Stepping into one of Istanbul's hammams is like parting steamy curtains on to ancient Asia Minor. Visitors bake on marble slabs, sweating out life's impurities; attendants massage, pummel and buff; bathers emerge baby soft and squeaky clean.
Yet as the city modernises, its historic hammams are slowly morphing into a tourist-only attraction, charging the equivalent of £30 a session. This year, I asked around to find out where the locals go to soap up, soak and sweat it all out. The top tip? Head out of the city across the Sea of Marmara to Termal (yalovatermal.com), the ancient thermal springs just outside of Yalova.
I grabbed my husband and my swimming costume and we were off. An hour-long boat ride from Istanbul's Yenikapi Ferry Terminal followed by a 20-minute bus ride and we were in the leafy resort of Termal Kaplicalar, the creatively named "Thermal Thermals (Spa)".
Built by Roman Emperor Constantine in the 4th century, Termal was beloved of Byzantine rulers. Ottoman sultans expanded the complex during the 19th century, constructing most of the ornate bathhouses still in use today. In 1911, an international jury awarded Termal first prize as "the world's most healing hot waters". Even Turkey's first president, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, spent summers here: his holiday home, Ataturk Kosku, is currently under transformation into a state museum.
We found Termal's visitors to be a colourful mix of Turks, young Emirati men and older Russian women, all taking in the local waters. There are three hammams (including one that is mixed-sex), an Olympic-sized outdoor spa pool fed by a scalding spring and two-person private steam baths. Pongy thermal gas inhalers are dotted around the complex, and the three hotels onsite remain pleasantly dated.
Best of all? We shelled out a mere £35 per person, covering unlimited spa access, plus hotel room, buffet breakfast and three-course dinner, served by bow-tied waiters and backed by the warbling tunes of a Turkish folk singer. All of which proves that it always pays to ask the locals.
Footprint's 'European City Breaks' is available in May (£14.99). For a 35 per cent discount off any Footprint guidebook go to footprinttravelguides.com and enter 'indy11' at checkout.Reuse content