What I particularly appreciate about traveling is trying to live authentic, typically local experiences.
Traveling by public transportation, eating in dive bars where no tourist has ever set foot, getting a shave at the barbershop… or going to the public baths.
I really liked the thermal baths in Budapest, appreciated the peculiarity of the sauna in Minsk, loved the onsens and sentos in Japan, a little less the Jjimjilbang in South Korea.
In Turkey, it is impossible not to test the traditional hammams (or Turkish baths)!
The tradition of the hammams is lost in Turkey. 100 years ago, there were 2500 Turkish baths in Istanbul. Since then the baths have taken place in every home and there are now only a hundred of them left.
Going to the Turkish baths is still the guarantee of an authentic experience in places steeped in history. Some hammams are indeed not far from 500 years old!
Here is how a hammam session takes place.
Stage 1: The finish
While the most touristy (and expensive) hammams require a reservation, in most of them you can come unexpectedly without any problem.
Some places have separate schedules for men and women, others (usually in tourist areas) accommodate men and women at the same time.
The person in charge will present you the different formulas. Generally, the basic formula allows you to enjoy the hammam, the scrub and the wash. The massage is optional.
If you choose a massage, you can ask for the type of massage you want (full body, feet only, …).
Choose what you want and pay (cash only most of the time).
Step 2: We get undressed!
Once you have paid, the person in charge allocates you a cabin and a key, gives you a fine towel and flip-flops.
If it is a mixed bath: Undress and roll up with the towel. The principle is to be naked underneath but it is acceptable for women to put on a bathing suit if you are more comfortable like that (Anh advises to come with a bathing suit because once the towel is wet, you can see everything :D)
If it is a non-mixed bath: Undress and roll up with the towel. Keep your panties/boxer
Once ready, lock the cabin and keep the key around your wrist.
Step 3: Rinse, relax and sweat
Once ready, an employee will take you to the main room. This is a hot and humid room (which can be mixed).
Start by filling a basin with a temperature setting to your liking and rinse your whole body, keeping your towel on.
Take the opportunity to admire the architecture of a place that is several hundred years old where tens of generations of men and women have come to wash and relax.
Once rinsed, it’s time to sweat. Some hammams have a sauna, others have some kind of hot stone tables. Relax and forget the daily worries for 15 / 20 minutes.
Step 4: Scrubbing and washing
An employee will come to pick you up to polish you up.
If it is a mixed space, women usually go to another space dedicated to them while the men stay in the same room.
Lie down (on the stone, not always very comfortable) and let it happen. The employee will start by giving you an exfoliation. This consists of rubbing your body with a horsehair glove to eliminate dead cells and create a brand new skin.
A little rinse and in no time you will be covered with foam. The technique is fun to watch: the employee dips a towel in a basin of soapy water. Then by inflating the towel with air, an impressive amount of foam is left on you. The employee will polish you from head to toe and then rinse you clean!
Depending on the location, the employees can be more or less rude (they do it all day long, a bit on a string) and the hygiene isn’t always fantastic (the cushion on which you put your head isn’t washed every time) but well… it’s all part of the experience.
After that, the employee will give you a thin towel similar to the one you have so you can change it and a thicker towel to wipe you.
Change directly on the spot, it’s time for the massage if you have taken one.
Step 5: The massage
This is usually done on the first floor. The reputation of Turkish massages is to be quite vigorous (they don’t say “strong like a Turk” for nothing) but for the moment I haven’t had any complaints.
Step 6: Tea time!
Once clean and relaxed, it is the traditional tea time. The most common tea is apple tea. I, who am not used to drinking tea, like it very much.
Take all the time you want to taste it and that’s it! You can change your clothes.
The Turkish baths are a great experience not to be missed if you are passing through Turkey! You will leave clean and relaxed.
In comparison, I still prefer thermal baths in Budapest and Onsens in Japan, which are both cheaper and richer facilities (hammam, sauna, baths at different temperatures, …).
The hammams we tested
Hammam built in 1454. No need to make an appointment. The hammam is mixed.
The manager speaks very good English.
The “traditional package” (entry + scrubbing + washing) costs 120 TL.
We have chosen the “full package” which costs 200 TL to benefit in addition to an oil massage, a head massage and a face mask.
A sauna (made of marble) is available, very pleasant.
Close to the blue mosque.
No need to make an appointment, mixed hammam.
The manager speaks English and even a few words of French.
Inlet + scrubbing + washing for 80 TL. 40 TL for 20 minutes of massage.
No sauna this time, we lie down on a hot stone table to sweat. Very effective.
Uskudar Sifa Hamami
Thanks to D. whom we met in Japan and who is passing through Istanbul, we meet A. another Belgian digital nomad and Y. a Turkish guy he met in Istanbul… Berlin (the world is small!).
Glad to have the advice of a local, we ask him to recommend a hammam where tourists do not set foot to live a truly local experience.
So we go Asian side all 4 of us to live a really popular experience in a 450 years old, non-mixed hammam
The principle is the same as the other hammams but this time it is reserved for men (apparently a building just next door welcomes women). Nobody speaks English and everything is written in Turkish. Fortunately Y. is there, it is much simpler.
The Turkish bath is equipped with a hammam (in the sense of a very hot and humid area). We then have the right to the classic scrub and a much more virile wash / massage than in the hammams that welcome tourists.
As we come out of the wash, we are spoiled, a young man dries us and wraps us in towels.
We lie down comfortably and enjoy a cup of tea. The young man offers us an “extra foot massage” for 15 TL, with pleasure!
Y. discusses a little with him and explains to us that he is Afghan and that he arrived in Turkey a year ago. He already speaks a very good Turkish and lives… on the spot… in the hammam… He seems very happy with his current life, surely already much better than the one he had in his native country. The trip often reminds us how lucky we are to be born French.
The total service costs us 77 TL distributed more or less like this:
- Entrance: 30 TL
- Scrubbing and washing: 15 TL
- Massage during washing: 15 TL
- Foot massage: 15 TL
- Tea: 2 TL
Y. recommends that we tip 10 TL to the person who washed us and 5 TL to the young Afghan. Delighted with the experience, I give a little more.
Ayasofya Hürrem Sultan Hamamı
(Very) high-end, non-mixed Hammam (separate male/female entrance)
Very good experience for Anh, not so good from my side.
She talks about it in detail here.
Price : 80 €
Kilic Ali Pasa Hamami
Very high-end Hammam also with an exceptional quality of service.
Next to that, the Ayasofia hamam should be ashamed.
The quality of the wash is incredible and the massage is very good too.
It is necessary to book in advance because they are very successful. Different schedules for men and women.
Rates: 270 TL for the entrance + washing. 280 TL for 50 minutes massage. 8% discount if you pay cash. Tips to put in the tip box
Hammam (male only) just 3 minutes walk from our Airbnb.
It is a popular hammam. There were about twenty people when I was there, we must have been 2 or 3 foreigners.
There are several small rooms where you can rinse yourself.
The place has a steam bath and a sauna (which you have to look for a bit, they are in a not very prominent corner). There were people in the sauna which was not turned on, I did not understand the delirium.
The scrub/wash/massage was really great. Virile as it should be, I really appreciated it.
At the exit, we come to dry you and wrap you in towels.
I read a couple of notices that this steam room was gay. Clearly, there were gay people there but I was not embarrassed or shocked by anything and I didn’t receive any solicitations 😀 Then in those places, it’s better not to be too modest but you can go there without any problem.
Very cheap price, I paid 70 TL in total.
I think I made a little mistake when I went out, I put the tips in the “tips box” and not in the hand of the person who took care of me. I think he was a little pissed off.