A hamam (or Turkish bath) is something that every traveler should experience when traveling to Turkey. That said, after experiencing one for the first time on my recent trip to Istanbul, there are some things I sure wish I would have known ahead of time…
Turkish Bath Tips for the First-Timer:
Know what to expect.
First and foremost, you will not be bathing with members of the opposite sex. The hamam will have separate rooms for males and females, or at the very least, separate time slots. The luxuriousness and prices of Turkish baths vary greatly. Obviously, those that cater to tourists will have ornate aesthetics and offer more amenities, but these things will come with a higher price tag. At a hamam that caters to locals, you can save money by paying a modest price solely for your entrance fee to the bathhouse and choose to scrub yourself. As a tourist or first-timer, I would recommend that you pay to be bathed so that you can experience the complete, authentic Turkish bath experience. If your budget allows, I would also recommend that you choose a bathhouse that offers at least a moderate level of luxury.
You’ll likely start your experience by waiting in a steamy, hot room, possibly with other bathers. After ten or fifteen minutes you’ll move to another room and will be instructed to lie on a raised, circular (heated) marble platform where the actual “bath” will occur. Your attendant (who will be the same sex as you) will vigorously scrub your body in an up and down motion to remove your dead skin cells. (In fact, once the scrubbing is complete, he/she will probably show you the “pile of skin” that was scraped from your body). Next, you’ll receive a super sudsy head-to-toe wash. Finally, your hair will be washed before you’re doused with cool water.
Check your clothes (and modesty) at the door.
The majority of the embarrassing/hilarious/shocking stories I’ve heard from other travelers regarding their first hamam experience relate to female travelers attempting to keep on their undergarments or wear a swimsuit… and their attendant more or less ripping the garments off. Women will be best served by not wearing their swimsuits or bra (although, underwear or bikini bottoms are fine). In Istanbul I was told that traditionally, bathers are naked in the hamam. (You are given a small towel to wrap around your waist). For many westerners, this concept is… well, somewhat “foreign.” But, you may actually feel more out of place if you choose to wear your swimsuit. In my experience, most of the bathers in the hamam were fully nude. Thus, I recommend that you embrace the Turkish bath experience and don your birthday suit!
This next piece of advice is primarily for women. Ladies, the hamam experience includes getting your hair washed. But, I warn you – this is no salon experience. Your attendant will likely pour shampoo on your head and exuberantly rub your scalp, tangling your mane. There is no conditioner. Following the bath, your hair is going to be a snarly mess (especially if you have long hair). I would recommend that you bring a wide tooth comb and leave-in conditioner or detangling spray. (You’ll thank me for this one later – I promise).
It’s also possible that water will be tossed over your head with little or no warning, so I would recommend that you remove your make-up and take out your contact lenses.
Plan to head to the hamam in the evening.
I’d recommend that you plan to have your bath later in the evening, before bed. Most hamams are open quite late – close to midnight. The bath, heat and steam made me quite sleepy and it would have been hard to continue on with a day of sightseeing after the experience. Additionally, I was told by a local that the bath opens your pores and that after it you are more susceptible to catching a cold, which is why he always chooses to bathe at night. (I’m no doctor, but sure – why not?)… I’d also recommend that you bring warm, dry clothes to change into after the bath.
Is a Turkish bath on your bucket list? If you’ve already tried it, what was your experience like?
Related Post: Where East Meets West: A Weekend Guide to Istanbul