know Before You Go:
- Location. Aga Hamam sits around a five-minute walk from Taksim Square, in the heart of modern Istanbul.
- Cost. $20 will grant you access into the main sauna rooms, and for another $20, you can enjoy a scrub, foam bath and oil massage.
- Getting there. It’s easiest to grab a taxi, but if you’re looking for a budget option, catch the metro to either Taksim or Sishane stations. From there you’ll need to walk for about ten minutes.
- Time needed. Around one or two hours for the whole experience.
- Opening hours. Treat yourself to a scrub at Aga Hamami between 10 am and 7 pm, Monday to Saturday.
2. Cagaloglu Hamam (The Last Turkish Bath of The Ottoman Empire)
Built in 1741, Cagaloglu was one of the last hammams to be built during the Ottoman empire, and it seems like they were keen to leave their mark! This vast domed hammam is stunning, complete with marble fountains, an indoor garden and towering white marble columns. This place is worth visiting alone for its delicious Turkish tea, homemade sherbet and Turkish delight that you can enjoy at the end of your visit.
Know Before You Go:
- Location. Hidden away in the busy streets of the Old Quarter, Cagaloglu is just a stone’s throw away from Topkapi Palace.
- Cost. If you’re a bit wary of the full Turkish treatment, then you can part with $35 to enjoy the hammam at your own pace. For anything with a massage, prices start from $60.
- Getting there. The easiest way to reach Cagaloglu Hamam is by taxi. If you don’t mind a walk at the other end, the Vezneciler and Sishane metro stations will get you the closest.
- Time needed. Whether you’re going for self-service or the full treatment, you’ll want to set aside at least an hour to enjoy the experience and make the most of the sweet treats afterwards.
- Opening hours. Treat yourself to a luxurious scrub anytime between 10 am and 10 pm.
3. Ritz-Carlton Istanbul Hammam (Turkish Bath in Istanbul For Couples)
Not your typical hammam, the Ritz-Carlton offers a modern take on the traditional Turkish bathing experience. While you may want something a little more authentic, there is an advantage to this; couples ‘hammaming’.
Traditional hammams in Istanbul separate men and women, so if you want to hunker down with your loved one in a luxury spa experience, consider the Ritz, modelled on a 16th-century Turkish bathhouse, it doesn’t feel too far from tradition, except for the rooftop infinity pool!
Know Before You Go:
- Location. Head over to the famous pedestrianised shopping boulevard, Istiklal Street, and you’ll find the towering Ritz right around the corner. It’s hard to miss.
- Cost. The Ritz keeps their spa prices close to their chest, so you’ll have to shoot over an email if you’re keen to find out.
- Getting there. The Ritz sits right next to Taksim metro station and around a 20-minute walk from Osmanbey.
- Time needed. As much or as little time as you want if you’re going there for casual relaxation. For specialised massage treatments, allow an hour.
- Opening hours. The spa is open any time from 7 am until 7 pm, but massages and treatments are only available from 10 am.
4. Ayasofya Hurrem Sultan Hamami (Fancypants Turkish Bath in Istanbul)
If you’re in the mood for an afternoon of true hammam heaven, then the opulent Ayasofya Hurrem Sultan Hamam is sure to fit the (very large) bill. Built in 1556 for the wife of Suleiman the Magnificent, Roxelana, no expense was spared in the process. Legend has it that Roxelana, a lady from Poland, was kidnapped at 15 and “given” to Suleiman as a gift.
The hammam was closed until 1910 when it became a prison for the overflow visitors in Sultanahmet. It wasn’t until 2008 that the baths underwent huge renovations to bring it to the luxurious hammam you see today. Spoiler: 14,00 square feet of Marmara marble and 160 gold-coated bath bowls were crafted specifically for guests.
It may be one of the most expensive options in the whole of Istanbul, but if you fancy living like a Sultan for the afternoon, this is certainly the place to do it.
Know Before You Go:
- Location. Head to Istanbul’s historic Old Quarter, and you’ll find AyaSofya Hurrem Sultan Hamam between the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia.
- Cost. With its glitz and glamour comes a hefty price tag. You’ll need to set aside around $100 for a 45-minute experience that includes entrance to the hammam, traditional body scrub and wash ritual on a warm marble stone.
- Getting there. Sitting in the touristy neighbourhood of Fatih, AyaSofya Hurrem Sultan Hamam is easy to get to from almost anywhere in the city. Jump in a taxi or on the Metro to Vezneciler or Yenikapi station.
- Time needed. If you’re going for the full treatment, you’ll need to allow at least an hour to get scrubbed from head to toe and enjoy some relaxation time.
- Opening hours. AyaSofya Hurrem Sultan Hamam is open every day from 10 am to 6 pm, but it’s best to book ahead to make sure there’s space for you!
5. Galatasary Hamami (Cheap and Cheerful Turkish Bath in Istanbul)
For those on a tight budget looking for an authentic Turkish bath experience in Istanbul, Galatasaray Hamami is an ideal choice. As you may have guessed from the name, this Turkish bathhouse is part of Galatasaray, a social complex during the Ottoman era (although football fans may recognise the name due to the most decorated club in Turkey, Galatasaray FC).
It was last renovated over fifty years ago, which adds to its charm with a grand marble fountain in the middle of the main room and walls decorated floor to ceiling in intricately glazed tiles.
Know Before You Go:
- Location. Galatasary Hamami sits just off Istiklal Avenue, the ever-popular shopping street. Follow the crowds, and you won’t have trouble finding it.
- Cost. With prices starting from $16 for self-service, this is the best price you’ll find for a Turkish bath in Istanbul.
- Getting there. Head over to metro stations Taksim or Sishan, and then you’ll need to walk around ten minutes to get there.
- Time needed. With the option of self-service, scrubs and massages, we’d recommend an hour here, more if you’re opting for the full hammam scrub, oil and massage.
- Opening hours. For men, Galatasary Hamami opens between 7 am and 10 pm. Women are robbed of two hours with access from 8 am to 9 pm only.
Turkish Bath Etiquette 101: How To Hammam (in 5 Steps)
As a ritual steeped in tradition and culture, there are some things worth knowing before you go to your first hammam.
To begin with, men and women bath separately, unless you go to a modern bathhouse that accommodates couples. As a man, you’ll also be expected to be naked, but to keep your pestemal (a checked cloth to tie around your waist) around your waist while you’re walking around.
You’ll normally need to remove this and use it to lie on when it’s time for your massage. Oh, and bring some change with you; it’s expected that you tip your masseuse around 15% of the price of the service.
Every hammam is different, but generally, your experience will follow these steps:
Step 1: Acclimatising to the heat
You’ll begin your experience in a dry and hot room to allow your body to acclimatise to the heat and for your pores to start opening up. This will also give you a great chance to check out all of the architecture – usually a marble-covered room with a domed roof, basins and a central raised platform. This usually lasts around 15 minutes.
Step 2: Starting your hammam treatment
Depending on the venue, you will be shown where to go next by your masseur. Typically, you’ll be shown to a gӧbektași, a heated marble platform, and asked to remove your towel and use it to lie down on. Your masseur will begin to pour warm water on you.
Step 3: Getting a good scrub down
Next, your masseuse will use a kessa glove to give you a full-body scrub. This airs on the side of painful so prepare yourself for some slight discomfort. It’s all worth it when you see how much dead skin is being removed!
Step 4: Soaping up
Using what can only be described as a pillowcase, the masseur will start soaping your body. They do this by filling the cloth with air, dipping it into a bucket of warm soapy water and squeezing out a scurry of bubbles onto you. After a quick cleanse, these will be washed off with warm water.
Step 4: Traditional massage
Once your muscles are warm and well and truly relaxed, it’s time for the massage. Typically, these are done with olive or rose oil, which help to relax and moisturise your skin. Be warned: Much like the Thais, the Turks are known for their vigorous massaging!
Step 5: Relaxation
After your massage, you’ll be taken to a cooler room where you can take a shower or relax with a cup of tea and Turkish treats. You can stay here for as long as you want, or as long as it takes to get your head around what you’ve just experienced.
Turkish Bath in Istanbul: Is it Worth it? (My Experience)
Question: What’s worse than having a language barrier when you don’t understand what’s going on?
Answer: Having a language barrier when you don’t know what’s going on, while you’re naked and there’s another guy wrestling and throwing you about! (Unless you like that sort of thing, of course).
I have absolutely no problem going off the beaten path when I travel, but if I’m in a country that is famous for its love of luxury and relaxation; I make sure I get my chill-out experience at the end of my trip. A perfect swansong to learning more about the culture of a new country, while finding an excuse to get lost in sweet serenity.
I’ve chilled in the Onsens of Japan. Kicked back in the natural mineral waters of the Dead Sea, doggy-paddled in the turquoise paradise seas of Samoa and enjoyed an abundance of spa treatments in Thailand.
So it only made sense for me to try out the world-famous Turkish bath experience.
After parting with my money and requesting the full works, I was told in broken English to go and change into a towel (no shorts underneath – birthday suit only).
A couple of minutes later, the same guy directed me to what resembles a massive steam room (a big, hot and steamy room, but not as dry as a sauna). I was instructed to lie down on a towel on the marble surface. I lied down and I thought to myself; ‘this is so relaxing,’ as the guy came in with a bucket of soapy suds and plonked it down next to me.
He then began to massage me immediately. I don’t love a firm massage, but my tolerance has upped somewhat after living in Thailand for so long.
However, this was border-line sadism. The employee then flipped me over ten minutes after, onto my back and it was more of the same, with him throwing me about and aggressively poking away at me.
My towel came off and I was naked a lot of the time. I have no problems with being naked (in fact, I prefer it to being clothed on the best of days) but there’s something that feels inherently awkward getting man-handled in such a fashion whilst in the nuddy.
After feeling like I’ve just gotten to third base with a man who I knew nothing about (he would usually have to at least buy me a cup of Earl Grey to get so far) I was then dragged over to the sink, where I received the most rigorous of sponge baths, accompanied with the guy’s howling chuckle.
The laugh, which he did pretty much every 30 seconds, while repeatedly affirming; “gooood, gooood,” added to the unpleasant feeling I felt during the whole ritual.
The experience was far from pleasant and I’m pretty sure I will never have a Turkish bath ever again. Getting thrown about and really hard massages like that aren’t really my cup of tea and I find it hard to understand how anybody would find that relaxing.
When the Turkish bath finally ended I was instructed to shower but I told creepy laugh guy that I wanted to stay and just relax for about 30 minutes or so. He left with one final eerie chuckle that will haunt me until my dying day.
As I sat there, a sea of tranquility soaked over every cell of my body. I felt incredibly relieved that it was all over. In my (and his) defence, the honest experience written above is all completely normal and part and parcel of the Turkish bath tradition (I tried out a few more hammams and it was all the same).
Also, I’m not much of a prior-to-the-experience Googler myself in these situations. I’d rather just commit blindly to a new travel bucket list item and go with the flow. With that being said I guess I did have my own set of preconceived notions and I expected more of a relaxing spa-like experience, where I could just kick back and get lost in quiet contemplation.
Retrospectively, I’m sure there are a lot worse things to do than get your body exfoliated and some knots loosened up in your tight areas. This was simply not my idea of relaxation (but it works for millions of other people so try it out yourself). If anything, it actually made me more tense!
I really didn’t enjoy it and next time I got to Turkey – I’ll just stick to stuffing my face with Turkish Delight and Baklava instead.