A Woman’s Guide to Turkish Baths
Previously, I wrote briefly about Jordan’s experience in the male section of the baths and mentioned an article, What To Expect When Visiting A Turkish Bath. While the article was helpful in making my decision to go for it, it was from a man’s perspective. This is my experience at Çemberlitaş Hamamı, which I would highly recommend.
This is not for you if
- You have a sunburn or new tan
- You hate hot water
- The idea of someone touching you is repulsive
First, before we move along, I loved my first experience and would gladly do it again.
A Turkish bath, or hamam, takes place mostly in a steam room. There is a cooling off room (usually at the beginning), the steam room, and then an even hotter room you can go relax in. But not all hamami are constructed the same, so expect variation among establishments.
Women and men are strictly separated at hamami. Sometimes there are hamami for only men or only women, sometimes the hamami allows women and men in at different times of the day. Larger establishments have separate facilities for men and women. If there is a mixed hamam, it was designed with tourists in mind.
A nice thing about hamami is how long it’s open: usually from 6 a.m. to about midnight, so it’s perfect to end your day with a bath.
Local women bath naked. Like completely nude, usually. Tourists tend to wear bikini bottoms (sometimes given out at the front desk). But again, each hamam may be different.
Decide what you want
There are usually three services you can pick from:
- Self-service (always the cheapest), which includes entrance into the bathing rooms and use of towels. At the hamam I went to, it was around 60 lira. You go in and do everything yourself. I wouldn’t suggest it for a first-timer.
- Traditional service, which includes entrance, use of some toiletries, and 15 minutes of scrubbing by an attendant. At the hamam I went to, it cost 90 lira.
- Luxury and other treatments, which are usually add-ons to the traditional package, such as massages, clay face-masks, pedicures and manicures, etc. Varying prices. I purchased a 30 minute oil massage on top of the traditional service.
At the front desk tell them what you want. You will be given tokens for whatever services you’ve purchased (these will later be collected by attendants). My hamam also gave me disposable black bikini bottoms. If yours does not, bring dark underwear to wear into the hot rooms. You don’t want to wear wet underwear home!
I was directed to the women’s section, which was busy with both locals and tourists (my favorite combination). An attendant handed me a peştemal, a red/white checked cloth to cover up before the baths and rubber slippers. I changed behind a curtain and put my things in a locker. At this point, you should just be wearing the black bikini bottoms. You may get a private changing closet, or change in a locker room. If you like, wrap the peştemal around you like a towel.
Once directed into the beginning chambers (whichever it is, a warm room or directly into the steam/hot room), take the towel off and lie on it. Everyone else is topless, too. Just lie on your stomach. Turkish women will be completely nude, typically.
The steam room tends to be circular, with alcoves for showers and buckets of hot water. In the center of the room is a raised stone to sit or lie on. Female attendants tend to be in bikini tops and bottoms, or just bottoms. After resting or showering for a time (and sweating!) an attendant will come to begin the scrubbing process. I began laying on my stomach, so she worked all of my back.
While the bikini bottom stays on the whole time, ladies, it is moved around quite a bit on the backside. Just be forewarned. Scrubbing gets all the dirt and dead skin off your body. I couldn’t believe how much dead skin I had on me! Neither could my attendant either, by the look on her face. She told me to turn and sit when necessary. She scrubbed all of me–if I had worn a top, she would’ve told me to take it off so she could reach everything. Then, she poured hot (really hot) water to get rid of the skin. Washing with soap comes next.
All in all, this is about 15 minutes. Depending on the hamam and service you receive, things will vary. My attendant sang and joked with a local in a nearby alcove. It was incredibly relaxing and friendly. At first I had been super self-conscious about my state of undress, but I fit in with everyone else. And something about it was nice, actually. All body types and all ages were present, and everyone was treated normally. It was comforting–the female body is something we all have and, at least in Turkish baths, accept as natural and good: nothing to be ashamed of or worried about, no scar or fat roll was odd to anyone.
When scrubbing is finished, the attendant will lead you to a faucet and pour alternating cold and hot water over you, then shampoo your hair (at least mine did). I was in heaven. I could be quiet and relax (something I desperately needed from the icy, loud streets of Istanbul) but be around a community of women enjoying themselves at the same time.
You can stay in the hot rooms as long as you like–and some people spend hours there, napping or visiting with friends. I would have gladly stayed at least an hour longer, but Jordan was waiting for me.
Leaving and Extra Services
Whenever you want, you can leave. I draped myself in my wet peştemal, but was required to leave it at the door. I had to cross the cool, resting room to get a towel. I sat on a bench for a few minutes before the masseuse found me. All the employees were very helpful in pointing the direction to go.
My masseuse was a nice old grandmother with hands like a wrestler. She had me disrobe again (but I still wore my bikini bottom) and lie on the table. To keep warm, I was usually covered with my towel. In the States, or at least the massages I’ve had before, the masseuse avoids the chest area. Not here. She just whipped that towel down and went from my shoulders to my belly button. While I was on my back she maneuvered the bikini as well. At the end, she placed some chocolate in my mouth and kissed my forehead.
When I felt ready, I wrapped back up in my towel and went to the locker room to change.
Take your time changing. Some hamami have hairdryers and an area to reapply makeup or fix hair.
On your way out, make sure to tip. I think 10 to 20% is acceptable.
- Authentic Turkish baths will only have male attendants for men and female for women
- Consider not wearing contacts or makeup, because soap and water will get everywhere
- You can shower whenever you please, and then wash the nether regions yourself.
- If you have sensitive skin or allergies, consider bringing your own soap
- Go ahead and take your top off. You’ll stand out if you don’t, and you want the full scrubbing anyway
- If the hamam doesn’t provide underwear/bikini bottoms, bring your own for bathing (unless you want to go native!)
- Enjoy the architecture, the steam, and the atmosphere! This is a time of relaxation, both physical and emotional.
All in all, it was heavenly and I’m so glad I spent the money to do it (153 lira–expensive but oh so worth it). And my henna tattoo stayed on!
Have you been to a Turkish bath? What was your experience?