Bathing with strangers: what to expect at a Turkish hammam

In Turkey, one of the quickest ways to break the ice is to get naked in a room full of strangers. I’m talking, of course, about visiting the hammam. The hammam, or Turkish bath, has been around since the ancient Romans ruled much of Anatolia, and flourished during the Ottoman Empire, when baths were built in almost every city to address both public hygiene as well as provide a place for socializing.

Turks today have their own baths and they typically go to the café or çayhane (tea house) to meet up with friends. Modern spas have also edged out hammams. But while the practice of going to the hammam is on the wane, it is still possible – and downright enjoyable – to bathe at a hammam in Turkey. A hammam visit is also an incredible cultural experience, allowing you, in many cases, to see the interior of baths that have been in operation since the 16th century and an opportunity to meet other Turks in a relaxed setting.

Seeing as how going to a public bath is unusual for many travelers, I’ve put together a list of things to expect when going to a Turkish hammam.Disclaimer: These tips hold true for female hammam-goers. I can not speak for the men’s baths. But I understand from male friends who have gone to the hammam that the experience is similar but with naked men instead of naked ladies.

Carry your own supplies. If you’re planning on visiting a hammam when you go to Turkey, consider packing a waterproof toiletries bag that you don’t mind getting wet as you’ll carry the bag and your supplies into the hammam. Suggested toiletries include shampoo, conditioner, bath soap (preferably shower gel), and a loofah or one of those plastic shower puffs. You’ll also want a “kese,” an abrasive cloth that is used to scrub off all of your dead skin cells. These are almost always available for purchase at the hammam for a few lira, but you can also buy them on the local market at textile stores and in some toiletries sections of drugstores. Flip flops or other shower shoes are a must, though the hammams will have (usually wooden and uncomfortable) slippers called nalın that you can use during your visit. Bring a towel with you. A thin, cotton cover-up (peştemal) similar to a sarong, will be provided, but it is no substitute for a towel.

Don’t take valuables with you. When you arrive at the hammam, you will be given a changing room where you can take off your clothes or, if you’re the modest type, change into your swimsuit (preferably a two-piece). Then you will have to leave your belongings behind as you head into the steam rooms of the hammam. Most changing rooms that I encountered during my hammam excursions did not have locks, nor did they provide latches on which to hang your own padlocks. Rest assured, I never had anything stolen in Turkey. But you should be aware that theft in high tourist areas is always possible.

Go with a friend. Taking a friend with you to the hammam is by no means required. But know that for the first half an hour or so, you will sit in what is called a “warm room.” There, you will be absorbing steam, scooping warm water from a perpetually running fountain, and pouring it over yourself to prepare your epidermis for scrubbing. During this time, it’s great to have a friend to talk to and to share the experience with. And, when I say “friend,” I mean someone of the same sex. Hammams are either divided into men’s and women’s sections or they will require men and women to come at separate times.

Respect others’ space. No matter if you are at a hammam in Istanbul or Anatolia, you will encounter others – and don’t expect them to be clothed. Most people who have been going to hammams all their lives are comfortable taking it all off at the hammam and many women that I (gingerly) observed in hammams across Turkey had no qualms about doing personal maintenance, such as shaving, while in the baths. Don’t stare or balk. But also don’t be surprised if the naked woman at the basin next to you tries to strike up a conversation.

Prepare to be intimate with the hammam worker. The moment of truth. When it is your turn to be splayed on the marble slab in the central room of the hammam, the hamamci (Turkish for hammam worker), clad in her hammam uniform (i.e., her underwear), will come to the warm room to fetch you. Once you are in the central room, the hamamci will proceed to scrub your whole body, front and back, with soap. When your skin is perfectly saturated, the kese scrubbing will begin. Note that a hamam attendant armed with a kese is the original microdermabrasion. The hamamci will be able to will rolls and rolls of dead skin cells from your body, the result being, of course, a healthier glow. Endure it. After this portion of the scrub-down, the hamamci will typically give you a coarse massage (unless you’ve paid more for the privilege), wash your hair, and give you another thorough rinsing.

Leave a tip. The price for a basic hammam visit in Istanbul and around tourist centers like Antalya runs near $40 to $50 these days. In Ankara and many other parts of Anatolia where there are more locals than tourists visiting the hammam, you can expect to pay less than $30 for a soap and kese scrub. Most hammams also offer other services, such as waxing, manicures/pedicures, and hair dyeing, for an additional cost. A good rule of thumb is to tip your hamamci approximately 20 percent of the total services.

Photo of the painting Pipe Lighter by Jean-Léon Gérôme by Flickr user Heilemann

Stressed? Soak up some relaxation in a hammam

New experiences make the best presents.

My brother-in-law and his wife gave me and my wife gift certificates to Madrid’s biggest hammam, or Arab/Turkish bath.

I’ve always liked hammams. The ones in Turkey, with their cold, warm, and hot sections, are reminiscent of Roman baths. I’ve also tried them in Iran, where in poorer neighborhoods that lack plumbing they aren’t just for relaxation, but also literally for bathing. Those aren’t as relaxing because most people are just popping in for a quick shower instead of lazing away the afternoon with some steam and a massage.

Last week was the first time I tried a hammam in the Western world. They’re getting more popular, cropping up in many cities as a cheap alternative to a spa. The one we went to was in an old water works that had been remade to look like a Turkish bath, complete with piped music and fake skylights. In contrast to their Middle Eastern counterparts, most Western baths let in people of both sexes. Bathing suits are required, unlike certain Parisian hammams a female friend of mine goes to!The hammam had a warm pool that felt like a bath, a hot pool that felt wonderfully relaxing but made me sleepy if I stayed in too long, and a reinvigorating cold plunge. Supporters of hammams say that making the rounds between warm, hot, and cold baths relaxes and rejuvenates you, improving general well-being and opening up pores to improve the skin.

The attached picture shows a Turkish hammam, where the water is in basins, but the hammam we went to had actual wading pools filling large rooms. Some people even swam laps!

This particular hammam, like many others, also has a steam room and massage therapists. My wife and I both got expert fifteen-minute massages. The whole experience was very soothing and the perfect way to unwind after a hectic holiday season. The only off note was some of the customers. Spaniards feel the need to speak loudly absolutely everywhere, including during movies, an unforgivable sin, and also in hammams that have signs saying “Silencio, por favor” hanging on every wall. In the Turkish and Iranian baths I’ve visited silence always reigned, and the hushed atmosphere added another level of relaxation and otherworldiness to the experience.

Most of the customers were couples in their twenties, thirties, or forties. While this is not a place for picking up members of the opposite or same sex, the warm air, trickle of water, and dim lighting does create a sensuous atmosphere. It’s perfectly acceptable to snuggle up to your partner and kiss, but the guy who was nibbling his girlfriend’s toes went a bit too far in my opinion.

Hammams are getting more popular in the West, so check out if there’s one near you and get your in-laws to treat you. You won’t be sorry.

Istanbul’s hammams becoming more popular

In Ottoman times they were the daily ritual of the wealthy and middle class. Hammams were a place to unwind and socialize while getting clean. But in the twentieth century with the rise of internal plumbing and changing attitudes, the traditional hammam declined. Many decayed or were converted to other uses.

Now hammams are becoming popular again. Turks are once again interested in their Ottoman past, and with the recent death of the last heir to the Ottoman throne, that nostalgia will probably increase. Cagaloglu, built in Istanbul in 1741, is on sale for $16 million. Another one in Istanbul’s Aya Kepi neighborhood, dating to the 16th century and built by the famous Ottoman architect Sinan, is on sale cheap for $3 million, but needs extensive remodeling. At the moment it’s being used to store lumber! Hopefully someone will buy this historic building and reopen it as a hammam. There’s also been a spate of new building, with hammams appearing in shopping malls and hotels.

While the big historic ones in Istanbul are impressive, going to a small-town hammam in Cappadocia was one of the more memorable experiences of my month in Turkey. It was so small, in fact, that they didn’t have separate men’s and women’s sections. Men and women went on different days. The smaller crowd made the whole experience more relaxing and the tellak (masseur) sure knew his business. As I lay on a warm stone bench he squashed me into the rock, kneading my muscles until tension fled in terror. The best feeling was when he stopped! It was only then that I realized how relaxed I was.

Lounging around a hammam is a great way to spend a couple of hours. So if you’re headed to Turkey, try a hammam. The small-town ones are more sedate and less expensive, but the big popular ones in Istanbul need support too.

Gadling TAKE FIVE: Week of June 6–June 13

Sorry to have missed last week’s Take FIVE post, but I was off in Hocking Hills, Ohio without WiFi, something I didn’t expect. In a few hours I’ll be heading to Tennessee. Who knows what will happen when I leave the house? Therefore, here’s this week’s Take Five before I go.

With summer travel comes footwear choices. Abha, Iva and Heather all had something to say about shoes. Flip-flops, Crocs or stew shoes? Which ones are safer? What about fashion?

Along with thinking about footwear options, summer is a time you can learn new things. Matthew has some suggestions for singing karaoke with the best of them. And, Aaron passes along tips about a Turkish bath.

Since I missed last week, here are a few more summer tidbits. Erik offers up sunburn advice, Kent knows just how to savor a meal in Paris and Jeremy provides details about GPS and location services to help you get where you’re going.

Happy Friday the 13th, Happy Father’s Day, and enjoy the weekend. As for me, I have to pack.