Istanbul is an incredible city of culture and complexity. It’s served as home base to some of history’s most storied empires--the Romans, the Byzantines, and the Ottomans--and it also straddles two continents, Europe and Asia. It was a central stop on the Silk Road, was an important player in the spice trade, and endured a controversial name change in 1930 (remember Constantinople?). But in addition to all that history, it’s home to one of the most intense and iconic spa experiences: the Turkish bath.
There is no shortage of things to see and sample in Istanbul, which is in the midst of a tourism revival after the failed political coup and terror attacks of 2016. There are the must-visit sights like the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace. And of course there’s the Grand Bazaar and Spice Market. No adventure to this place would be complete without a noshing on a doner kebap, sipping a cup of salep, or devouring a big slice of baklava made with local honey.
But when it comes to experiences? There’s nothing more Turkish than a trip to the baths.
I was intrigued by the idea as we planned our trip to Istanbul in January 2019. Several dear friends insisted I had to try it and that I would love it. They all shared stories of marble grandeur, intense sauna steams, and checking modesty at the door.
Several weeks later, I was a bit nervous as I arrived for my appointment, entering a place where sultans and other royal denizens have been scrubbed down since the 1400s. In order to survive (you will) and enjoy (most likely) a trip to a traditional Turkish bathhouse, it helps to understand exactly what to expect. First, a bit of history.
The bathhouse--or hamam--is an important part of Turkish life, and has been for hundreds of years. Adapted from the Roman baths, the hamam is a public place with religious roots. In the Islamic faith, it is customary to perform ablutions--or cleanse--before prayer. The Ottomans built hundreds of outdoor public fountains where people could wash before heading to their mosques.
They also constructed grand marble bathhouses throughout Istanbul and across Turkey. While these were places where people went to be cleansed, they were also social centers where both men and women gathered to relax--and very visible reminders of the sultan’s power and wealth. Gorgeous bathhouses designed by the famed Ottoman architect Sinan stand to this day, and are still used by Turks and tourists alike, centuries later.
Aga Hamami, the Turkish bath I visited, claims to be the oldest in Istanbul. It’s been around since 1454, when it was built as a hunting house and hamam for the sultan. Located just off the city’s famed Taksim Square, it was actually a bit difficult to find, with a nondescript entrance and small sign on the door. I entered the foyer and went down the stairs off street level, curious about what was to come.
I immediately noticed the change in humidity and temperature, and both were a welcome contrast to the winter chill outside. I went to the check-in desk where I was given several items: a key to a changing room, disposable slippers, a raw silk mitt called a kese, and a thin cotton wrap, or pestemal. Both men and women wear the pestemal in the public areas of the bath.
I entered my little room, put on the pestemal and slippers, and locked my clothes, belongings, and iPhone behind me. Once I had changed, an attendant escorted me to the inner chambers of the bathhouse.
The first stop was a massive room with a domed ceiling, entirely tiled in white marble. At the center of this room was a large, heated platform called a goebektas. Both men and women, all draped in their pestemals, were lounging on this marble platform. Before I could take my seat, I was handed a small copper bowl and guided to an ornately carved marble fountain built into the wall. A different attendant gestured (English wasn’t a first language for anyone else present) that I was to douse myself before relaxing on the goebektas.
I adjusted the water temperature with the faucet, then scooped the water out of the bowl and doused myself several times. There was no elegant way to do this, and I felt a bit clumsy throughout the process. There were about a dozen fountains along the walls of the room, and others were doing the same thing: Scoop, dunk, repeat. Once I was soaked to the skin (and likely resembled a drowned rat!) I carefully made my way over to the center of the room and took a seat on the center stone.
As I rested on the goebektas, I realized that of the 15 or so people in the room, no one was speaking English. I heard a mix of Turkish, Russian, and even some German. While the bath is traditionally treated as a social outing, I felt no need to try to converse with anyone around me. It was fun just to listen.
After about 20 minutes, the washroom attendant collected me and down the hall we went to the sauna. This was another marble tiled room, but much smaller, with wooden benches around the perimeter. A coal brazier was in the corner, and the attendant poured water over it periodically to work up the steam. There I sat in close communion with about 10 other people, men and women.
It started to get hot. Really hot. The attendant came to remove people in the order they entered, and after what seemed like an eternity (but was likely only about 10 minutes) I got my call to leave. It was time for the scrub-down.
I was led to a private room directly across the hall, where a female attendant took my kese and removed my pestemal. I then laid facedown on an elevated marble slab that resembled the base of a bunk bed. She scrubbed me with the kese from head to toe, then had me flip over and repeated the process. A couple of observations:
First, while the scrubbing didn’t hurt, it didn’t involve the lightest touch. You can always ask the attendant to go “gentle” but I wanted to make sure I got the maximum benefit. Also: I was both awed and appalled by how much gunk was coming off my skin.
My pores were probably the size of dimes from all that steam, and the kese was a very efficient exfoliant. I consider myself a clean person, but realized more travel grime had accumulated on my skin than I thought!
I kept my underwear on. Everyone I saw did the same, much like when you go to the spa. Keep in mind, you will want to bring a spare pair to change into because they get damp during the experience.
One more thing: at no point was anyone uncovered in the public areas of the bathhouse. Honestly, you see much more skin at a beach or a pool.
Once the scrubbing was done, it was time for the bubbles. The attendant lathered me up, then helped me off the marble slab to the center of the room, where, still covered in suds, I sat on a small wooden bench while she washed my hair. She then gestured for me to stand up. In a surprise move, the attendant threw several buckets of lukewarm water at me for the rinse. I gasped, then laughed. It was certainly a shock, but a necessary step to close those pores back up!
After that, I was wrapped in a dry pestemal and walked back out to the reception area, where I rested on a dais, sipped traditional apple tea, and waited for my post-bath massage. I’ve never felt so clean, or relaxed. Once my 30-minute massage was over, I lounged a bit longer, as did the other bathhouse guests who had also just been through the process. I was able to stay for as long as I liked, and even made friends with the resident cats who wandered in and out.
All in all, I was so glad I gave the Turkish bath a try. It was certainly a highlight of my trip, and gave me a new appreciation for the concept of cleanliness.
There are lots of bathhouses in Istanbul, with a variety of price ranges and services offered. I opted for the budget route and paid just $50 for my experience, which I booked directly through Aga Hamami’s website. This included a 25 percent tip for my bath attendant. I did see prices listed as high as $250 at other spots.
Once you’ve decided on your bathhouse and arrive for your treatment, be patient. The experience is meant to be relaxing, not rushed, and the attendants weren’t in a big hurry. I was at the bathhouse for a total of three hours. It was the perfect way to end a day of sightseeing.
While the Turkish bath I visited was open to both men and women, others have separate hours for each gender. Check ahead before booking your appointment.
Photo Credit: EkaterinaMolchanova / Unsplash