Last updated on January 25th, 2024 at 09:42 am

If you’re wondering what happens in a Turkish bath, we’re here for you. This ultimate first-timer’s hammam guide answers all your questions and explains why being bathed in public isn’t even remotely as bad as it sounds.

You can find Turkish hammams in several large cities and towns in Europe and beyond. Yet, nothing beats an authentic hammam ritual in Istanbul. This is why our guide focuses on what happens in a Turkish bath in Istanbul, the types of hammams you can find there and what to know before you indulge in your first Turkish bath experience in Istanbul.

Of all the amazing things to do in Istanbul, a traditional Turkish bath experience stands out. Every time we visit our beloved city, we make sure we indulge in the utter pampering only an authentic hammam can offer. That said, with so many traditional hammams and public baths in Istanbul, choosing the best for your first Turkish bath experience is no easy task.

Not to mention the second thoughts you may be having about exposing your naked body to a large room full of strangers. Oh, that didn’t come out right at all. But, please, do keep reading and you’ll see that what happens in a Turkish bath is neither awkward nor embarrassing. It’s the epitome of relaxation and bliss.

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This image was taken from Galata Bridge in Istanbul and shows the sea with many ferries and a mosque in the distance.
Istanbul is one of the best destinations to indulge in a Turkish spa experience

What Is a Turkish Bath?

The word hammam loosely translates to a communal bath or bathhouse in an Islamic country. In this article, the terms hammam (or hamam), Turkish bath and public bath are used interchangeably.

Hammams have always been a vital part of Islamic and Turkish culture. Unlike Roman baths, Turkish baths historically never had pools but used flowing water for hygiene reasons. Yet, a Turkish bathhouse wasn’t just a place for personal hygiene in the past. Throughout the centuries, public baths gradually became social institutions where people gathered to chat, spend time together or even make major political decisions.

Nowadays, hammams are revived and offer their guests the authentic experience of a unique ritual that withstands the test of time.

This is an outside shot of Kilic Ali Pasa Hamami in Istanbul.
Istanbul is dotted with domed buildings that house century-old hammams

What Happens in a Turkish Bath?

Now that you know what a Turkish Bath is, it’s time to answer the greatest question of them all. What happens in a Turkish bath?

Understandably, you must be wondering what it feels like to be bathed by a stranger in the presence of other strangers. We won’t lie. We had second thoughts until the last minute. To be more precise, until our actual hammam ritual began. But let’s take it from the top. Here’s what to expect from an authentic Turkish hammam experience.

Once you enter the hammam, you are greeted by the staff and shown to the lounge where you’re offered a cold refreshment. Then, depending on the bathhouse, a staff member brings you any items you may need, such as flip flops, disposable underwear or a peshtemal. The latter is the special thin cotton towel used in Turkish baths and a true symbol of the Ottoman hammam culture.

This image shows the lounge area at Kilic Ali Pasa Hamami from above. There is a white marble fountain in the centre of the room. There are tables and chairs around the fountain and huge comfortable sofas along the room's walls.
The wonderful lounge area at Kilic Ali Pasa Hamam

Once you’re done enjoying your refreshment, you head towards a changing room. It’s OK to still be nervous at this point. We know we were. But, soon, you’ll be in the sweet embrace of utter relaxation, all this uneasiness a thing of the past.

With nothing but your bathing suit – or disposable underwear – on and wrapped in your peshtemal, it’s time to step inside the abaton of the public bath. For this is what it is. An abaton where no photos are allowed, a private space to feel safe and comfortable.

This image shows the private area at Kilic Ali Pasa Hamami.
Entering the private hammam area
Photo Credit: ©Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı

Your bath attendant leads you to a small room with a marble floor and walls. There, another attendant splashes you with cold water from top to bottom. Drenched and dripping, you then enter the hot room – also called the steam room – to lie on a large heated marble slab for a while. From that magic moment onwards, as you let the high temperature sweat out any toxins from your body, your mind also starts to unwind.

After fifteen minutes or so, it’s time for the actual bath ritual. Your bath attendant takes you by the hand and asks you to sit next to a small marble basin, one of many in the main bathing area. Many other people are being bathed in the same room. Yet, soon, you won’t care at all.

This image shows the marble basins at Kilic Ali Pasa Hamami in Istanbul.
The marble benches and basins where the actual bath takes place
Photo Credit: ©Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı

Now, the experience of a lifetime begins. Your attendant gives you a light scrub to get rid of dead skin cells before covering you in thick soap foam and gently washing your entire body and hair with warm water and soap. Even though it may sound awkward, no words can describe how relaxing and purifying this hot water and soap massage is. It’s also emotional as you feel as though you’re a child again, being pampered by a loving parent.

By now you are sleepy and content beyond words. If you manage to open your eyes, you’ll see that everybody else is in a similar state of sweet trance. Detached from the outer world, with all your material belongings left outside the door, this traditional bath ritual feels like an actual rebirth of body, soul and mind.

With your body clean, your soul soothed and your mind as carefree as a baby’s, you are then wrapped in fresh towels and led back to the lounge where you can enjoy a glass of Turkish tea, sit back and relax – or even take a nap – for as long as you want. If you like, you can continue with an oil massage session or similar hammam treatment, as most Turkish hammams in Istanbul offer massage services, too.

This image shows Katerina wrapped in towels and resting on a comfortable sofa after her hamam experience. Relaxing after the ritual is part of what happens in a Turkish bath.
No better way to spend a birthday – our first-ever traditional hammam experience in Istanbul coincided (?) with Katerina’s birthday

Top Tips For Your First Turkish Bath Experience

You’re no longer in the darkness as you now have a pretty good idea of what happens in a Turkish bath. But our first-timer’s guide doesn’t stop here. To help you have a fantastic and utterly comfortable first Turkish bath experience, we came up with this list of tips to keep in mind before you book your hammam session in Istanbul.

1. Beware of Mixed-Gendered Hammams

The first thing to remember about a Turkish bath ritual is that it’s a very communal experience, with all spaces shared by many people at the same time. Therefore, you may want to choose a hammam that has separate areas for men and women or doesn’t offer mixed-gender services. This way, you’ll know that, if for example, you’re a woman, there’ll only be other women guests with you and you’ll only be pampered by female attendants.

Most historic hammams have separate times – or even separate entrances – for men and women. Therefore, when making your reservation, make sure you keep in mind that, depending on the hammam you choose, there are either different times of the day available for men and women or separate sections for each gender.

This is an image of the facade of Kilic Ali Pasa hamami in Istanbul.
At the entrance of Kilic Ali Pasa Hamam, you can see the separate times for men and women

2. Pick a Highly Rated For Its Cleanliness Hammam

When choosing a hammam, you should focus on cleanliness and comfort. In Istanbul, top-rated luxury hammams are often accused of having a somewhat sterilised feeling. Some people claim that you should choose one of the shabbier hammams in the city if you want to experience the real thing.

For your first time in a Turkish hamam though, it’s best to go for a top-quality luxury hammam. After all, the important thing here is to feel comfortable and enjoy your public bath experience to the fullest and this can only be guaranteed in a spotlessly clean environment.

This image shows the heated marble surface at Kilic Ali Pasa Hamami in Istanbul.
The spotlessly clean main bathing area at Kilic Ali Pasa Hamam
Photo Credit: ©Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı

3. Choose The Right Service

Available services vary from hammam to hammam. Some bathhouses offer the option of self-bathing with your own soap, exactly the way locals have been doing for ages.

That said, if you want to experience a truly memorable bath ritual, you should opt for the traditional Turkish bath service. We already explained what happens in a Turkish bath done the traditional way. In essence, you are given a relaxing bath by an attendant.

Of course, you can always complement your traditional experience with other services, such as body massages or face masks. Yet, the uniqueness lies in the traditional Turkish bath and this is what you should be going after.

4. What To Bring With You at The Hammam

Good hammams offer disposable underwear, a traditional Turkish towel (peshtemal) and flip flops. That said, if you prefer, you can bring your own swimsuit, towel or flip flops.

Moreover, keep in mind that you will have an actual bath. Therefore, you should bring along everything you might need afterwards, such as make-up, deodorant, hair products you can’t live without etc. Also, a pair of clean underwear is never a bad idea. Hair dryers are available in all good hammams, you don’t have to worry about that.

5. What You Can’t Bring With You at The Hammam

Before you enter the private hammam area, you will be asked to leave all your personal belongings in a locker room. You cannot bring mobile phones or cameras inside the actual Turkish bath area. So, if you’re dreaming of a bubbly selfie, forget it. It’s not going to happen.

This image shows the wooden lockers at Kilic Ali Pasa Hamami in Istanbul.
Lockers and hair dryers at Kilic Ali Pasa Hamam

Turkish Baths in Istanbul

You’re almost ready for your first Turkish bath. There’s only one more thing that can make or break your whole experience. That’s no other than the bath house you choose. In this section, we’re giving a brief overview of the different types of Turkish baths you can find in Istanbul, alongside recommendations for the best hammams in the city.

There are several hammams scattered across Istanbul. These can be loosely divided into three categories. First of all, there are the grand historic public baths. Then, we have the modern spa facilities that form part of the city’s luxury hotels. Lastly, there are some hole-in-the-wall neighbourhood hammams, the kind that locals have been frequenting for centuries.

The latter aren’t recommended for first-timers and this is why we won’t be covering them in this guide. The experience there might be a bit overwhelming in terms of intimacy and, sometimes, hygiene.

This image shows a colourful neighbourhood in Balat, Istanbul. There is a Turkish bath and sauna sign in the background.
A shabby-looking Turkish bath in the Balat neighbourhood, not an option you should consider as a first-timer

Historic Hammams in Istanbul

Istanbul is dotted with historic hammams that date back to the Ottoman Empire. As explained above, public baths in the past were important social hubs rather than just the places where people went to wash themselves. This is why some of the grandest baths in Istanbul are part of large mosque complexes, true architectural masterpieces commissioned by Ottoman sultans and other officials.

Some of the most impressive hammams in Istanbul were designed by Mimar Sinan, the chief architect of the Ottoman Empire. Throughout his career, Sinan was responsible for more than 476 buildings in Istanbul, among which 94 large mosques, 52 small mosques, 35 palaces and 48 bathhouses.

This image shows Kilic Ali Pasa Hamami and Mosque in Istanbul.
Kilic Ali Pasa Mosque and Hamam, both works of Mimar Sinan

Nowadays, several of these historical hammams have been renovated to offer high-quality services. If it’s your first time in a Turkish bath, we recommend choosing one of these historic public baths, not only because the services they offer are of the highest standards but also because it’s worth having this unique experience within the walls of a gorgeous building with several centuries of fascinating history.

Here’s a selection of some of the best historic hammams in Istanbul:

1. Kilic Ali Pasa Hamam

Kilic Ali Pasa Hamam was where we indulged in our first-ever Turkish bath experience in Istanbul and we can’t recommend it enough. If it was up to us, we’d tell you to look no further and book your traditional Turkish bath ritual at this hammam without thinking twice about it.

This image shows the sign outside Kilic Ali Pasa Hamami in Istanbul with the year that the hamam first operated (1580).
One of Istanbul’s oldest hammams

Constructed by Mimar Sinan between 1578 and 1580, this bathhouse boasts a 17-metre dome and has been renovated to perfection.

Its main bathing area, dominated by the raised platform of the heated marble slab (göbek taşı in Turkish) in the centre of the room, is a sight to behold whereas the spacious lounge is the ideal place to relax after your hammam experience. From our experience, we can ensure that all the hammam areas are impeccably clean and the attendants are exceptional.

Book your unique Turkish bath experience at Kilic Ali Pasa Hamam here.

This image shows the white dome at Kilic Ali Pasa Hamami in Istanbul as seen from inside the hamam.
The magnificent domed ceiling as seen from inside the hammam
Photo Credit: ©Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı

2. Hurrem Sultan Hamam

Also designed and built by Mimar Sinan, Ayasofya Hurrem Sultan Bath is yet another historical bathhouse in Istanbul. As its name suggests, the hammam enjoys a prime location in the heart of Istanbul, close to Hagia Sophia. This is also one of the very few historic hammams in Istanbul that offer mixed-gendered services, in case you want to experience the bath ritual with a friend or partner of the opposite sex.

Book your Turkish bath experience at Hurrem Sultan Hamam.

3. Cemberlitas Hamam

One of the most popular hammams in Istanbul, Cemberlitas Hamam is so beautiful that it has been used as the set for several movies. According to some historical sources, this too is a work of Mimar Sinan but not every historian confirms that.

Book your Turkish bath experience at Cemberlitas Hamam.

4. Vezneciler Hamam

Situated in the historic centre of Istanbul, Vezneciler Hamam was built in the distant 1481. What sets it apart from all the other historical hammams in the city is that it’s housed on the building’s second floor rather than the ground floor.

Book your Turkish bath experience at Vezneciler Hamam.

5. Cağaloğlu Hamamı

Built in 1741, Cagaloglu Hamam was the last bathhouse to be constructed in Istanbul during the Ottoman Empire. Its gorgeous interiors scream history at every turn. This hammam also offers a customisable Bridal Bath service for brides-to-be in search of an unparalleled experience.

Modern Spas in Istanbul

Historic hammams are not the only places you can enjoy a Turkish bath in Istanbul. Most – if not all – 4- and 5-star hotels in Istanbul feature special hammam spa areas with excellent facilities, offering top-notch services.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with opting for a modern spa. Especially if you’re not at all comfortable in the presence of other people as most modern spas offer more private sessions. Or if you want to add services like modern steam baths or a Finnish sauna. However, if it’s your first time in a Turkish bath, trust us when we say that you’ll want to have the unforgettable experience that only a historic hammam can offer.

Below, you can find a list of Turkish bath experiences in modern spas to book:

This image shows a tray with two glasses of Turkish tea and a candle at Kilic Ali Pasa hamami in Istanbul.
A nice Turkish bath is always followed by traditional Turkish tea

Now that you know what happens in a Turkish bath, we genuinely hope that you’ll add this one-of-a-kind experience to your Istanbul itinerary next time you’re there. Indulging in this pampering experience at one of the cities that gave birth to this very ritual is a memory to cherish for life.

Do you love spas? Here’s some further reading for you:

The Best Thermal Baths in Budapest
Things To Do in Karlovy Vary & The West Bohemian Spa Triangle

IMAGES: Katerina

IMPORTANT: In case of pregnancy or any health problems, please consult your doctor before visiting a Turkish bath.

Disclosure: 1. We were invited as Press at Kilic Ali Pasa Hamam but, as always, we express nothing but our honest opinion about the experience we had. 2. Taking photos inside the private hammam areas is strictly forbidden. Therefore, wherever you see ©Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı in the caption, it means that those images are owned by the hammam and we were kindly given permission to use them in this article about what happens in a Turkish bath.

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