Tourists tend to get a bit nervy when there’s nudity and massage involved but what better way to get to know a new city than by experiencing its public baths? Of course, in Istanbul, the top-end hamams are a lot grander than your average city bathhouse, the best of which are positively palatial. Although traditionally this was where Muslims would come to cleanse their bodies before attending the mosque, nowadays, many hamams are bending over backwards to attract tourists – Muslim and non-Muslim alike. Most are gender-segregated, so check the schedules in advance. You can bring your own shampoo and soap, or buy it on arrival. Start off by choosing your hamam package. Why not go large and choose the full wash, scrub and massage?
Once in the changing rooms, place your valuables in a locker and undress down to your birthday suit. (Shy first-timers can retain underwear or swimwear but they should bear in mind they’ll be in the minority.) Then you’ll usually be given a towel and a cotton wrap-around sarong called a pestemal. On entering the main bath chamber, you wash yourself using one of the marble basins. Now for the treatments. These will differ slightly depending on the hamam and the package you’ve paid for but, essentially, you lie on the piping hot slab in the centre of the chamber (the göbek taşi) where an attendant (tellak if it’s a man, natir if it’s a woman), armed with an abrasive ‘kese’ mitt, will scrub every inch of your skin. Next comes the main event: a full-body massage that you’ll find both invigorating and extremely vigorous. Some hamams offer other services such as head massages and clay masks.
Confused? Apprehensive? Worry not. The hamam attendants will guide you through the finer details. Just lie back and think of Turkey, having checked in advance exactly what you’re paying for. The whole experience should prove to be a very relaxing one. As the Rough Guide to Istanbul explains: “Lounging around on warm marble slabs, your fellow bathers lost in the steam and light streaming in from tiny bottle-glass windows set in an ancient dome, is an experience few people can resist.” Most hamams allow you to enjoy the atmosphere for as long as you wish. On exiting the hot chamber, relax for a while in the cool room on the other side, and rehydrate yourself with the soft drinks on offer. At the more touristy hamams, the tipping of attendants is encouraged. Head back onto the street (dressed, of course) and you’ll feel like you’re walking on air.
ISTANBUL’S BEST HAMAMS
AYASOFYA HÜRREM SULTAN HAMAMI
Arguably the most opulent of all of Istanbul’s hamams, this is worth a visit for the architecture alone.
Built in 1584, this hamam is right in the heart of the old city.
Only couples or families are admitted to this mixed-gender hamam.
This hamam likes to show off about its celebrity visitors and appearances in various movies.
KILIÇ ALI PAA HAMAMI
Great for first-timers, this hamam will guide you gently through the whole process.
THE SPA AT FOUR SEASONS ISTANBUL AT THE BOSPHORUS
Housed in an old Ottoman Empire mansion, mystique meets modern sophistication at this hamam.