The Real Turkish Bath
A visit to Istanbul wouldn’t be complete without visiting a hamam. Prior to my arrival, I had a full itinerary of some of the city’s oldest and most famous hamams to visit and review, but it turned out to be pretty useless. I say this, because I quickly discovered it’s near impossible to visit a “local” hamam, as locals don’t use them the way they used to. Running water is readily available and the Turkish bath is taken… at home. It is no longer ingrained in the daily life of the very progressive population.
Hamams have basically evolved into two new forms: a tourist attraction and a luxury spa treatment. Local women visit an upscale hamam for a special treat, like a massage or a pedicure.
According to Istanbul’s younger generation, one of the most popular spots in the city for a spa day is the Swissotel’s Amrita Spa. Tourists and locals alike flock to the Amrita, with a membership rate that proves the draw is happily balanced. A modern luxury, you can have a facial and hammami in the same place, which seems very ideal, but I was there only for the latter.
Make no mistake, it’s called a Turkish bath for a reason. Every inch of your body is exfoliated, washed, and rinsed, followed by a massage that should set the definition for “full body.”
I don’t think I’ve ever felt cleaner, or had softer skin in my entire life. Leave your modesty at home, and indulge in a 60-minute hamami. After the bath, it is customary to relax…for a long time. This was one of my favorite parts of the Amrita; their “relaxing room” should definitely be called the “stargazing room.” The picture speaks for itself…pure bliss. If you go, ask for Sarah. She’s a local legend for the spa obsessed.
If you’re looking for a more traditional Turkish bath, try the recently renovated Ayasofya Hurrem Sultan Hamami. The interior is very elegant, and richly channels its ancient roots. About 80 percent of visitors are tourists, which for some travelers is a red flag. You’ll pay a pretty penny, but with a location between the Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque, if its history you seek this might be your calling. Regardless, I’d recommend making a visit just to buy their rosebud scented bath products…and by “buy” I mean stockpile.
I thought I’d explore one of the “more local” hamams on my list just to confirm my new-found knowledge. I was disturbingly excited to see barbed wire crowning the roof of Tarihi Galatasaray Hamami. The hamam is public, and not exactly clean. It’s not cheap either, running you about $65 USD. I opted out. Actually to be brutally honest, after looking around, I decided I would probably pay $65 not to be bathed at Galatasaray. There are cheaper and smaller hamams scattered all over Istanbul, especially on the Asian side.
After shedding a layer of skin in your hamam, you’ll feel refreshed and awakened. This is an ideal time introduce yourself to Istanbul’s buzzing nightlife. For a DJ spinning all night on a waterfront dance floor, get in line at Reina, the nightclub of the city. I do love a shoreline view, but instead gave my heart to Gaja, the rooftop restaurant 16 floors above the Amrita Spa in Swissotel The Bosphorus. The scene is chic, the cocktail menu is a novel, and the panoramic pictures you’ll take overlooking the Bosphorus are Facebook profile-worthy.
The best date night in Istanbul has to be Suada, a floating compound in the middle of the Bosphorus with multiple bars and restaurants. You catch a boat departing in Bebek, shuttling back and forth all night. After dinner, order an ice cream desert at the Magnum Bar Istanbul, or sit in a chair topped with a sign pointing to the two continents surrounding you…OK, that’s a pretty good photo op too.
Still looking for adventure? Many claim hookah, or nargile was invented in Istanbul. Nargile cafes are everywhere, but if you want to try it at an upbeat, very clean hot spot surrounded by locals, head to OBA Sultan Café by night. It’s an open air, eclectic hang out, characterized by jewel tone couches and ottomans. Even if you don’t try nargile, sit for a tea and absorb the atmosphere. The cafés lining Nevizade are also a great choice for locally immersed nargile.
I only have one real regret from my time spent in Istanbul: not learning how to play backgammon. On every alley, side street and market corner, you could spot locals of every age enjoying a game. Knowing even the basics could be all you need to strike up a conversation or, on the contrary get friendly without any conversation at all. I bought a board and next time I’ll be fluent in backgammon, the universal language.