Over the past hundred years the Turkish Bath has gone from a cultural staple to a nearly forgotten remnant of the past (for more details, see The History of the Turkish Bath). It would be a lie to say that going to a bath, or “hamam,” is a truly local experience because most locals don’t tend to go anymore. However, going to a hamam is a chance to experience a rich and unique bit of historical tradition as it attempts to stay alive despite the cultural shifts and the passing of time.
But what is a hamam actually like?
We’d argue that there are three types of hamams, though they basically all have the following in common:
There’s a common room with small change rooms around it. Then there’s the hot section. First you’ll pass through a showering/toilet section then into the main heated area, which is usually a domed room with a raised platform of marble in the middle. This marble slab is hot and meant to be laid on. There will be benches along the walls with basins of hot and cold water for dousing yourself with. If the hamam is a bit larger there may be four other rooms of different temperature, sometimes named after different seasons.
And now the three different types:
Let’s get this one out of the way. There are little Turkish Baths that you may find in your hotel or resort. These are new, usually small, very clean, decent quality, but lacking in cultural or historical value. It’s basically a spa in a steam room. If that’s all you want, then this is good option but you’re not taking a plunge into all the weirdness, history, and tradition that you would get at a historical hamam. Honestly, a hotel Turkish Bath doesn’t really count as a Turkish Bath. These will usually not be gender segregated, the staff may not be Turkish, the cost will be high, and the History of the Hamam won’t really apply here.
Second, there’s those beautifully restored grand hamams that target a tourist market. The aesthetics are amazing, there’s lots of extra spa type experiences to choose from, and the staff speak your language. The upside of a place like this is that it’s going to be top notch and very clean. The downside is the price. While these places are going to offer a far more luxurious experience they can cost up to about 745TL, whereas we normally only spend about 50TL! At these sorts of Turkish Baths you will truly get to experience the glory of the past.
With the third and final type of Turkish Bath you will get to experience all that tradition and culture as it lives on. These are the places that have begun to disappear in modern times, cost a fraction of what the grand hamams charge, and are usually only visited by locals and the odd adventurous foreigner. These will be in historic buildings, be less meticulously maintained, and usually the staff will only speak Turkish.
The third kind is the one we’re into. We can actually afford to go AND they smell of adventure. Though sometimes adventure smells like mildew. While the first two types of Turkish Bath will certainly be clean there’s no guarantee in this third category. But here’s the thing, a report was put out a number of years ago in a Turkish newspaper listing the country’s Top 10 Turkish Baths. The surprising thing was that some of these 50TL baths ranked higher than 200TL baths. In other words you can spend a fraction of the amount and even get a better experience with many of the hamams in this third category. If you don’t want to take a risk in choosing a Turkish Bath then check out the hamam reviews on our Destinations+ page (coming VERY soon!)
But what should you expect when you go to a hamam? What do you need to do and more importantly what are they going to do to you?
In brief here’s what you can expect at your average, less-touristic Turkish Bath.
Order of Ceremony
Go in and put on terlik, or sandals, that are usually in the entryway or change rooms.
(If you’re going to ask about prices you should do that now before getting changed. There is always a price list beside the till.)
Go to the change room, get undressed, come out wrapped in towel. Lock door. Every now and again you’ll see people in a bathing suit, though the standard practice for men is to wear nothing under the towel. For women it’s a bit more common to wear a bikini under the towel.
Go to the steamy section.
Have a rinse, get sweaty in the sauna, on the slab, or just sit next to a basin dousing yourself.
Usually you’ll get called over for the scrub and massage after 20 minutes.
If they call you too soon you can usually ask for a few extra minutes and if you don’t want the scrub or massage then just say so.
First comes the scrubbing with a sandpaper-like mitt called a kese.
Then you’ll be scrubbed clean with soap. Women typically get their hair washed as well.
Then the massage. These can range in intensity from gentle to utterly abusive. (For men, at least. Women’s are usually more gentle.)
After this you’re free to hang out in the sauna etc. for a while longer.
When leaving the hot section change your wet towel for a dry one being careful to remain covered the whole time. Despite the fact that you’ve just been scrubbed by another person, nudity is not okay.
Going into the common room a man (or woman if you’re in a women’s hamam) will wrap your shoulders and head in a towel.
Either in the common room or change room you will lounge and cool down.
Many places will be set up for socializing in the common room where they serve tea, water, fruit juice, and sometimes, in the really good places, a yogurt-lemon-soda concoction!
After this you get changed and pay on the way out. Try to figure out if you should be leaving a tip. Tipping is something that locals can’t seem to agree on so good luck figuring THAT out!
Keep in mind that 99.9% of the time Turkish Baths are segregated so the experience may be different for men and women at the same place. Also, not every hamam has a women’s section and when they do the hours tend to be a little bit shorter. In most cases this means that the women’s section may open an hour later (but who’s going at 8 AM?) and close an hour or two earlier.
A Few Tips
-Drink lots beforehand. You’re going to sweat a lot so it’s best to start properly hydrated.
-Stay covered up. Again, you’d think the culture that has half naked men scrubbing each other would be fine with a bit of nudity but that’s not the case – keep the important bits covered!
-Don’t eat a big meal right before visiting a Turkish Bath… the heat… the massage… it’s best to wait til after. The hamam is no place to throw up!
-The hamam is as much a social event as it is about getting clean. Go with friends, take the time to lounge and chat.
What to Bring
You really don’t need to bring anything to a Turkish bath, but you may want to bring a few things.
Soap: If you want to use a particular type of soap or don’t want to share soap (sometimes they do) you can bring your own. If your skin doesn’t do well with harsh soaps then bring your own. You’ll have just had skin peeled off so if it’s normally sensitive it’ll be even more so here.
Terlik: If you don’t like the idea of using a pair of foam sandals worn by hundreds of other bare feet you can bring your own! Any other indoor shoe that works in a very wet environment is typically acceptable.
Kese: As mentioned above a kese is a scrubbing glove used to peel your dead skin off. After the scrub they rinse you, but if you still aren’t a fan of that you can buy your own. You’ll see them in the Grand Bazaar, or in Tahtakale (the neighbourhood between the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Market).
Extra Clothes: While you certainly don’t need to, putting on a fresh change of clothes (or at least socks and underwear) is quite nice.
Words to Know
Kese – Coming from the word ‘to cut’ the kese is an intense scrubber that will exfoliate all the dead skin off you. It’s also what you call the hard scrub massage part of the process. You’ll want to know this if you don’t want the kese.
Yavaş – this means slow or easy, and it’s what you can say if your kese or massage becomes too intense and you’d like him to go softer.
Masaj – easy, it’s a massage.
Terlik – literally means ‘a thing for sweat’ but we don’t like to think about that. They’re foam or plastic flip-flop style sandals.
Peştamal – A special towel used in the hamam itself. More for covering up than for drying.
Havlu – Turkish for towel. This one is for drying off with.
Bahşiş – pronounced “bah-sheesh” this is a tip. Often you leave a tip if you’ve had a massage and scrub.