As Turkish as kebabs, minarets, and mosques, the hamams of Istanbul are an integral offering of the city's culture often enjoyed by the world's travelers. Hamams are basically Turkish baths, long intertwined with the Muslim act of ablution that precedes prayer rituals and quite strict with the separation of men and women, whether in different rooms or by allowing only one gender to bathe at a time.
The process is as follows. Depending on which services you choose, you start by sweating yourself crazy sauna-style, move on to a dry massage that may make you feel like tenderized meat and end with a full-body soaping and lathering. Rinse and repeat (if you like) until you feel like a limp dishrag. The massage afterward is often optional and is known to be available even if you haven't paid for it up front.
So now that we have the logistics out of the way, which of the dozens of hamams in Istanbul should you visit? First off, there are a few that are undoubtedly touristy and expensive, mostly because they are historic. Çemberlitaş Hamamı, a 16th century institution and Cağaloğlu Hamamı (the last great Ottoman hamam) are classic bathhouses sustained almost entirely at this point by tourism and are notable for their exquisite interiors. Going here or to Süleymaniye Hamamı will usher you into a historic space and give you a satisfying hamam experience, but be prepared to interact with staff that will be hunting for tips and to generally pay a bit more than your usual neighborhood establishment. The equally long-standing Galatasaray Hamamı in Beyoğlu, the Haseki Bostan Hamamı in Süleymaniye, and the no-frills Aziziye Hamam in Kadikoy all provide a more authentic experience if you're looking to spend time where the locals are. You just may have to compensate for a lack of spoken English.
This only touches the surface of the phenomenon of hamams in Istanbul. For more information, browse our links, and then get ready to cross this unique experience off of your bucket list.
Note:Çemberlitaş Hamamı has been featured both in the photo and on the map.