During a recent holiday in Turkey, I indulged in the ultimate pampering: a visit to a hamam. I had heard talk amongst my Turkish friends of their habitual visits to what can be compared to a spa or bath house. They always seemed so relaxed following a trip to the hamam, and after traveling around Turkey for several days, I needed some refreshment!
So, off I went to a local hamam, ready for a good steam and scrub. Little did I know, I was in for some of the most indulgent and relaxing hours of my life.
Interested in learning more about what’s in store for you at the Turkish hamam? It certainly isn’t for everyone, so here’s a brief introduction:
The art of the hamam has been an important part of Turkish culture for thousands of years. These bath houses flourished throughout the Ottoman Empire, with grand, elaborate structures built in its then capital Constantinople, which is present-day Istanbul. Allowing for covered bathing, hamams showcase stunning embroidered walls and marble. Historically, these bath houses served as the social epicenter of Turkish culture. Nowadays, they’re just a great place to get a good scrub down.
The Turkish hamam traditionally holds three rooms: the hot room, where the steam or sauna portion occurs, the warm room, where the washing-up and soap massage occurs, and the cool room, where you relax and drink coffee or tea. One traverses from the hottest room to the coolest room, preparing the body for exfoliation and massage and then allowing for rest.
A traditional hamam in Istanbul built in 1741. Photo: jaime.silva
There are a variety of options when it comes to choosing a hamam. Here are some classic break-downs:
Traditional vs. Self Service
A traditional hamam will guarantee you the full experience. You can arrive empty-handed, as towels and soap will be provided. For this service, someone will massage you with soap and wash you off. A traditional trip to the hamam will cost anywhere from $14-$46.
A self-service hamam is the cheaper route, understandably. You will have to bring your own stuff, and wash yourself. This is probably not the best choice for your first time at the hamam, as you will have no idea what to do. But if you’re trying to save money, it is something to consider. Self service can cost anywhere from $5-$14.
Local vs. Tourist
This is a very important distinction in my opinion. Most neighbourhoods in Turkey will have their own hamam, where locals go either weekly or monthly to get squeaky clean. Accordingly, the prices can be quite cheap, ranging from roughly $5 – $19. It is likely that no one will speak English at these hamams, so you could be in for a bit of a language barrier unless you plan ahead.
In big cities like Istanbul and Izmur, you will find many Turkish hamams made specifically for tourists. This means that the attendants will speak English and they will be happy to guide you through the experience. They may offer package deals including oil massages and manicure/pedicure. These tourist-targetted spots are more expensive, and can range from roughly $32 -$55.
Getting a scrub down by an attendant is a highlight of a visit to a Turkish bath. Photo: Barbaros Kayan
Now that you know the basics, it’s time to dive in. When you arrive at the hamam, you will be asked to change out of your clothes, and into a Turkish towel. You’ll be given some slippers, and then you’re ready to go.
As I explained, the Turkish hamam will often be divided into three rooms: hot, warm and cool. You will begin with the hot room. For me, this meant sitting for 15 minutes in an almost unthinkably hot sauna. It was hard to take, but I knew it would pay off. After my time was up, I took a dip in the mineral water pool, and then was led back to the sauna for another grueling 15 minutes.
Next, you will enter the “cool” room. This is wear the bathing happens. Normally, this will entail lying on a large marble slab as an attendant scrubs your skin, and then massages it with bubbles. Then, you’ll be washed down with water, and you’ll never feel more clean.
After washing up, you’ll be given fresh towels to dry off, and led to the “cool” room. Here, you can relax and reflect on the wonderfully indulgent experience you’ve had. This will usually include Turkish coffee or tea, lounging and perhaps a light nap.
Once you’re ready to go, you can change into your clothes and be on your way!