Every country has its own unique way of relaxing. The Japanese have their onsen, the Finnish have saunas, the Indians have Ayurvedic massage and the Turkish have hamams – which feels like a combination of the first three, yet something entirely different.
If you’re looking to spoil yourself at the end (or even beginning) of a Turkish vacation, there’s no better way to indulge than with this quintessentially local experience.
What is a Turkish hamam?
Turkey sits at the crossroad of Europe and Asia, and the Turkish bath is the best example of eastern and western fusion. In Roman and Byzantine times, heated public baths served an important part of daily life. Baths were not only health centres and places to wash, they also played a part in important social events, such as weddings and funerals. The hamam was created when Turkic people combined their love of steam rooms (an Asian tradition) with Roman baths to create a new tradition: the Turkish bath. Hamams were very popular in the time of kings and conquests, but have become more of a luxury item among modern Turkish people.
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What does a hamam involve?
A hamam bath involves a number of cleansing rituals across a variety of different rooms, including saunas, steam rooms, scrubbing rooms, wash rooms, salt rooms and pools. What makes hamams different to other types of saunas is the famous scrubbing process, where you’ll be vigorously scrubbed with a kese (a type of rough mitt) to remove dead skin cells.
The exact combination of treatments, and what is involved, varies from bathhouse to bathhouse. Like any other type of massage, it’s best to ask in advance what exactly your hamam experience will include, as just about every bathhouse will offer its own combination of extras (such as facials, pedicures and more).
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Men and women will typically be segregated at a hamam (for reasons that will become apparent soon), but some bath houses will allow genders to meet in some rooms, such as the sauna and steam room.
When you arrive at the hamam, you’ll be led to gendered changing rooms and asked to undress and store your belongings in a locker. Hamams are typically experienced naked. Yep, nude. While you’ll be offered a towel (called a peştamal) to cover your modesty, if you’re not comfortable with baring all in public it’s best to ask if the bath house offers private treatments.
Step 1: Sweat it out
The first step in a Turkish hamam is to take a seat in the sauna. This is a chance to unwind, chat with your friends, and enjoy the numerous benefits of a sauna. ‘Heat bathing’ is considered one of the oldest beauty treatments for cleaning your skin, as it opens your pores and allows your body to remove dead skin cells, bacteria and dirt through sweat.
After 10 to 15 minutes in the sauna, you’ll move to the second phase of treatment: the steam room. You might wonder what the difference is between a sauna and a steam room? They both involve sweating it out in a box, but the difference really comes down to the different types of heating. A sauna makes you sweat using dry heat, such as rocks or a stove, while a steam room uses boiling water.
Because steam rooms involve inhaling water vapour, it is good for opening your sinuses and airways. Try periods of deep breathing to make the most of your time in the steam room.
Step 2: Scrubs and bubbles
After opening your pores, it’s time to move on to the bathing and scrubbing room. This is the most iconic part of the hamam experience and when you’ll most likely be separated from the other sex. You’ll be led into a room, called the göbektaşı, which features a hexagon-shaped heated marble table in the middle, with a line of benches and basins on each wall. A pillow will be provided and you’ll be asked to lie down on the marble table.
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From here your attendant will wash you by pouring warm and cold water over your body and scrub you down using a special scrubbing mitten called a kese. After rinsing, they’ll also pile a blanket of bubbles on you (which is as luxurious as it sounds) and massage it into your skin. Some attendants will ask you to sit or stand up as they shampoo your hair or provide a shower using a metal cup (called a maşrapa).
Step 3: Customise your hamam
With the core part of the hamam now complete, it’s time to customise your experience with extras. Many bathhouses will offer additional services such as massages, pedicures, facials and more. How much – or little – you do is entirely up to you (and your budget).
Step 4: Relax and unwind
By this point you’ll be feeling refreshed and pummelled in equal measure, which is why it’s now time to indulge in some post-hamam bliss. With your treatments done, you’ll be led to either a salt room (a small room covered in salts on the floor and a deck chair to sit in), a lounge or a pool to relax at. Allow some time to linger with a glass of cay (Turkish tea) and soak in the relaxing ambience.
Top 5 hamams to visit in Istanbul
1. Mihrimah Sultan
Built by Sultan Suleyman in 1565 and named after his daughter, Mihrimah Sultan, this historical hamam in Edirnekapı is housed inside a mosque. Soak in the benefits of a traditional stream room while admiring the 16th-Century architecture.
2. Çemberlitaş Hamamı
Just a short walk from Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, and marked by a great grey dome, you’ll find Çemberlitaş Hamamı. In addition to the usual hamam experience, Çemberlitaş also offers aromatherapy oil massages and Indian head massages. Look out for the columns in the hot room with baklava-shaped heads.
‘New’ is a relative term in a country as old as Turkey, but Cağaloğlu is certainly one of the younger hamams in town. Built in 1741, the later construction means this hamam has more Ottoman characteristics, such as the lofty lounge and illuminated central water feature.
4. Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı
Originally constructed to service the Ottoman navy, this recently renovated hamam in Karakoy is now one of Istanbul’s most luxurious establishments. Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamam offers a wide range of remedial massages.
5. Galatasaray Hamamı
Galatasaray’s doors have been open for almost 550 years, making it one of the oldest hamams in Istanbul. It has a fascinating history, thanks to its dual function as a mosque and its connection to nearby schools, where hamams once played an important role in education.
Indulge in a hamam experience on one of Intrepid Travel’s small group adventures in Turkey. Click here to see our full range of Turkey tours.
Feature photo by Ekaterina_Molchanova, Shutterstock.