Enjoy Istanbul in style by staying at a grand former financial institution and unwinding in its Turkish baths.
Where once people counted money, I count my blessings. The physical exertion of a day’s sightseeing in Istanbul is quickly forgotten as I lay on a warm marble slab at the Ceşme Hammam. It’s just one of the hundreds of Turkish baths (hammams) scattered around the city.
Public bathing facilities have an ancient history in Turkey and date back to the region’s Greco-Roman roots. When the Ottomans took Constantinople (Istanbul’s former Roman name) in 1453, they melded Islamic cleansing rituals with local traditions to create a unique bathing culture that persists to this day.
The Çeşme Hammam was built in the 1720s by an Ottoman naval commander and became a popular neighbourhood bath at the time. It is now the jewel in the crown of the Galata Hotel Istanbul, an elegant 83-room hotel in the trendy Beyoğlu district. This exclusive venue is part of the “MGallery by Sofitel” collection of luxury, boutique hotels that Sofitel claims to blend high-end luxury with unique culture and history.
Galata opened in March 2018 and clearly observes the historic and cultural requirements of Sofitel’s MGallery club – inhabiting a neoclassical building constructed by an Italian banking family in the 1840s. It was home to a succession of banks until earlier this decade and still emphasises its history with original deposit boxes lining the lobby.
MGallery merged the building with the adjacent bath house to complement its hotel plans. While the hammam was renovated ahead of the hotel’s opening, the restoration efforts have been faithful to the original design. A display in the bath’s entrance explains that this was done to ensure “the continuity of historical transference of 300 years is maintained”. The result is a stunning blend of new and old; traditional luxuries fused with modern comfort. Saunas and steam rooms supplement the orthodox hammam (which can be used free of charge by hotel guests), while a range of massage treatments are available for an extra cost.
The hotel is just 10 minutes’ walk from Istanbul’s main street – Istiklal Caddesi – and a 15-minute tram ride from the Blue Mosque. It is also only 100 metres from Neolokal, one of Istanbul’s top restaurants (see City Guide). Service at the hotel is polished – friendly without being too eager, well-informed and discrete. For those who are not sufficiently exhausted by Istanbul’s long walks, there is also a moderately-sized gym.
When I check in to the hotel, my concierge Güray gestures proudly to the large double-door windows of my fifth-floor room to a stunning vista. The Galata sits on a slope above the Golden Horn, a famous body of water dividing Istanbul’s modern and historic European quarters. It affords breathtaking views of the old town, with the Sultanahmet Mosque front and centre. Sightseeing heavyweights the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia (a former Greek Orthodox Christian patriarchal cathedral built in 537 AD) sit closer to the horizon.
The hotel rooms follow the hammam’s lead in blending old and new. Traditional wallpapers and exquisite bathroom tiles add local touches, while a plush queen bed (with your choice of head rest from the personal pillow menu), stylish hanging lights, and an oversized television provide the necessary creature comforts – not that you’d want to glue your eyes to a screen when such a superlative view is on offer. Seagull squawks and boat horns from the water below add an atmospheric soundtrack, which is interspersed by the stirring lilt of the five daily calls to prayer.
For those in rooms facing away from the Golden Horn, a similar view can be admired from a spacious second-floor breakfast room. The morning meal features a spread of local and international favourites, with fresh juices and Turkish coffees best enjoyed on the sun-drenched outdoor terrace. The space doubles as a restaurant and bar in the evening. If there is one criticism of the Galata Hotel, it is that on weekends the noise drifts upstairs into the night.
Strolling across the nearby Galata Bridge during my visit, I spot an elderly gentleman adding bait to his fishing line – no doubt hoping, like his forebears have for centuries, for a bountiful catch from Instanbul’s Bosphorus Strait. As he prepares to cast his line, the fisherman fumbles with a jacket pocket. He reveals an iPhone. It is a classic Istanbul moment – a city with millennia of history where new and old meld in delightful and surprising ways. It now has a hotel to match.
The hotel is a 30-minute taxi ride from Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport and slightly further away from the new Istanbul Airport, which will welcome most international arrivals by mid-2019.
Rooms at Galata Hotel Istanbul start from T640₺ (A$160) per night, based on double occupancy and breakfast included.