On a frigid, rainy Monday in Istanbul, Sara Clarke hits the baths.
How it works
Turkish baths are typically gender segregated. Because of this, nudity is common, though bathing suits are welcome.
After paying at the entrance, you receive a pair of sandals, a peştemal (a thin towel for covering up), and a coarse mitt called a keşe (used for skin scrubs).
The main part of the bathhouse consists of a heated room with a warm marble platform at the center, called a navel stone, situated under a domed ceiling. Surrounding the navel stone are sink-like fountains running with warm water.
The room is very warm, but it’s not a sweat lodge. When you first arrive, spread your peştemal on the navel stone and lie down for a bit to relax and get accustomed to your surroundings.
There may be a hot tub or a plunge pool, but this varies from hamam to hamam.
Unlike at a banya or sauna, youre here to be bathed. After you’ve vegged out on the navel stone for a while, an attendant will motion for you to come over and get clean. She (or he, if you’re in the men’s section) will pour warm water over you, rub you down with the keşe, and scrub you with soap. There’s usually a short massage, as well.
Take a deep breath when the attendant signals for you to sit up, because she’s going to wash your face and hair, too. This part is a little reminiscent of toddler-hood.
After rinsing off, you can return to the navel stone to relax in the womblike space as long as you like. There may be a hot tub or a plunge pool, but this varies from hamam to hamam. When you’ve had enough, toss your wet peştemal down the designated chute and head to the lounge area to dry off and change back into your clothes.
As in the bath area itself, you can relax in the lounge as long as you want, and many hamams offer tea, coffee, and snacks as well as Western-style beauty treatments like manicures. On a blustery winter Monday, this is an ideal place to enjoy a good book and a tiny cup of strong black tea.
Istanbul hamams to check out
1. Çemberlitaş Address: Vezirhan Caddesi 8, entrance on Divan Yolu Caddesi Website: Cost: TL 69 (~$40US) for entry and a soap scrub.
Çemberlitaş Hamam was built in 1584 by the Ottoman architect Sinanwhich means it’s an extremely classy place to have your back scrubbed.
2. Aziziye Address: Recaizade Sokaği 17-19, in Kadıköy on the Asian side Website: Cost: TL 40 (~$23US) for entry, scrub, and massage.
This 19th-century bathhouse on the Asian side is more popular with locals than the hamams in the Old City.
3. Ayasofya Address: On the grounds of Hagia Sophia Website: Cost: €70 for entry and scrub. Yes, euros.
If you’ve always dreamed of living in an Orientalist harem painting, this is the hamam for you. Also known as Haseki Hürrem Sultan Hamam, the recently restored bath was originally built for Suleyman the Magnificent’s wife Roxelana in 1556.