For those of you planning a trip to Istanbul, the Turkish hammam experience is an absolute must–as I was told repeatedly, and as I will now preach to you. And it’s always thrown in there with the likes of visit the Hagia Sophia and shop for rugs in the Grand Bazaar, as if stripping down and getting massaged in a giant bubble bath by an also naked stranger is as normal as sampling the local cuisine.
Dear Diary, today I took a boat tour on the Bosphorus, drank lots of tea, and visited the Blue Mosque! Oh, and then a woman who speaks no English used a scratchy glove to remove old skin from my butt cheeks. Ya know, just another day!
The Turkish hammam is better known in the English-speaking world as a Turkish bath—hammam being Turkish for “fancy water boarding.” It’s a purely ethereal experience involving steam rooms and marble slabs, being exfoliated back into an infant, getting your hair washed with a bucket, and, yes, being massaged head-to-toe under an absolute mountain of bubbles. All under the watchful eyes of Oprah Winfrey, John Travolta, and 1980s-era Chevy Chase. AND YES YOU TOTALLY HAVE TO DO THIS!
Now, when I told my fellow Americans I was planning my own Turkish hammam experience while visiting Istanbul, my comments were met with much shock and horror. *GASP* Nudity! *GASP* Strangers! *GASP* Judgment! Besides the fact that I haven’t seen this many naked ladies in one room since season one of Game of Thrones, having your boobs scrubbed silly by a woman who calls you only “Lady” isn’t as strange and awkward as it sounds. It’s actually pretty magical and one of the most amazing travel experiences I’ve ever had.
Before you toss aside the idea of a Turkish hammam experience, gimme a couple thousand more words to try to convince you otherwise… (+ some need-to-know tips)
THE TURKISH HAMMAM EXPERIENCE
Much of what turns people off to the idea of a Turkish hammam experience is in not knowing exactly what’s going to happen in there. Other accounts are vague, if that: some scrubbing here, some soap there… with most readers not even making it past the YOU MEAN I HAVE TO BE NAKED IN FRONT OF PEOPLE?! part.
I, myself, had many unanswered questions before going in—like, how naked are we talking?—but decided to go for it anyway, if for no other reason than blameless curiosity. I’m only human after all—I need to know what happens in the naked room! Therefore, I will describe step-by-step my Turkish hammam experience:
STEP 1: Choose your package and pay
There are a handful (lolz) of hammam experiences to choose from, each including the standard scrub and rub (ok, that sounded better in my head) but also incorporating other spa-like things like foot massages, facials, etc. I chose Cağaloğlu’s “Istanbul Dream” package—the “normal” package which is as “normal” as being bathed by a stranger as an adult human can get.
You’ll pay for your Turkish hammam experience beforehand and though the prices are quoted in euros, you’re also able to pay with a credit card or Turkish lira. They’ll even do the conversion math on a calculator while you watch to show you’re getting a fair exchange. It’s all very cute.
STEP 2: The explanation
After you pay, you’ll be led into the relaxation room and given the lowdown on what you’ve gotten yourself into. Mwahaha! The staff at Cağaloğlu are extremely polite and respectful and do what they can to make sure you’re comfortable. They’ll then assign you a private changing room where you’re free to spend as much time as you like.
STEP 3: Time to get naked!
In your changing room, you’ll take off everythingggg. But have no fear, disposable thongs are here! Cağaloğlu provides you with a peştemal (the traditional Turkish bath towel), rubber sandals, and, yes, disposable paper panties to wear.
(Did I carry around both a pair of thong underwear and some bathing suit bottoms in my purse for three days because I… a) didn’t know when I’d be visiting the hammam and b) wasn’t sure of appropriate Turkish bath genital protocol? YES. Don’t be like me.)
Put on the thongs, slip on the sandals, and wrap yourself with the towel under your armpits like you do at home. Save your boobies for the bath, girlfriend. Lock your changing room behind you and take the key with you.
STEP 4: Come on let’s sweat! Baby!
After locking up your changing room, an attendant will lead you through the bathing room to the sweat room—a small, dimly-lit cave as hot and steamy as a Magic Mike movie trailer. You’ll sit in the sauna for 15 minutes, sweating out all that baklava you ate earlier and softening up your filthy, filthy skin in preparation for your exfoliation. You’ll see.
📸 Obviously, no photos are allowed inside the Turkish bath. Therefore, you’ll have to accept my extremely well done reenactments taken on the side of my bathtub at home. (And for what it’s worth, I purchased one of Cağaloğlu’s peştemals before I left–I did not steal this.)
STEP 5: This is where it gets weird
After 15 minutes in the human pressure cooker, your personal attendant will retrieve you and lead you, by hand, to your basin in the bathing room. She’ll remove your towel for you and lay it out on the marble slab, then come back and rinse you down head to toe using a shallow bowl and some cool water. It will be the most refreshed you’ve ever felt in your life—up to this point of course.
STEP 6: Scrub-a-dub-dub
You’ll start out by laying on your back with your hands over your head (as one does on a marble slab) as your attendant dons a kese—a sandpaper-like exfoliating glove–that she’ll tie onto herself with the gravity of a surgeon preparing for an operation. She’ll start with your face and scrub every inch of you from forehead to feet (minus the areas covered by your paper panties, naturally–this is a spa after all, not the Playboy Mansion).
She’ll take your hand and place it on yourself so you can feel all the years of old, dead skin now forming disgusting gray clumps on your body. You’ll make faces signifying the disgust you know feel for yourself and she’ll laugh because she’s polite but also because, yes, you are pretty gross. Then you’ll flip over onto your stomach and she’ll do it all over again. Not until you’re as soft as you were the day you were born will she sit you up, lead you, by hand, to the basin and rinse all that nasty shit off.
STEP 7: Bubble bath!
Once all the old skin clumps are rinsed off, you’ll return to the slab and lay on your back. Your attendant will now perform magic. She’ll take a large towel out of a bucket, swing it through the air a couple of times (you can’t make this stuff up), and squeeze it over your body creating a tall mountain of bubbles. She’ll wash your entire body clean with the soapy lather then begin a full body bubble massage that’s like halfway between soothing Swedish and deep tissue. However, I’m sure your attendant will be more than happy to oblige your preferred massage pressures–just be careful about shouting “harder, harder!” in the naked room.
Then you’ll flip over and she’ll do it all over again.
STEP 8: Rinse and repeat
After your bubble massage is complete (that’s the technical term I believe), you’ll return to the basin where you’ll be completely rinsed off. Again.
Next, she’ll have you sit on the marble floor next to the basin and she’ll shampoo and condition your hair. We have now entered the fancy water boarding part of the program. This isn’t a tilt-your-head-back and rinse situation, this is a full-on, overhead dousing with a metal bucket that’s more akin to being sprayed by an angry elephant than anything else. My unpreparedness for this onslaught must’ve been a real hoot for her.
STEP 9: That’s a wrap!
Both literally and figuratively. Once your entire Turkish hammam experience is complete, your attendant will turban-wrap your hair, then wrap your body in a huge cushy bath towel. She’ll then lead you, by hand, back to the relaxation room and place you on a red velvet cushion like a prized Pekingese at the Westminster Kennel Club. This place is LEGIT.
STEP 10: Relax your ass off
After having another peştemal wrapped your shoulders by what I can only assume were plump, rosy cherubs, you’ll be served tea, Turkish delight, and something they call sherbert (and if you’re wondering what that flavor is, it’s tamarind). You’re encouraged to spend as much time as you’d like in the “Relaxation Grotto” and you’re free to roam on your own. You can order more drinks, take a nap in your private changing room, whateverrrr you want.
In your changing room is a bed, a table with some complimentary toiletries, a bottle of water, a hair dryer, a mirror, and everything else you need to get ready for the day, all refreshed and shit.Now that we’ve gotten that totally and completely normal sequence of events out of the way, here are some tips for your Turkish hammam experience:
DO MAKE A RESERVATION
Not every place will require you to make a reservation, but if you, too, choose the world famous Cağaloğlu for your Turkish hammam experience (I mean, Oprah did, so duh), you’ll want to plan ahead. Reservations are not required at Cağaloğlu but, well known as it is, spots book up.
Personally, my Istanbul agenda was kind of up in the air so I strolled in 10 minutes after opening (9:00 am) on a Monday (which also happened to be a public holiday—not sure if that’s relevant or not but there it is) to find the earliest appointment I could get was 1:00 pm. That wasn’t a big deal at all, but dammit I wanted my early morning bath! More time to get filthy I guess–it’s all about perspective, people!
If you have a jam-packed schedule (which I always recommend) with little wiggle room, do remember to make a hammam reservation ahead of time.
DON’T FOLLOW GOOGLE MAPS
Google Maps walking directions SUCK at best. Following Google Maps to Cağaloğlu will lead you to a blocked side entrance in an alley wedged between restaurant patios full of men eating breakfast. There will be a sign that says “Ladies Entrance” and your husband will tell you to go in—even though it looks like the entrance to an underground poker game that you don’t know the secret password to.
Instead, stay on the main road you took by the Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Caddesi) and Cağaloğlu will be down about five minutes on your right with a more regal entrance worthy of Oprah Winfrey who would probably never partake in illegal gambling.
DO REMOVE ALL MAKEUP BEFORE YOUR TURKISH HAMMAM EXPERIENCE
I mean, it is essentially a bath you’re heading into after all. If you’ve ever coached a high school football team to the regional championship, you’re aware of the dousing you’re in for. Don’t let the serene images in the hammam’s promotional video lure you into a false sense of sexy dryness. You know what’s not sexy? When your mascara runs all the way down to your nipples.
DON’T FORGET TO BRING WHATEVER YOU’LL NEED TO GET READY FOR THE DAY
If your appointment is in the morning and you don’t want to look like a drowned rat for the rest of the day (guiltyyy! I literally didn’t know I was getting my hair washed until it happened), bring your makeup, a hair brush, and whatever else you pretty people need to get ready for the day. They provide a hair dryer, a few other amenities, and your changing room is yours for as long as you want it. I mean #whatwouldOprahdo?
DO BRING A HAIR TIE
But not for your hair. Your getting doused whether you like or not, sorry sis.
After locking up your changing room, you’ll need to keep your key with you for your entire bath. Now, if you’re anything like me, you’re not great at hanging on to jagged pieces of metal while being bathed. Instead, I took the elastic ponytail holder out of my hair and put it on the key ring so I could wear my changing room key around my wrist throughout my bath. This way, I could worry less about keeping track of my key and all my anxieties could be put towards OH MY GOD STOP CLENCHING, ASHLEY, SHE’S GONNA SEE!
DON’T GO IF YOU HAVE A SUNBURN
The highlight of the Turkish hammam experience are those ten glorious minutes when your attendant sandpapers you from your nose to your toes. It’s not as uncomfortable, ahem, as rough, as it sounds—especially if, like me, you choose to imagine you’re just being licked over by a giant cat. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Regardless of your tolerance for exfoliation (#beautyispain), getting scrubbed by a Brillo pad is going to murder if you have a sunburn and is probably a terrible idea for your skin anyway. Plan your Turkish hammam experience at the beginning of your holiday if possible, or don’t be afraid to reconsider if you fell asleep on your yacht yesterday.
DO LET GO OF EVERYTHING
Now that you don’t have a room key to hold on to you’re free to let go of EVERYTHING ELSE. The Turkish hammam experience will be one of the most relaxing of your life, own it.
The previous day was a rough one for me, starting with a nightmare experience in the Naples airport (really, Italy, you’re beautiful but it’s time to get your shit together) and culminating in a full blown anxiety attack 24 hours later. Instead of locking myself in my hotel room for the rest of my time in Istanbul, I decided to go get coddled by a stranger. And it worked like a charm.
Sitting in the steam room, eyes closed, I could feel all my anxiety and tension streaming out of my body in an almost transcendent way. The sweat was so much more than just a physical cleanse.
I was able to turn off everything I had to think about—travel plans, how I was going to order food after this, the perfect stranger touching my boobs, the fact that my phone and only connection to the English-speaking world was now toast, and so much more (women, you feel me)—and just live in the moment. I existed throughout the whole experience in what felt like a trance-like state.
A white marbled room filled with steam and naked women, mountains of foam bubbles, the constant sound of sloshing water, light streaming in through star-shaped holes in the 300-year-old ceiling, and communicating only through charades, no words. Surreal. Being led around the room by hand like a toddler learning to walk, being topless and bathed by an adult while wearing disposable paper underwear. Like, is this real life? #AreYouMyMother?
Do your best to let go of all your troubles, at least for the duration of your Turkish hammam experience. Besides, if you’re tense, everyone will know. #clenching To illustrate, check out my Turkish hammam experience before and after photos:
DON’T FEAR THE NUDITY
I talk a little about this in my post on Iceland’s Blue Lagoon—another amazing spot many people miss out on due to public nudity fear mongering, as if we don’t all have the same parts—and how it’s not as big an issue as you’re imagining.
First of all, nothing about this is public. Pubic, maybe, but not public. You’re in an upscale, secure facility, with separate men’s and women’s sections. Only a certain number of appointments are taken at a time, meaning the baths are never packed with people. During my Turkish hammam experience, I shared the bathing room with only five other women—all ranging in age, size and shape, and varying levels of omg what have I gotten myself into?
Secondly, you’re only as naked as you wanna be. I mean, to a degree obviously. You do need to show at least a little skin, otherwise this becomes more of a laundry situation and less of a bath. Personally, I chose to go topless + the disposable thongs, as did the other five women in the room with me, from what I could tell as I glanced briefly around the room in the name of research.
However, during STEP 2: The explanation, we were told we could also wear a bra if that’s how we felt comfortable. But if your opinion matches that of every other woman I’ve ever met on the entire planet, NEVER IS A BRA THE COMFORTABLE OPTION.
DO KNOW YOU’RE NOT ALONE
Literally and figuratively.
During your Turkish hammam experience, everyone will be just as naked as you are. Even the employees. This isn’t that nightmare where you’re naked on stage in front of the whole school. Here, you’re sharing the nudity spotlight with everyone else in the room, all of whom are trying equally hard to not look at each other out of respect but also to avoid being known as the “creepy” girl in the Turkish bath that one time.
Also, you won’t be the only woman in there pushing the boundaries of your comfort zone in the name of adventure. Two of my fellow bathers were visibly mildly apprehensive, but still had the biggest smiles on their faces during STEP 10: Relax your ass off. (I made a third.)
As a group, we American women are openly fearful of being nude in front of strangers and, you know what?, there are over 150 million of us. All sharing the same fears and anxieties. Don’t go into your Turkish hammam experience thinking you’re the only uncomfortable one in there, and/or that everyone else must be totally confident and self-assured. That is rarely the case in any endeavor. Gah, even Adele has debilitating stage fright. Even Jennifer Lawrence suffers from anxiety. Even Britney had a breakdown.
Besides, after 15 minutes in the steam room you’ll be all RIP THIS MF’ING TOWEL OFF ME, I’M DYING HERE!
DON’T WORRY, THEY HAVEN’T FORGOTTEN ABOUT YOU
When the attendant brought me to the steam room, she said “15 minutes, steam.” So I sat back, closed my eyes, relaxed… and then relaxed some more… and then rela- OMG AM *I* SUPPOSED TO BE KEEPING TIME?
Being from the American South I’m more than accustomed to the heat and humidity you find in a sauna, but that doesn’t mean I necessarily enjoy it. Fifteen minutes in a steam room really feels like about three hours and, as relaxing and cleansing as it can be, it takes work to get there. I’m prone to panic when I get overheated and the air is heavy and it takes a strong, conscious effort to insert myself into a relaxing mindset.
That being said, it’ll be much easier for YOU to relax knowing that someone else is keeping tabs on you. After what felt like a year in the steam room, I started wondering if someone out there was keeping time on how long I’d been in there, or if when she told me “15 minutes, steam” she really meant “come out in 15 minutes.” I decided I’d wait it out and see what the other five women in the room did, if I didn’t faint before someone made a move, that is. A few minutes later my attendant came in and called for me in the weirdest, most naked roll call ever.
DO PRACTICE THE ART OF FLIPPING OVER
All I gotta say is, flipping over while lying flat on a marble slab is not something we are accustomed to. And especially not gracefully.
Did I make this as awkward as possible? Yes. Did I kick the soapy water bucket next to my feet, causing the loudest echo ever, while almost dumping its entire contents on the face of the person next to me on the slab? Also yes. Did everyone look super alarmed? Smh… yes…
Tell me: how do you flip over on a marble slab in a way that doesn’t resemble frying bacon? Hmm?
For what it’s worth, I’m over here practicing on the carpeted floor in my office and it seems much easier now. But take my word for it, doing so naked, on a wet, soapy, and elevated marble slab is MUCH HARDER DAMMIT.
DON’T OPEN YOUR EYES DURING THE BUBBLE BATH
For the majority of my Turkish hammam experience, my eyes were closed in a state of pure, soapy ecstasy. However, when it came time to turn my head towards the action during my neck scrub, I decided to open my eyes and check out the goings-on, in the name of research mmmkay?
And that’s when I realized I had been buried in bubbles—bubbles that flowed into my eye sockets like blood out of the elevator at the Overlook Hotel. And that shit burned like a mf’er. I couldn’t wipe it away seeing as how my hands and arms were covered in bubbles. My towel was covered in bubbles. THE ENTIRE ROOM WAS ONE GIANT BUBBLE. So, I just had to let it burn.
I managed to be able to open one eye so, during the part where you’re sitting up and your attendant is inches away from your face as she massages your neck and shoulders, I had to look back at her with just one eye. I may have been very clean, but I was now a very clean pirate. See? Your nudity is safe.
DO TIP YOUR PERSONAL ATTENDANT
Because I’ve read that that is proper Turkish bath etiquette, but also because this lady just scrubbed and massaged your naked body. If you tip the person who passes you a beer bottle, you should tip your Turkish bath attendant. If you tip the person who carries your suitcase from the trunk to the sidewalk, you should tip the person who scrubbed dead skin from your back. If you tip the person who paints your fingernails, you sure as hell should tip the person who took your own boobs in her hands and didn’t comment on how they are the smallest ones in the room. Anywhere from 10% – 20% of your package price is perfect.
My attendant wasn’t in the relaxation room after I changed back into my clothes so I left the tip with the staff at the front desk who put it in an envelope with her name on it. (I tipped in Turkish lira, in cash.) While sitting in the lobby waiting for my husband to now finish his tea, she came over to personally thank me. She was now wearing a shirt.
DON’T RUSH OUT OF THERE
Besides our aversion to public nudity, we Americans are also prone to a sense of urgency—but your Turkish hammam experience is not the place for that. After your bath, you’re encouraged to sit and relax with some tea and sweets and take your time readjusting to the clothed world.
Before my Turkish hammam experience, I had thought I would just get in and get out, especially since I was leaving my husband to wander the streets of Istanbul to pet all the street cats in my absence. But after my bath, I was much more content to just sit on my velvet cushion and sip my tea. Besides, surely someone was on their way to feed me grapes. What’s the rush anyway? There certainly isn’t a lack of cats needing pets. Remember, the point of the Turkish hammam experience isn’t entirely to get clean, but to also just chill the hell out already.
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