Before you can decide whether you hate or love going to a Turkish bath or hamam, you need to experience it at least once. If it’s your first visit to a hamam, entering a Turkish bath can be a daunting experience. By describing my last visit to the Çemberlitaş Hamamı, you will get a nice impression of the Turkish bath process and customs, so you know what to expect.
Selecting a Hamam and Service
First you need to decide whether you want to visit a historical hamam or a Turkish bath in a hotel. Next, upon entering the establishment, you have to select and pay for the service of your choice. Possible options are:
- Self-Service — you bathe yourself and bring your own soap, shampoo and towel. This is obviously the cheapest option and will cost you around 375 TL. I wouldn’t recommend this for your first visit.
- Traditional Style — pick this one if you want the real Turkish bath experience. An attendant will wash and massage you for about 15 minutes, and you don’t have to bring any of the equipment. This service will set you back for about 600 TL.
- Other Styles — They have several other services such as aromatherapy oil massage, reflexology, Indian head massage, and facial clay mask, too. Please check their website if you are interested in those.
Regardless of the service you choose, you are allowed to use the facilities for as long as you wish. I picked the traditional style service, was handed a carton box containing a new scrubber and led into the camekan — a splendid entrance hall with several stories of wooden cubicles.
An attendant guided me to a personal dressing cubicle (some just have lockers) on the first floor, and gave me sandals and a peştemal — a colorful checked cloth to be tied around the waist for modesty.
Will I Be Bare Naked?
Yes and no. There is some strict hamam etiquette to be followed. For starters, there is no mixing! Either the Turkish bath has two sections, one for each sex, or it admits men and women at separate times of the day.
Men usually completely strip down and wear nothing underneath the bath-wrap. Make sure you remain clothed with the bath wrap at all times — flashing is frowned upon. Women on the other hand mostly keep on wearing their underwear ( but often not their bra) underneath the bath-wrap. The choice is yours.
So I undressed, donned the peştemal and slipped into the sandals. Afterwards I locked the door, took the key together with the scrubber and went back downstairs where my masseur led me through the soğukluk (the cooling down room) into the hararet (the hot room).
The masseur didn’t follow me into the hot room. First you need to relax and loosen up for a while, and most importantly sweat! A great time to explore the architecture of a Turkish bath. In most cases an impressive room completely covered in marble featuring a big dome, several basins and an impressive göbektaşı — the central, raised platform above the heating source.
After 15 minutes of sitting and lying on the göbektaşı, the masseur entered the room. The first part of the service took place on the side of the central platform, while shifting positions all the time. The attendant soaked my body with warm water and lathered me with a sudsy swab. At the same time, being all slippery and wet, I received the massage. The words “no pain – no gain” flashed through my mind on some occasions. Probably the reason why “most masseurs are men of few words but many pounds”, as Michael Palin put nicely.
After the washing up and massage, it was time for the scrubbing. The place of action was shifted from the central platform to one of the basins. The attendant took the modern synthetic equivalent of the original Oriental hand-knitted wash cloth out of its carton box, and started scrubbing – or should I say sandpapering – my body.
After being embarrassed by the amount of dirt I had on me (although I shower at least once a day), I received another soapy wash up followed by a rinsing session with … cold water!
This concluded the 15 minute service. The masseur left the hot room, but you can stay and relax some more if you want to. I decided to stay a bit longer before moving to the cold or intermediate room. This room also houses the showers and toilets, which were spotlessly clean. I was handed a new, dry bath-wrap and a towel before heading for the showers.
Afterwards, I went back to my cubicle. Some visitors decide to relax a bit on the bed first, order a drink or even take a nap. In case of the latter, tell the attendant when he should wake you up. But since I had been in there for over an hour by then, I got dressed and tipped/thanked my masseur on the way back down. I felt great and extremely clean.
Some More Tips
- Hamams are open from as early as 6 a.m. till somewhere around midnight
- The masseur and scrubber will be of the same sex as you are
- Standard soap is used. If you have sensitive skin or are allergic to some products, bring your own soap
- You need to wash your private parts yourself
- You’ll get drenched, so women may want to get rid of their make-up first. Also, don’t forget to bring the necessary toiletries.
- Women may want to bring dry underwear along too
- There is no way you can avoid tipping the attendant(s), so make sure you have some cash money on you. You normally tip 10 to 20% of the total amount
- If you care about your (new) tan, maybe visit a hamam at the beginning of your city trip or holiday
Hamams I Like
For an overview of my favorite hamams (I prefer the authentic ones over the hotel versions) as well as a bit of extra advice, check out some extra things you didn’t know about Turkish hamams.