Last Updated on May 8, 2023
Until my recent visit to Istanbul, I was never interested in a Hammam ritual. I had visited Istanbul three times over the years, and a Turkish Bath was never on my “to do list”. Not because I don’t like spas and saunas – I loved cheap spa getaways when I still lived in Europe – but because somewhere in the back of my mind, there was a little piece of information stored, that made a Turkish Bath completely uninteresting to me. And that fact was that there was some level of nudity involved in the Hammam ritual.It always surprises people when it comes up in a conversation that I am uncomfortable being naked – probably because I am German and my countrymen are known to love nudity. If you don’t know what I am talking about: the BBC published a whole article Why Germans Love Getting Naked In Public, CNN shared The Naked Truth About Nudity in Germany, and the New York Times mused A Very German Idea of Freedom: Nude Ping-Pong, Nude Sledding, Nude Just About Anything
Saunas, nude beaches, nude hiking, nude tennis “Freikörperkultur” – give us plenty of opportunities to undress, and we happily oblige. Well, that may be the case for most Germans, but it isn’t the case for me. While growing up, I had several friends who’d travel to the Baltic Sea with their parents to enjoy the nude beaches up there (oh the horror!), but luckily, my parents never had the desire to join them. That’s not to say that they were prude – growing up, I saw my parents naked all the time, and nudity was encouraged in our house. And yet, somehow I ended up a prude.
When I was 18, I dated a boy (the only boy I seriously dated before I met my first girlfriend a few months later), who loved going to the sauna. And since we were dating, his frequent visits to the sauna included me. Near the town I grew up in there are a number of “Finnish Saunas”, with several steam rooms and saunas at different temperatures, and of course the ice plunge pools. Every indoor pool and spa had a very nice sauna area. I would have probably enjoyed them more had I been able to cover my private parts.
But even now, more than twenty years later, I can still remember the discomfort I felt every time we spent an evening in the sauna. I admired the confidence of my boyfriend, who never seemed to have the slightest bit of uneasiness, even though he certainly didn’t have a body you’d see in a Calvin Klein underwear commercial.
After our relationship ended, I never went back to a fully nude sauna. I went to the sauna regularly while I worked in a 5* hotel in Austria a few years later – but I always kept my bathing suit on. On a blog trip to Finland a few years ago to experience the glory of a Scandinavian winter (I’ll leave it to you to decide if this was sarcastic or not), I had a quick freakout when I saw that a Finnish sauna was part of the itinerary, because I knew that in Scandinavia, going to the sauna means being naked. Imagine the relief I felt when I learned that since there were quite a few Americans on the trip, they had decided to make bathing suits obligatory for the sauna experience, so that nobody would feel uncomfortable.
So how did I end up in a Hammam in Istanbul? Truthfully, it was mainly because I was cold. When I booked a trip to Turkey on a whim, I did expect to brave a snowstorm on my wanderings around town, but here we were. My trip to Istanbul coincided with one of the biggest snowstorms that the city had seen, making global news. I’d booked this trip because I’d remembered that on a one-day stopover I had in January in Istanbul a few years ago on my way to Asia, it was sunny and warm. I had the best time back then, not even wearing a winter jacket. I made a mental note that Istanbul could be enjoyable in the winter, too – my previous visits had always been during the hot and sweaty summer months. That’s probably why it never even occurred to me to visit a Turkish Bath.But this time around, I was cold. I was walking around the city wearing everything I’d packed, layering up, and still not getting warm. So when I saw a Hammam advertised on my wanderings, it suddenly seemed very appealing. Nudity? Who cares!
Instead of walking straight into the first Hammam, I went to a café and started researching the best Hammams in Istanbul. If I was going to do this, it had to be amazing. After some research, I made a reservation at Kilic Ali Pasa Hamam. I was intrigued by the beautiful historic building, which I’d walked by a few times, not knowing that it was a Hammam. With its dome roof, it looks more like a mosque than a Hammam. I learned that it was built in 1580, and in fact part of the Kilic Ali Pasa mosque complex. The dome, 230 feet (17 meters) in height and 46 feet (14 meters) in diameter, is one of the largest hammam domes in Istanbul.
I also liked that there were separate times for men and women (women from 8am to 4.30pm, men in the evenings), unlike the saunas in Germany which had always been mixed. Other hammams do not offer different times for men and women, by the way, but when both genders can visit at the same time, they have separate areas for each gender.
Instead of making a booking via email, you have to send a request with your desired date and time, and if there’s availability, you get an email back confirming your booking. I sent off my booking request, thinking that if my reservation was NOT confirmed for my last day in Istanbul, then it wasn’t supposed to be.
But it was supposed to be – a couple of hours after sending my email, a confirmation landed in my inbox. The next morning, I’d be going to a Hammam. To be honest, I didn’t know what to expect. I decided not to watch any YouTube videos, not to read any experience articles – all I knew were the vague details I’d seen in the Google reviews I’d glanced through, including the sentence that made me hit the “book” button: “If you do nothing else in Istanbul, go to Kilic Ali Pasa”, had a reviewer named Catherine stated. And I figured, this being my third trip to Istanbul, and my fourth time in Turkey, I should partake in something that was such an integral part of Turkish culture.
So there I was, on a freezing winter morning, ready to get out of my comfort zone, entering the Hammam. It was very quiet, only one other woman arrived while I was still sitting in the lobby, drinking the şerbet, the ayurvedic drink, I was served. One of the attendants told me to go upstairs and put my clothes in a locker, and then to come back down just wrapped in a traditional Turkish cotton towel, the pestemal, the slippers they provided – and with my bikini bottoms on. The attendants for women (natir) are all female, and the attendants for men (tellak) are all male.
I did as I was told and another attendant took me inside the bath. She sat me down on a marble bench and started pouring warm water over my body, before telling me to lay down on a large heated hexagon marble slab (called Göbektaşı) right underneath a high domed ceiling. I was told I’d be laying on the hot marble for about fifteen minutes. The marble was hot, but not uncomfortably hot – and it felt really good. Shortly after I’d laid down, another woman joined me. Both of us were just laying there, staring at the dome above us – I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a bit awkward. But fifteen minutes went by quickly, and my attendant came back to pick me up and wash me. This was definitely out of my comfort zone: having somebody wash me. After sitting me down next to a marble water basin (the kurna), she started washing me down with water, scrubbed my entire body from top to bottom with an exfoliating mitt (the kese). I could literally see skin and dirt coming off of my body, and was slightly embarrassed about how dirty I was. How could I be this dirty, despite scrubbing myself with a loofah every day? Wow! I guess I should make Turkish Baths a regular occurrence then.
After I was scrubbed down, the attendant dunked a pillowcase-like cotton bag (a torba) into a soap mixture, and I can’t explain how it works exactly, but somehow the bag filled up with soap and she poured the foamy soap all over my body. I was covered in foam and it felt and smelled amazing. The woman who had arrived at around the same time as me was being washed right across from me while a third guest was laying on the Göbektaşı in the middle of the room. It was fascinating to get a visual of what was happening to me – seeing her covered in bubbles, too, made me wish I had my camera to snap a quick selfie. But phones and cameras are not allowed inside the hammam – they were upstairs in the locker room.
The attendant then rubbed the bubbles – apparently olive oil soap – onto my skin. She really took her time soaping me up, it was almost like a full body massage, rubbing the soap everywhere. That included even the spaces between my fingers and my toes! Nothing was left out, only what was covered by my bikini bottoms.
Now, a fourth woman entered the room – the bath started filling up, but I don’t think there’d ever be more than five or six woman in the bath at the same time (because there are only four basins in the room). While she soaped me up, we chatted a bit, she asked me about my life and I learned that she was the mother of two 11-year old children. The attendants only have a towel wrapped around their waist and wear bikini tops because they do get wet during the bath, too. After she’d soaped me up entirely, she washed my hair with shampoo and conditioner, and then she filled up the kurna next to me with warm water and started pouring it over me from a small silver bowl. And that was it. After all the foamy soap was washed off of my body, she led me to another room where she wrapped me into a soft, dry towel and thanked me for being her guest.
Back outside in the foyer, I was told I could sit in the camegah, the sofa area, and relax for as long as I wanted. An attendant brought a drink menu which included drinks like Ayran and herbal teas, and I ordered a jasmine tea to prolong the experience a little longer. There are separate massage rooms, by the way, and oil massages can be booked as an add-on to the Hammam ritual. I’d hoped that there would be sauna room or a steam room, as I’d read was the case in other hammams, but this Turkish Bath was really just about washing the guests. But even without a sauna or steam room, it was nice to sit and relax in the historic building for a while, admiring the brick dome above me.
Would I visit a Hammam again? Yes, absolutely. Admittedly, I wasn’t entirely comfortable during the experience – being scrubbed down by someone is just weird – but I felt squeaky clean, refreshed and relaxed when I left the hammam. I would be curious to try a different Turkish Bath next time in Istanbul – there are plenty to choose from!
The best Turkish Baths in Istanbul:
- The Hagia Sophia Hurrem Sultan Bathhouse (1556)
- Cağaloğlu Hamamı (since 1741)
- Galatasaray Hamam (since 1481!)
- Süleymaniye Hamam (since 1551)
- Çemberlitaş Hamamı (constructed in 1584)
- Alaturka Hammam
- Çatma Mescit Hammam