Close to the massive dome and four minarets of Hagia Sophia (once the world's largest Christian church), Cağaloğlu Hamam was the last hamman to be built during the Ottoman Empire, in 1741, by Sultan Mahmud. By far the most spectacular of Istanbul's hammams, it is absolutely stunning and a must for spa pilgrims, or merely curious tourists. That said, some consider it a tourist trap, with so-so services and inflated prices.
Tourists in search of an authentic hammam are the main customers here, but they are in good company: Florence Nightingale, Kaiser Wilhelm I and Tony Curtis are all said to have come here.
As Cağaloğlu Hamam is near the Grand Bazaar, Blue Mosque and Topkapi Palace, it is a good place to refresh after a day of sightseeing and exploring. In the old days women and men had separate days to visit, but now it offers separate baths for men and women and a range of services. The Istanbul Dream which includes an exfoliating and washing is 50 euros. The Ottoman Luxury Service includes exfoliation, washing and 45-minute massage and costs 120 euros. Self-service treatment is 30 euros.
Some tourists complain that the treatments here are too rough and expensive, but you're not going to be able to scrub yourself with anywhere near the efficiency of the attendants, so go ahead and spring for it. It's an experience.
The SPA at Four Seasons on the Bosphorus
Those who would like a hamam experience with a higher luxury quotient can experience at The SPA at Four Seasons Hotel at the Bosphorus. It has an elegant Turkish hammam, complete with heated marble slab and dreamy lighting, to enjoy privately or with friends, family or a partner. You do have to make some adaptations, like coming early for time in the sauna and steam bath, to warm up before getting your treatment in the actual hammam.
It's also quite a bit more expensive: 120 euros for the scrub (30-minutes); 155 euros for the scrub and foam massage (45 minutes); and 185 euros for the scrub, foam massage and body mask (60 minutes). Add on a 60-minute massage of your choice afterward, and you're up to 265 euros. What you do get is atmosphere and service a bit more in keeping with Western expectations and genteel sensibilities.
The menu includes Swedish massage, Thai massage, hot stone massage and a number of Ayurvedic treatments, along with Western facials and body treatments. And (of course) there's a fitness studio, with classes in yoga and TRX, personal training sessions and a Pilates reformer.
Çırağan Palace Kempinski Istanbul
Once home to sultans, the Çırağan Palace Kempinski İstanbul was built right in 1871 on the Bosphorus (not a river, but a narrow sea channel) and has been the city's most iconic luxury hotel since 1991. A pinnacle of Turkish elegance, the opulent hotel with 282 rooms and 31 suites can be reached by yacht, helicopter and limousine.
Çırağan Palace Kempinski Spa is absolutely gorgeous, and offers an authentic Turkish bath. Here, the combination of exfoliation with a mitt and cleansing with frothy soap is called the Pasha; it lasts 40 minutes and costs 135 euros. Add a 15-minute massage with aromatic oils and circular massage movements (with particular attention paid to the scalp, hands and feet) and it's the Sherazad treatment, which costs 165 euros for 55 minutes.
Along with several Ayurvedic therapies, the spa has an array of international massages— Thai, lomi-lomi, shiatsu — along with anti-aging facials and yummy body treatments. The Coffee Peeling uses a blend of granulated Turkish coffee and a blend of aromatic oils to remove dead skin and stimulate circulation. (It is also a good cellulite treatment.)
The hotel also has an indoor swimming pool, sauna and steam rooms, whirlpool, fitness center, and a makeup room. A favorite is the heated, outdoor, infinity pool.
Ayasofya Hürrem Sultan Hamamı
Purists are more enthusiastic about this meticulously restored twin hamam, which dates to 1556 and offers the most luxurious traditional bath experience in the Old City. Designed by Mimar Sinan, it was built by order of Süleyman the Magnificent and named in honour of his wife Hürrem Sultan.
After a $13 million restoration, it reopened in 2011 to great applause. It retains Sinan's original design but endows it with an understated modern luxury. There are the traditional separate baths for males and females, and both have a handsome soğukluk (entrance vestibule) surrounded by wooden change cubicles.
The basic 30-minute scrub and soap massage treatment, given expertly, costs 55 euros and includes olive-oil soap and a personal kese. In warm weather, a cafe and restaurant operate on the outdoor terrace.
If you're traveling as a couple, and want to visit a hammam together, this is the place for you. Hammams are usually segregated by gender, but this one welcomes couples and families — only. If you are a single man or woman, you will be turned away. (And even groups and couples must make reservations in advance.)
Built in 1557, Suleiman the magnificent commissioned this bath. Its architect is Mimar Sinan, the same architect who built Çemberlitaş Hamam in 1584. This is one of the more affordable options. The self-service option, which includes lockable changing rooms, peştemal for men or bra and shorts for women, wooden slippers and access to the hammam is 40 euros and includes kese, and a soap massage.