A Foreigner’s Guide to the Perfect Turkish Bath Experience
If there’s one thing you must do in Turkey, it’s to go for a Turkish bath. Evolved from ancient Roman tradition, Turkish baths or hamams were commonplace across the Ottoman Empire as places for religious ritual cleansing as well as socialization.
If you’re not prepared, however, the experience of a traditional Turkish hamam can be unnerving or downright unpleasant. It took me a few days of careful research, both online and through local recommendations, before I finally decided I was ready to visit a hamam in Istanbul – and I enjoyed myself thoroughly. To help travelers who are as apprehensive as I was, I’ve prepared a guide to getting the perfect Turkish bath experience.
Choosing your Turkish hamam
Monumental Turkish baths in Istanbul like Cemberlitas Hamami (built by legendary architect Mimar Sinan) and Cagaloglu Hamami have beautiful interiors and lavish fixtures, but have been transformed into more of a luxury spa experience for tourists with prices to match.
If you’re looking for something more plebeian, be prepared. 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 body equivalent of foot reflexology.
A trend among the smaller, supposedly more authentic (ugh) hamams reviewed on TripAdvisor is that they get positive reviews from men but are lambasted by women for shoddy service. Paying extra attention to women’s reviews of various Turkish baths, I eventually settled on the relatively unknown Gedikpasa Hamami.
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Turkish hamam etiquette
In most hamams you’ll have to choose the level of service and make payment 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. Then, you’ll be led to a private cubicle where you can undress. Going around completely naked is the norm, but you can choose to remain in a bikini. Being rather body-conscious, I kept my bottoms on and initially wrapped myself in my peştemal cloth, but then decided I looked stupid in the sauna when everyone else was enjoying the heat on their bare bodies.
Well, it helped that I was half-blind without my spectacles.
The Sauna / Steam Bath
Coming from the tropics, I’d never enjoyed a sauna until now. After more than a month in the cruel cold of Scandinavia and Germany it was pure joy to lie there in heavy stupor, breathing in the hot humid air and feeling the sheen of perspiration form on my skin. You’re expected to spend about 15 minutes warming up, after which you can make your way to the central area and lie on the göbek taşı (tummy stone). Use your peştemal as a mat, unless you want to slide off the hot soapy marble.
Here, exfoliation is taken to a whole new level. The traditional kese is closer in texture to steel wool than to loofah, and if you’re worried about the masseurs using the same mitt on everyone, buy your own from a local shop and request that they scrub you with it (I went with theirs, it’s probably more worn down and less painful). Either way, they’ll delight in vigorously scrubbing you, back and front and 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.
After the scrub, you’ll be asked to rinse yourself at a fountain off the central area before returning to your spot on the tummy stone. This time, you’ll be blissfully smothered in warm soap bubbles from head to toe, foamed out from a cloth over your body. Be careful not to get them in your eyes and mouth when lying face down.
As most reviews have mentioned, the massage is usually nothing more than a brisk five-minute knead, but I certainly wasn’t expecting a 30-minute deep massage – and neither should you, really.
Like the massage, this isn’t the sort of shampooing 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 is dumped over my head to wash out the suds. Surprisingly, though, my hair dried beautifully even without a comb. No ratty, tangled mess.
Almost done! With the massage over, you can 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, unchlorinated water that hadn’t been changed the entire day. Even without my specs I could see the flecks of dirt floating around. This is why Asians don’t dig bathtubs. You can skip this and rinse yourself at a fountain tap instead.
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Sauna & Shower
The post-massage pool dip and sauna can be repeated as many times as you wish, but two or three rounds should be more than enough. When you’re done sweating it out, finish off your Turkish bath with a shower. You should be given a fresh towel – a fluffy one this time instead of the coarse peştemal – and then you can return to your cubicle to change and rest.
At the end of your Turkish bath, it’s common to tip your masseur with around 20% of what you’ve paid. Taking into account the above, you should tip unless your experience was truly unacceptable (extremely rude staff, outrage of modesty, theft, etc.)
Most hamams will also serve you some Turkish tea before you leave, and that’s it! I spent about two hours at Gedikpasa Hamami, and left feeling completely rejuvenated and ready explore once more. Most travelers I’ve spoken to also said they’d visit a hamam again, so don’t let the horror stories and negative reviews put you off.
Have any questions or tips on going for a Turkish bath? Share them in the comments!