During our travels, we always do our best not to miss out on unique experiences. In a strange way, while travelling, we are also more open to trying things that we wouldn’t easily try back home. I wouldn’t know how to explain this but it’s the truth. So, although there are very good hamams in Athens, we never thought of visiting one. However, making reservations for a traditional Turkish bath was among the very first things we did in view of our recent trip to Istanbul. But what happens in a Turkish bath anyway? We are assuming that many of you are sceptical about the idea of being bathed in public. We know we were. This is why we decided to write a useful guide with everything you need to know so as to enjoy your first Turkish hamam as much as we did.
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What is a Turkish bath?
Hamams are a vital element of the Islamic culture in general. Throughout the centuries, far from being simply the place where bodies were cleansed, public baths functioned as extremely important social hubs as well. Nowadays, hamams are revived and offer their guests the unique experience of an authentic ritual which withstands the test of time.
Turkish baths in Istanbul
Hamams in Istanbul are intertwined with the very essence of the Ottoman Empire. They are also quite spectacular in terms of architecture. We can loosely divide them into two categories. There are the small, rather plain, ones that everyday people used to frequent in the past. On the other hand, there are the glorious ones which formed part of large mosque complexes and were commissioned by sultans and other officials. Many of Istanbul’s impressive baths were designed by the Ottoman Empire’s chief architect Mimar Sinan.
Top tips for your first Turkish bath experience
Since this would be our first time in a hamam, we researched a lot before actually visiting one. We now combine all of this knowledge with the feelings the actual experience evoked in us so as to present you with a comprehensive guide on how to make the most of your own Turkish hammam experience. We are assuming that you are not yet entirely sure whether you want to partake in a public bath semi-naked or not. At least, this is how we felt. This is why we have included all the information we deem necessary for you to feel comfortable and enjoy a unique and authentic experience that you will cherish for life.
1. Choose a historical hamam
In Istanbul, probably elsewhere too, there are two kinds of Turkish baths. First of all, there are the ones which are housed in centuries-old domed buildings which were built for this purpose. On the other hand, there are modern hamams inside luxury hotels and spas. They both offer pretty much the same services. That said, you should definitely indulge in a historical hamam experience. There is nothing wrong with modern spas and baths but it would be a huge shame to miss the opportunity to experience a centuries-old ritual right in the place where this whole public bathing culture was actually born.
2. Choose the right service
Services offered vary from hamam to hamam. However, there are basically two types of Turkish bath. First of all, there is the self-bathing option. As its name suggests, you literally bathe yourself which means that you have to bring your own soap, towel etc. This is obviously the cheapest way to go but keep in mind that this option is not available in every Turkish bath house. Secondly, there is the traditional Turkish bath service which is actually the real experience you should be after. In essence, you are given a relaxing bath by an attendant. We’ll get into more detail later on. Last but not least, you can complement either Turkish bath experience with other services such as body massages or face masks. We went for the second option and we loved it. Taking a Turkish bath in the traditional way is a fantastic experience.
3. What to bring with you at the hamam
During the Turkish bath, you will only be wearing your underwear so it’s a good idea to bring an extra pair along. Good hamams offer disposable underwear but bringing our own bikinis made us feel super comfortable. Also, keep in mind that you will have an actual bath. Therefore, you should bring along everything you will certainly need afterwards (for example, make-up, deodorant, hair products you can’t live without etc).
4. What you can’t bring with you at the hamam
Before you enter the private hamam area, you will be asked to leave all your personal stuff in a locker. You cannot bring mobile phones, cameras etc inside the actual Turkish bath area. So, if you’re dreaming of a bubbly selfie, forget it. It’s not going to happen.
5. Choose the right hamam
We saved the most important tip for last so that it sticks. It is of vital importance to choose the right hamam so that your first Turkish bath experience is more of a dream than a nightmare. First of all, if the idea of being semi-naked among strangers sounds even slightly awkward to you, make sure you choose a hamam that has completely separate hours for men and women. It will be a lot less uncomfortable if you know for a fact that there is no chance of you stumbling upon the opposite sex during the time you will spend at the hamam.
Furthermore, when choosing a hamam, you should focus on cleanliness and comfort. In Istanbul, there are many top-rated hamams which are sometimes accused of having a sterilised feeling. There are people who claim that you should choose one of the somehow shabbier, thus more authentic, hamams in the city. In our humble opinion, this would be a huge mistake for newbies. Go for a top-rated one, even if that means that it will set you back a few extra TL/euros/dollars. It will be worth every penny, trust us.
Our experience at Kilic Ali Pasa Hamami, one of the best Turkish baths in Istanbul
This would be the first time in a Turkish bath for both of us. Therefore, we made sure we chose one of the best hamams in Istanbul. Not to mention an insanely clean one. We decided to try the Hamam Ritual (45€, worth every single penny) at Kilic Ali Pasa Hamami and, honestly, we couldn’t have made a better choice. Mimar Sinan himself designed Kilic Ali Pasa Hamami and its construction took place between 1578 and 1583. It is an impressive domed building and it has been restored in an amazing way. Now, before I go on, I have to admit that, having read various articles about what to do in a Turkish bath and all, we felt quite awkward and uncomfortable. However, as soon as we stepped inside Kilic Ali Pasa Hamami, the girls-only staff made us feel incredibly at home.
As soon as we sat in the lounge area, we were offered a cold refreshment and each of us was given a pair of quality flip flops and a pestamal. The latter is the special towel used in Turkish baths and a true symbol of the Ottoman hamam culture. Then, we reluctantly went to the changing rooms. Why reluctantly? Because we still didn’t know if we’d like this whole public bathing thing or not. To be 100% frank, I didn’t think I would go through with all of this. Confession alert: I have major privacy, personal space and touching with strangers issues. Therefore, although I did want to live this experience, in the back of my head I pictured myself running like a crazy lady out of the hamam covered in a cloud of bubbles. Yet, to my astonishment and absolute bliss, the exact opposite happened.
So, with nothing but our swimsuits on and the pestamals wrapped around our bodies, we stepped inside the abaton. First we were led in a small marble area where a lady poured water all over us. From top to bottom. Drenched and dripping we then entered the spectacular main hall of the hamam and we lay down on the heated marble surface dominating the room. Did I mention that I also hate the heat? Well, I do. However, I can’t even begin to describe how good all this felt. In fact, both Katerina and I had never ever felt our bodies so relaxed before. Ever. The experience would have been amazing even if it ended right there and then. But, no, the best was yet to come.
After 15′ or so, each of us was led by her attendant to one of several marble basins surrounding the central heated surface. We were literally led by them as we were in a superb sleepy mode by then. I was asked to take my bikini top off (Katerina wasn’t). However, I was already too relaxed and happy to even care. Then it was time for the actual bath ritual. I can’t even try to put it into words. Far from making us feel uncomfortable or weird, this was the most relaxing, the most purifying experience we have ever had. Moreover, it was a trip back to our childhood. We closed our eyes and felt as though we were 5 years old again and given a bath by our mothers.
As far as I’m concerned, I couldn’t believe how much I was enjoying it. Having a look around the room made me realise that Katerina and all the other ladies were also in that state of sweet trance I was in. Detached from the outer world, with all our material belongings left outside the door and far one from the other (we noticed that, like ourselves, all ladies were separated from their friends instead of being led to neighbouring basins), this traditional bath ritual felt like an actual rebirth of body, soul and mind. As if all this wasn’t good enough, at some point my attendant started singing in a calm and beautiful voice which reminded me of my grandmother’s lullabies. Had I just died and gone to heaven or what?
When our bodies were clean, our souls soothed and our minds carefree as a baby’s, we were wrapped in fresh towels and led to the lounge area to relax on the comfortable sofas for as long as we wanted. In a previous communication I had with the hamam, I had mentioned that it was Katerina’s birthday on that day. So, as soon as we sat on the sofa, Katerina was greeted with a small but super cute birthday surprise which involved Turkish tea, mouthwatering almond cookies and birthday candles. What more could the party girl ask for?
When it was time to leave, our feet felt incredibly light. It was as though we hadn’t walked all those kilometres the previous days. This is why, as a final tip, we would advise you to plan your hamam pampering towards the end of your trip so as to get all the rest you will definitely need by then.
What happens in a Turkish bath stays in a Turkish bath?
Before writing this post we faced the huge dilemma as to whether we should describe our Istanbul Turkish bath experience in such detail or not. You see, we didn’t want to spoil the magic for you. Because this is exactly what it is. Pure magic. In essence, you are left into the caring hands of a total stranger who gives you the best bath of your life. However, we know how awkward this may sound. This is why we finally decided to go ahead and give you as much information as possible so that you don’t let your (understandable) inhibitions get in the way of an unmissable experience.
IMPORTANT: In case of pregnancy or any health problems, please consult your doctor prior to visiting a Turkish bath.
Disclosure: 1. We were guests at Kilic Ali Pasa Hamami but, as always, we express nothing but our honest opinion about the experience we had. In fact, the Hamam Ritual service at Kilic Ali Pasa Hamami was one of the best experiences we have ever lived and one that we can’t recommend enough. 2. Taking photos inside the private hamam areas is strictly forbidden. Therefore, wherever you see ©Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı at the caption, it means that those images are owned by the hamam and we were kindly given permission to use them in this article.