If there’s one thing you must do in Turkey, it’s experiencing a Turkish bath. Evolved from ancient Roman tradition, Turkish bath houses or hamamlar were established across the Ottoman Empire as places for religious ritual cleansing as well as socialization. Historically, mothers would even visit hamams to examine their sons’ would-be brides!
Even today, Turkish baths are still frequented by locals and can be found in nearly every neighborhood – most hamams don’t go out of their way to cater to tourists beside having a website and listing their services in English. So if you’re not prepared, the experience of a traditional Turkish hamam can be unnerving…or even traumatizing.
I stayed in Istanbul for three weeks, and during that time I checked out a few hamams. Here’s an essential guide on what to expect when visiting a Turkish hamam in Istanbul, so you can enjoy this local bathing experience to the fullest.
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Choosing a Turkish bath in Istanbul
Some of the most famous and historical hamams in Istanbul feature monumental architecture and lavish fixtures, with lots of marble everywhere.
- Aga Hamami, built as a private hamam rather than a public one, offers a posh spa-like environment near Taksim Square.
- Cagaloglu Hamami is the last Turkish bath that was built in the Ottoman Empire, before the formation of the Turkish Republic.
- Cemberlitas Hamami is designed by legendary architect Mimar Sinan and offers modern treatments like aromatherapy, clay masks, and massages.
If you’re looking for a less tourist-oriented and more plebeian Turkish bath in Istanbul, note that many smaller hamams have gotten positive reviews from men but are lambasted by women for shoddy service. Also, while you do get to bask on a heated marble slab under the soft light of a pinpricked dome, the building will likely resemble your public swimming pool and you certainly won’t be waited on hand and foot. In fact:
- The staff will use the same kese (scrubbing mitt) on everyone.
- You will be ruthlessly scrubbed raw, like a fish being descaled.
- The hamam massage will not be relaxing, gentle, or sleep-inducing. Instead, it will be the bodily equivalent of Chinese foot reflexology.
You’ll find more details below, but it took me a few days of careful research, paying extra attention to women’s reviews and asking for local recommendations, before I eventually settled on the lower-profile Gedikpasa Hamami.
Turkish Bath Prices
In most hamams you’ll have to choose the level of service and pay upfront before bathing. You can go for the self-service option – where you use the facilities but do your own washing – or tack on a scrub, massage, and oil massage.
Here’s a price comparison for various services from each Istanbul hamami listed above:
|Aga Hamami||Cagaloglu Hamami||Cemberlitas Hamami||Gedikpasa Hamami|
|50 TL||EUR 30||80 TL||50 TL|
|+ Scrub||+10 TL||+ EUR 15||+45 TL||+20 TL|
|+ Foam Bath||+10 TL||+ EUR 15|
|+ Massage||+40 TL||+75 TL|| + 20 TL|
|Others||Face Mask 20 TL|
Shisha 30 TL
|Manicure 35 TL|
Pedicure 45 TL
Then, you’ll be led to a private changing cubicle where, if you’re like me and completely unfamiliar with public baths, things start getting confusing.
The Turkish Bath Experience in 7 Steps
The first question that pops into one’s head is: do I take off all my clothes? The answer is yes, especially if you’ll be getting a scrub, foam bath, or massage. You’ll be given a peştemal, a traditional Turkish towel made of cotton, to wrap around yourself. Don’t worry as all Turkish hamams are gender segregated.
2. Warm up at the göbek taşı or sauna.
Then, proceed to the sıcaklık, or hot room, which is central to the turkish bath. You’re expected to spend about 15 minutes warming up, either on the göbek taşı (tummy stone), which is the heated marble slab right under the domed roof, or in the sauna if there’s one.
Coming from the tropics, I’d never enjoyed a sauna in my entire life…until now. After more than a month in the cruel winter cold of Scandinavia and Germany it was pure joy to lie here in a heavy stupor, breathing in the hot humid air and feeling the sheen of perspiration form on my skin.
Don’t spend too long here if you’re feeling discomfort from the heat and humidity!
3. Get your skin scrubbed off. Literally.
At the hamam, exfoliation is serious business. The masseurs wield a kese, or scrubbing mitt, which is somehow closer in texture to steel wool than to loofah. You’ll then be asked to use your peştemal as a mat when you lie down, lest you slide off the hot soapy marble.
If you’re worried about the masseurs using the same dirty mitt on everyone, buy your own from a local shop and request that they scrub you with it (I went with theirs, on the assumption that it’s probably more worn down and less painful!) Either way, they’ll delight in vigorously scrubbing you, back and front, arms and legs, until all your dead skin is sloughed off into shavings of black scum and you gape at how terribly, terribly dirty you are.
4. Rinse off, then get buried in foam bubbles.
Around the walls of the hot room are washing fountains – like swimming pool showers but only with low taps. Using your highly-absorbent peshtemal (so useful and important, this towel!) you can rinse off, then return to your spot on the tummy stone.
This time, your masseur will smother you in a blissfully warm soap bubbles by foaming them out from a cloth. At Gedikpasa turkish bath I was also asked to flip onto my stomach for a brisk yet vigorous massage – if you get that, be careful not to let the foam get into your eyes or mouth.
5. Get a quick shampoo.
Like the massage, the shampooing you’ll experience at the Turkish bath house is nowhere close to what you’d get at your hair salon. Mine lasted less than a minute: a squirt of shampoo, a few dispassionate rubs to lather up my hair, and water was dumped over my head to wash out the suds. Surprisingly, my fine frizzy hair dried out soft, smooth, and tangle-free, even without a comb.
6. Go for a dip in the cold pool.
Almost done! With the whole ordeal over, you can now dip in a cold pool to take off the heat and sweat. I can’t speak for all hamams, but the pool at Gedikpasa Hamami was more like a giant bathtub of cloudy water that hadn’t been changed the entire day. Half-blind as I was without my spectacles, I could see the flecks of dirt floating around. This is why Asians don’t dig baths!
You can skip this if you want and rinse yourself at a fountain tap instead.
7. Shower and snack!
You can essentially remain in the hamam as long as you want, repeating the sauna and pool dip if you wish – but two rounds should be enough or you’ll wrinkle up into a raisin. When you’re done, finish off your Turkish bath with a shower. You should be given a fresh bath towel – a fluffy one this time instead of the coarse peshtemal – and then you can return to your cubicle to change.
Once you’re done and refreshed, you can return to the reception area of the hamam where you may be served a cup of çay (tea). You can also order some snacks to refuel and re-hydrate, and some Turkish baths even offer shisha (hookah, water pipe) if you’re so inclined.
That’s it; you’re done! I spent about two hours at Gedikpasa Hamami, and left feeling completely rejuvenated and ready to explore Istanbul’s markets once more. Most travelers I’ve spoken to also said they’d visit a hamam again, so I really recommend you give it a shot.
Turkish Bath Etiquette
If you’re somewhat body-conscious (I am), or visiting a Turkish bath for the first time, here are some etiquette tips to help you feel more comfortable.
- Going around naked is the norm. However, you should cover the lower half of your body with your peshtamel when walking around or lounging. You can also wear a bikini if you’re so inclined; it’s not frowned upon.
- Keep noise to a minimum. Visiting a Turkish bath as group can be more fun, but don’t chat too loudly lest you disturb others. Like a spa, the hamam is a place to relax and unwind.
- Tip your masseur. It’s common to tip around 20% of whatever you’ve paid. Always tip unless your experience was truly unacceptable (extremely rude staff, outrage of modesty, theft, etc.)
- Say Teşekkürler. That’s thank-you in Turkish, pronounced quickly “tay-she-kew-lush”.
Have any questions or tips for going for a Turkish bath? Tell me about your Turkish bath experience and let me know if this guide was useful!