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One of the great pleasures of a visit to Istanbul is spending a lazy afternoon in one of the city's Turkish baths, known as hamams, some of which are in exquisite buildings more than 500 years old. Hamams were born out of necessity: this was how people kept clean before their was home plumbing, but they also became an important part of Ottoman social life, particularly for women. Men had the coffeehouse and women the hamam, a place to gossip and relax.
Now that people bathe at home, hamams are becoming less of a central element in Turkish life. There are still bathhouses dotted throughout Istanbul, but many wouldn't survive without steady tourist traffic.
Most hamams have separate facilities for men and women. Each has a camekan, a large domed room with small cubicles where you can undress, wrap yourself in a thin cloth called a peştemal, and put on slippers or wooden sandals—all provided. Then you'll continue through a pair of increasingly hotter rooms. The first, known as the soğukluk, has showers and toilets and is used for cooling down at the end of your session. Next is the hararet, a steamy and softly lit room with marble washbasins along the sides. You can douse yourself by scooping water up from one of the basins with a copper bowl. In the middle of the room is the göbektaşı, a marble platform heated by furnaces below and usually covered with reclining bodies. This is where, if you decide to take your chances, a traditional Turkish massage will be "administered."
The masseur, will first scrub you down with a rough, loofa-like sponge known as a kese. Be prepared to lose several layers of dead skin. Once you're scrubbed, the masseur will soap you up into a lather, rinse you off, then conduct what will probably be the most vigorous massage you'll ever receive. Speak up if you want your masseuse to use a lighter hand.
Once you've been worked over, you can relax (and recover) on the göbektaşı or head back to your change cubicle, where you'll be wrapped in fresh towels and perhaps massaged a bit more, this time with soothing oils. Most cubicles have small beds where you can lie down and sip tea or juice brought by an attendant.
Cağaloğlu Hamamı. Housed in a magnificent building dating to 1741, the Cağaloğlu Hamamı has long been considered one of the best in Istanbul. Florence Nightingale and Kaiser Wilhelm II once steamed here, and the clientele has remained generally upscale. Prices are on the high side, starting at about $40 (about 75 TL) for a self-service visit; if you want both a scrub and a massage from an attendant, it'll cost you about $65 (about 125 TL). Unfortunately, in recent years the Cağaloğlu has become fairly overrun by tourists and service has gone downhill; guests complain of quick, perfunctory massages by attendants and persistent demands for tips. If you want to experience this famous hammam, consider going the self-service route, so you can relax at your own pace. Prof. Kazım Gürkan Cad. 24, Cağaloğlu, Sultanahmet, Istanbul. 212/522–2424. www.cagalogluhamami.com.tr.
Çemberlitaş Hamamı. Built in 1584, Çemberlitaş Hamamı is famous for its beautiful architectural design and has long been a favorite hammam with visitors, as it's one of the city's most atmospheric. However, it's become so heavily trafficked that service can be somewhat rushed and attendants can be aggressive in asking for tips. Fees for scrubbing by an attendant start at 80 TL. The self-service option, which gives you the chance to linger longer, is 54 TL. Avoid going between 4 and 8pm, which is the busiest time. Vezirhan Cad. 8, Çemberlitaş, Sultanahmet, Istanbul. 212/522–7974. www.cemberlitashamami.com.
Gedikpaşa Hamamı. In operation since 1475, this hammam is unique in that both the men's and women's sections have small indoor plunge pools and saunas added in modern times. The atmosphere here is somewhat less touristy than at other hammams, but standards of cleanliness seem a little less stringent than they are at more expensive baths. The most affordable of the hammams in the area, Gedikpaşa charges around 50 TL for self-service and about 65 TL for a professional scrub. Hamam Cad. 65–67, Beyazıt, Sultanahmet, Istanbul. 212/517–8956. www.gedikpasahamami.com.tr.
Ayasofya Hürrem Sultan Hamamı. This hammam, which reopened in 2011 following a several-year, $10-million restoration after decades of disuse, is the sleekest and most luxurious in the Old City. It has a prestigious history, having been built by Ottoman architect Sinan in 1556 on the order of Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent, in honor of his wife Roxelana (Hürrem). The setup here is more like that of a modern spa: there is no self-service option, reservations are strongly encouraged, and you'll certainly feel pampered (particularly by the redbud-scented bath amenities). The prices are on par with this level of service —the cheapest treatment is a whopping US$110 (about 200 TL). In addition to traditional hammam services, more modern treatments such as aromatherapy massage are offered. Babıhümayun Cad. 1, Sultanahmet, Istanbul. 212/517–3535. www.ayasofyahamami.com.
Süleymaniye Hamamı. Part of the complex of buildings around the Süleymaniye Camii, and built, like the mosque, by Sinan in the 1550s, the Süleymaniye Hamamı is unique in being the only coed hammam in the Old City. It caters specifically to couples and families—in fact, single travelers and single-sex groups cannot visit. Some may find the coed arrangement (with no nudity) preferable to going to a sex-segregated hammam, but it's no less touristy than the rest and women should note that there are only male masseurs. Rates are about 90 TL per person. Mimar Sinan Cad. 20, Süleymaniye, Sultanahmet, Istanbul. 212/519–5569. www.suleymaniyehamami.com.tr.
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