Taking the waters in Turkish hammams and discovering bliss in Istanbul
Written by Jenny Peters
When it comes to wellness, the Turks really know what they are doing. It’s an easy conclusion to come to once you take in your first hammam in one of Istanbul’s famed Turkish baths. It’s an all-encompassing bathing experience that includes heat, body scrubbing and foam soaping that’s been a part of the country’s culture for almost a thousand years—with those living between the Black Sea and the Aegean/Mediterranean Seas having always embraced the celebrated ritual.
In Istanbul, which straddles both Europe and Asia, the hammam has been a fixture of life since the city—then called Constantinople—was under Roman control. That was during the 3rd century, when the tradition of installing elaborate baths in homes began. Later, at the height of the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire in the 1600s, historians estimate that there were well over 200 public hammams in Istanbul alone.
Today, Istanbul is still a center of healthy living, with many centuries-old, traditional public hammams dotting its neighborhoods, as well as gorgeous and luxurious newer ones located in some of the city’s world-class hotel spas. Add to these options the Richmond Nua Wellness Spa—a spectacular destination spa not far from the city—and the choices for visitors on a wellness journey to Turkey are slightly overwhelming.
The constant at every place offering a hammam ritual is that it is always done in a warm, marble room with plenty of marble sinks and water spigots. This has not much changed over the last millennium, propelling the idea that the Turks’ specific bathing system holds the secret to maintaining a healthy life, with its benefits ranging from boosting the immune system, reducing stress and detoxifying the body, to deeply cleansing and exfoliating the skin and improving its texture.
At public hammams, like the Sultanahmet Hammam (just blocks from the Hagia Sophia) or the Cemberlitas Hamami (near the Grand Bazaar), guests often perform much of the bathing ritual themselves, moving from the steam room to a heated marble space, where they will bathe using increasingly warm water. Then an attendant armed with a kese, a special natural-fiber glove designed to exfoliate the skin and increase its circulation, comes to give you a full-body scrub. Once that step is completed, the hammam continues as you lay on the marble slab while a foam bubble bath envelops your body. Finally, the attendant splashes you with ever-cooler buckets of water to complete the ritual, which is usually priced around 40 euros (approximately $43 USD).
For a more individual and luxurious hammam experience, the five-star spa at the Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul at the Bosphorus creates unforgettable and very private signature treatments known as “Hammam Moments.” Beginning with a visit to the sauna and steam room to soften the skin, a spa therapist leads you to one of the hotel’s three dimly lit marble Turkish bath treatment rooms. After lying on the heated marble slab in the center of the room, a feeling of womb-like serenity descends as you are doused with progressively warmer water.
Then starts the scrubbing, with the aforementioned kese, followed by those indulgent foamy bubbles. Adding a deep-tissue massage to create a “Spa Journey” guarantees that by trip’s end, your legs will feel like rubber and your body will be so tranquil that you’ll barely be able to wander into the exotically luxurious relaxation room for a sip of Rize Turkish tea, served traditionally in a small tulip-shaped glass.
Over at the St. Regis Istanbul’s Iridium Spa, located in the chic Nisantasi district, hammam treatments can also include mud body masks or replenishing hair treatments. While at the famed, Old-World Pera Palace Hotel Jumeirah, visitors can stay in the same room where writer Agatha Christie reportedly penned Murder on the Orient Express, visit the Ataturk Museum (which is located in the suite inside the hotel where the founder of modern Turkey lived), dine on delectable Turkish fare and enjoy a hammam treatment to boot.
For the ultimate Turkish wellness experience, take a two-hour ride outside of Istanbul to Sapanca Lake, where the world-renowned Richmond Nua Wellness Spa awaits. Here, at Turkey’s only destination spa, their dedication to wellness knows no limits. (In fact, this is the place where the idea for Global Wellness Day—a celebration of living well involving over 100 nations—originated in 2012.)
At Richmond Nua, which looks out over a bucolic lake surrounded by mountains, guests can take a dip in the lake, use SUP boards, go sailing, hike into the hills or simply lounge by the large swimming pool. There’s even skiing nearby in winter. But most come for the spa itself, a place with so many options it takes a guidebook to do it right.
Entering the massive spa, with pocket guide in hand, freshly showered guests take an individual journey through a series of spa therapies. It begins with soaks in the large Salt Jacuzzi, alternated with dips in the freshwater Jet Pool. Then it’s on to the second-level treatment rooms, beginning with the Laconium, where dry heat radiates from the walls, benches and floors, stimulating the body’s circulation and strengthening the immune system. Next comes a rest on heated ceramic beds in the Tepidarium; a visit to the super-warm, music-filled dry Herbal Steam Bath; and yet more rest, this time in the Water Bed room, where you don headphones and float on a heated water-bed lounger while drifting away to music. And that’s just halfway through this singular spa trip. Following, guests will proceed to the 40C Osman Steam Bath, into the Day Dream relaxation room, then on to the hot 40C Salt Inhalation Steam Bath and the cool (and spectacular) Aqua Cave for a chilly splash. Finally, a respite in the Loft Sauna reheats things, with the Ice Grotto finishing off the personal, self-paced ritual. Mix in a treatment, be it a traditional hammam Turkish bath/scrub, a bespoke facial or perhaps a magnesium massage (choosing a different option each day of your stay), and by the time you tear yourself away from Richmond Nua, you’ll feel incredibly healthy (while also plotting a return here).
Each hammam experience in and around Istanbul has its own unique qualities, but all share the inherent bliss that comes from indulging in this age-old ritual. One that’s truly timeless, and definitely worth the trip.
Photos courtesy Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul at the Bosphorus; The St. Regis Istanbul Hotel; and the Richmond Nua Wellness Spa