Istanbul is famed for its sprawling markets, beautiful architecture and for being the rendezvous point of the East and West. People commonly visit the Topkapi Palace, The Blue Mosque and the Grand Bazaar while touring the city. However, to experience Turkish culture like a local, you must drop by one of Istanbul’s many bathhouses, known as ‘hammams’ for a traditional, one-of-a-kind Turkish bath. By Tara Choudhary
These baths are always carried out as per ritual, and it is important to allow yourself to be fully immersed in them for a complete experience, which is why understanding what you are getting into is key. As you enter a hammam, you will be asked which kind of wash you’d prefer—with or without an attendant, including an oil massage and other such details. Once this is complete, you are expected to store your belongings in a locker and then proceed to undress. There are different bathing areas for men and women and both are expected to bath nude, save for a red gingham cloth the size of a tea towel, which you will be given. Along with the cloth, your attendant will also give you shoes, either wooden clogs or flip flops, which you are expected to wear as you travel between rooms.
Inside the main bathing area of the hammam, there is a large central platform of heated marble, where you are meant to spread out and lounge freely, however, there is no discrimination against those who are shy or new to the experience and choose to sit up instead. The main purpose of this part of the treatment is to sweat out toxins and impurities before your wash.
If you asked for a wash with an attendant, which is the most common type of treatment, they will join you after you have had a good 15-minute sweat, and douse you in lukewarm water. After this, they will take a kese (rough mitt) and give you a dry massage, before moving on to applying shampoo and lathering you with body soap using a giant sponge. A final dousing of lukewarm water will mark the end of your wash, which is commonly described as a feeling of ‘being born again’ after the generous scrub and lather leaves you clean as a whistle.
If you signed up for an oil massage, you’ll be taken into another room for it. The massage is said to be no different from any other and is usually skipped by locals for simply being an added and unnecessary cost. In the end, you can decide to leave as soon as your treatment is complete, or stay longer, bathe in the heated pool, relax and unwind.
The most well-known of Istanbul’s hamams are Cağaloğlu Hamamı and Çemberlitaş Hamamı, which have been around for centuries and assure a classic hammam experience, being the go-to for most locals. They are open from 6 am to 12 am, and can be visited at the end of a long day for a chance to unwind, or before you head out in the morning, as a refreshing start. These times are normally the least crowded. However, for those searching for an even modern take on the traditional bath, many hotels, such as The Four Seasons on the Bosphorus, offer a luxurious (and much more expensive) hammam experience.