A Turkish Hamam Visit – the Authentic and the Touristy
What can you expect from a Turkish Hamam visit? Have you ever wondered, but not quite dared to visit one? Well… Turkey, and Istanbul in particular, is a perfect place for a first-time Turkish hamam visit.
What kind of hamam to visit?
Only one piece of advice: If you can, visit a historical hamam. The modern ones in the hotels are all very well, but sitting in an ancient building and having an attendant scrub you, is kind of… next level.
Mind you, I am in no way an expert on hamams, but I have visited enough now, in Turkey and other Middle Eastern countries, to know what to expect and what happens in a hamam.
For a first time visit or if you expect English to be spoken, you will need to visit a hamam aimed primarily at tourists – or wealthy locals.
What happens during a Turkish Hamam visit
First, check out the hamam website (or, in the smaller and local ones, the opening hours) and make a reservation. Usually the smaller hamams operate different hours for men and women. In local ones, dropping in is usually fine.
“Bayanlara” means “Ladies” and “Erkekler” means “Men”. Often, there are hours for men only in the early morning, then women until late afternoon, and men in the evenings, and the hamam is usually open from 6.oo until midnight.
So, when you check in, you check on a menu what treatment you would like in local hamams, you can usually choose between Hamam visit only, the “Kese” scrub” and the ” Bubble Massage”. I recommend booking all three.
You will then be guided to a changing cabin, usually reserved for yourself, sometimes communal. Feel free to leave everything in there, you will be given a locker and a key and I never heard of theft in Turkish hamams. Take off all you clothes. Ladies, if you feel more comfortable, keep on some bra and knickers or a bikini and bring a fresh change of underwear. Everything else will be provided, towels, slippers etc. You wrap yourself in a towel and then an attendant will take you to the hamam.
There, feel free to set up camp next to a marble basin, run some hot or cold water and douse yourself with the water. I suggest start with warm water, go to hot water and sit in the warm steam chamber for at least 15min. In the traditional hamams you will see the “navel stone” in the middle of the main chamber. If it is not occupied, you can sit or lie on it. If you prefer, you can use any side rooms if there are any if you prefer a bit of semi-privacy.
At some point, the attendant will find you and start the scrub. In a good hamam, they will take a new piece of soap and a new scrub mitt, even in the chepaer ones. Usually, this is done seated by a marble basin, but can be done on the central marble slab. It is usually done without soap.
Afterwards, the fun starts! usually, you lie on the navel stone and cover your bits with the towel. If you are very conscious about exposing yourself, consider taking your own large size pestemal and/or wear a bikini or knickers/bra underneath. No one will frown upon you if you do, and some mixed hamams actually provide single-use bikinis and insist you wear them. The attendant will douse you with water, then draw some soap bubbles form what looks like an oversized pillow case and cover you in soap bubbles. It is strangely pleasant. But that is not all – the attendant will then give you a very thorough wash, mixed with a bit of massaging of the back, neck and legs, which can take anything between 5 and 30 minutes. In the end, you get a hair wash, are doused with more water, wrapped in a bunch of clean towels and sent either to the relaxation area or your changing room to relax and get changed.
You pay before leaving (in some hamams before entering) and it is customary to tip the attendant generously if you liked the service. I am never sure how much to give. Usually I try to give about 10%, rounding up to the nearest note. In the cheaper hamams, since they have the inconvenience with a hapless, non-Turkish speaking tourist and seeing the inflation and that they do not get many tourists, I have often given the same amount as in the more expensive ones, so maybe 30-40%. Don’t know – if I like the treatment, why not.
Good Hamams in Istanbul
These are the two hamams I have visited in Istanbul. Both are very good and highly recommended. The more fancy hamams usually have websites and an online booking system, and most display their prices in Euro.
The one to try if you are on a bit of a budget, it is the cheapest of the tourist-oriented hamams offering a modicum of style, an authentic old hamam chamber and some super friendly staff.
This smallish Haman just off Istiklal Caddesi in Beyoglu claims to be the oldest hamam in Istanbul, having been built in 1454 as a private hamam by Sultan Mehmed II “The Conqueror” (and son of Sultan Murad II of magnificent Bursa necropolis) as part of a private hunting lodge. What you see today is mostly 19th century additions by Sultan Abdulmejid I (the 312st Sultan of the Ottoman Empire). During the Turkish Republic it was owned by an Armenian family who opened it to the public, and it has been Public Baths ever since, serving primarily tourists.
The Hamam consists of a 19th Century Changing rooms and lounge and the original 15th Century haman chambers, which have been sympathetically renovated, and it is extremely clean. Due to being a tourist hamam, they operate by a strict pre-booking system, and there are never more than 5 or 6 people in the main hamam chamber.
Treatments are brief but reasonably authentic. Men and women use the same main hamam chamber, plus an added room with hotter steam and a sauna. Treatments are in separate rooms provided by an attendant of the same gender. After the hamam, there is a nice relaxation area with self-service tea, but it is not as plush as some other hamams. You often share with a blind cat which has her home in the hamam and is obviously the real hamam mistress. I found this really charming, being a cat lady, but maybe if you have a severe allergy or fear of cats, this might bother you.
It is about a 10-minute walk from Taksim down some steep cobbled lanes. The entrance is through an apartment block, but it is well marked and signposted. Easiest way is to walk from Istiklal Caddesi, turn downhill at Aga Hamami tram stop, then walk downhill to the T junction. You see an excellent cafe (Gramaj, great for a break before or after the hamam) to your right and the hamam entrance to your left.
I paid approximately 25 Euro for my treatment back in November 2021, the present price for the standard package is 450Lira (28 Euro).
Website (including Booking): http://www.agahamami.com
This little gem is in a relatively little-visited area on the slopes in Beyoglu, and was built by a Sultan’s Consort in the early 19th Century in what was then a relatively European-influenced area. It was closed for 10 years prior to being reopened as a “boutique Hamam” in 2018. Although prices are very reasonable for one of the “fancier” hamams, it is small and elegant and really no mass catering here.
It is a bit of a steep walk from both Istiklal Caddesi or Tophane tram station down or up cobbled roads, past small bars and antique shops, in a picturesque yet not over touristed area. After registration, you will be guided into a fancy changing area, and assigned an attendant who will guide you in the main hamam room and encourage you to drink a lot of water. If this is your first visit, to a hamam, make it this one, as the attendants are usually same sex and very friendly and motherly.
I did not get as much time to steam and sweat as in Aga Hamami, despite arriving super early, which is my only complaint here, other than that, the service was great. The same attendant came to pick me up and led me to the Gobektasi, the heated marble slab, to perform a very thorough scrub, followed by the soapy massage, which lasted about half an hour altogether, and was definitely longer than at Aga Hamami – which is probably reflected in the price. Two other women had their treatment at the same time, which seemed rather exclusive for the relatively large room, but you may have men having their treatments at the same time – and I definitely would have felt less comfortable.
The relaxation area, , again, is wonderful and a notch up from Aga Hamami, very elegant and relaxing, but it feels more like an upmarket spa rather than a traditional hamam. I paid 35 Euro for my complete package, given the somewhat advantageous exchange rate. At present, the price is 45 Euro, owed to inflation.
Website (including Booking) : https://www.cukurcumahamami.com
Other recommended Hamams in Istanbul
I have not been to any of those, but they are on my list!
Hurrem Sultan Hamami
Formerly known as the Ayasofia Hurrem Sultan Hamami, this is a small but magnificent hamam right next to the Hagia Sofia. It was built by Minar Sinan, the famous Ottoman architect, on the commission of the wife of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent in the 16th Century at the height of Ottoman rule. It went out of commission as a hamam in 1990 and back into being a hamam in 2008 after extensive restoration. At 55 Euro for 30minutes and 120Euro for 60minutes it does look rather expensive but the gleaming white and mosaic marble look absolutely stunning. It is a double-domed hamam so I presume there are separate sections for men and women. It is very easy to reach, being right next to Hagia Sophia and less than 5minutes from the Sultanahmet tram stop.
Kilic Ali Pasa Hamami
Another one from the heydays of the Ottoman Empire, this is the most recent of the city centres restored hamams, done in a purist, clean way, yet the bones of a traditional hamam are all there with the original 1580s hot chamber and the wood firing. If you are lucky, you can catch a TV report on Arte about it sometimes – this is how I learned about it. All white and bare brick work, this is another small but stunning building right next to the Kilic Ali Pasa Mosque it used to belong to, and a stone’s throw from Tophane tram station.
Here, you get separate hours for men and women, which is relatively rare in the tourist-oriented hamams. The price for a full hamam treatment is currently about 35-40 Euro which seems pretty reasonable, and they do state you can spend as much time in the warm chamber as you like.
This one is the top rated on Tripadvisor, which is fairly telling that this one is another one aimed at tourists, easy to reach from the Sultanahmet or Gulhane tram stops and an Ottoman dream in restored 18th Century splendour. They offer the traditional 45-min traditional hamam treatment for about 50 Euro upwards to 140 Euro which include massages and packs and whatnot, and there are separate sections for men and women.
A stone’s throw from the Grans Bazaar, this one is proper old, dating from the late 15th Century and historic and may provide a less touristy experience than those mentioned above. Including a somewhat ramshackle interior and peeling plaster in the hot chamber, which is yet decked out in classic marble. They also have a sauna and a cold water five basin. Still, I have never been to anywhere really dirty in Turkey, and would have no hesitation to give this a try. There are separate hours for men and women, but I could not find prices anywhere, but from what I understand this is one of the cheaper ones. Their website is in Turkish, English, Russian and Arabic. Expect a classic hamam treatment and not a lot of spa-like services.
Tarihi Vezneciler Hamami
Having visited (And loved) the area recently, I am definitely going to try this one next time. Look s a bit rough an ready, but their website looks very professional and comes in five languages, explaining the hamam ritual nicely. They also claim to use water with healing properties from a hot spring to cure jaundice, if you are suffering… it is also the only Turkish bath to be built on a second floor of a private building. It is mixed, meaning couples can visit the hamam together, and prices are pretty good at 30 Euros for a full service hour-long hamam and 45 Euro including a 30minute oil massage after the hamam. It is Close to the Metro, and the area is really nice, with the university, some mid-priced hotels, restaurants and shops close by, yet less than 10min from the tram (and the Grand Bazaar).
Mihrimah Sultan Hamami
A bit of an odd one out, quite literally, requiring a trip on the Metro to Edirnekapi. However, if you want to visit the Chora Museum and the adjacent Mihrimah Sultan Mosque, this could be one for you. If you are not into anything too touristy, as it is supposed to be relatively quiet and offer quite a good compromise from holding-your-hand tourist friendly hamam experience and the real McCoy. Also, if you are good on foot, you could take the bus or the Golden Horn ferry service to Fener and see the colourful houses or Merdivenli Yokuş Evleri (“houses on the hill with stairs”) of Fener, this could be a close option to experience a very traditional authentic Turkish Bath. Like the mosque, it was designed by Minar Sinan as part of the Mosque complex in the mid-16th Century under the rule of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent.
It is also relatively cheap, but their web site is not really that informative and does not give prices. This hamam being in a rather conservative area of town, there are separate sections for women and men, and you may not expect that anyone speaks much English.
How are “local” hamams different?
They primarily serve the local population, and often are a place to socialise as well. They come in varying levels of comfort, and can be historic. but there are plenty of modern hamams as well. They have in common that they are always segregated into male and female, either by having different times for men and women, or by having different sections. Often, they cost very little to use, stemming from a time when not every house had a full bathroom.
However, more often than not, they are super traditional and housed in old buildings, heated with wood fire and decked out in marble. You choose from a menu, and it is not uncommon to just pay for a “self service” entry, bring your own scrubbing mitt and soap and just use the warm steam chamber and supply of hot water. And English is very rarely spoken. It is a matter of going to see, but most Turkish hamams are extremely welcoming. Of course, it may be that you walk in, looking for the reception area, and be faced with a bunch of stark naked people, as happened to me in Mardin, when I tried to make a hasty yet graceful exit.
My experience at the 2. Murat Hamami, Iznik
I had sort of planned a bit of a relax at the hamam in Bursa, as they are fed by hot spring water, but given the short time I had, I moved on to Iznik a little earlier, and, after walking around the pleasant but sleepy town, I had a bit of time on my hands. What’s more, my hotel was 100m from the hamam, so very little chance of catching death by flu after my hamam visit.
So I found myself, on my first afternoon, outside the impressive 2. Murat Hamami – the largest and most traditional in Iznik. The 1. Murat Hamam has been repurposed as a museum/timme workshop, to make sure you go to the right one. A little uncertain, I was sneaking round the only entrance I could see, which was signposted as the entrance for men, when a men chopping wood outside walked up to the door and beckoned me in. An old man working the till quickly saw I was a gormless foreigner stuttering around after my “Merhaba” and summoned ayoung guy on his mobile, who told me that I could use the hamam, then the old guy took my by the hand, clothes and all, and took me to the Kubbe, the central area with the Gobektasi, which was lovely and warm, unlike the cold weather outside. He also mentioned that there was one customer inside right now, and that customer was a man, despite it being women’s bathing hours. Thinking I will wrap myself in a nice big pestemal now, I thought “nooo, not at all!”
So, perusing the Turkish Menu (“Masaj” and “Kese” were quite easy to understand, I said, “Well, I have everything!”. The price was ridiculously low, like 4Euros, so that settled, the friendly translator disappeared, and I was led to a huge wood-clad changing room, with a couch in, and brought hamam slippers, basically a wobbly ancient version of Dr. Scholls, and a pestemal, which was a tad short, but well, enough to keep my modesty. Next time I will always keep a pair of spare briefs in my bag when there is the slightest chance of an impromptu hamam visit.
Leaving my glasses in the changing room, I tottered, half blind, into the Kubbe, where I got rid of the slippers, because falling and breaking something wasn’t quite part of my holiday action, sat in a side chamber, and started hosing the hot water onto me. After a nice and reasonable relax with the other man nowhere to be seen, the old cashier guy appeared, just dressed in a towel, and motioned for me to sit next to the marble basin before giving me a bloody good scrub.
I was a bit flabbergasted at first, but the guy must have been 70, and besides, I never ever had any issues with indecent behaviour in Turkey. Once my body was cleared of every semi loose skin cell, and I had been on the floor twice to retrieve an earring, it was time to lie down on the marble slab for the most thorough wash and massage. I mean, it was more Swedish Massage, than wash, but I certainly felt very clean afterwards. The whole procedure took about 40 minutes. Then I was hosed with a few liters of scalding water, and wrapped in loads of big towels, and told to not step on the marble floor until the attendant had brought me some fresh break-your-neck slippers. Needless to say, before and after every new customer, the whole slab was cleaned with some scalding water and a scrub as well. Exhausted, I lied down in my cabin, until the Turkish rap outside became a bit too much, then I got dressed and walked out in the main reception area, where a nbunch of men were sitting in armchairs and chatting. I paid up, tipped, then bough tmyself a piece of cake in a nearby patisserie and decided to sit down for a nice tea at a tea stall, where I met some of the local ladies, who grew up in Germany and my bath time turned into a sociable evening!
What about hamams in other countries?
If I say the first Turkish Bath I have been to was the Victorian Turkish Baths in Harrogate in England, you may laugh, because they couldn’t be further away from a Turkish Hamam. I tried the ones in Newcastle for good measure, but other than a slightly higher level of skankiness, they were pretty much a steamroom with a lame sauna and a small pool – not unpleasant, but certainly not the real (Middle Eastern) deal.
I then tried a “local” hamam in Fez, which was much more the authentic experience I longed for, sitting in my swimsuit in an ancient bath chamber with the local women and conversing in basic French, which was fun, but the Moroccan public hamams are best experienced as a self service. Same for those in Tbilisi, Georgia, where I went into the cheapest one (“Bath No.5”) only to find the public basins for women were closed and I made to make do with a stinky hot sulphur shower and an extremely brief massage, yet some friendly curiosity from local ladies.
All in all, I think Turkey and especially Istanbul are the best places for a Hamam newbie! Try it out next time!