The Turkish woman gestured for me to remove my bikini top, something I thought I had gotten away with wearing. I shouldn’t have felt weird about semi-nudity at this point, considering the other women of all shapes and sizes scattered around the room were mostly totally naked, but my North American upbringing shone through and I gave my sister a ‘HELP ME’ look. She shrugged – I just had to do it. Glaring at her until she turned away, I did as instructed and my half hour hammam treatment began.
Before going to a Turkish bath, I was quite nervous: if theres one thing I can do, it’s research, and dozens of articles had mentioned that it was a totally jarring experience. However, everyone also said it was totally worthwhile, so my sister and I manned up and asked our hostel to recommend a local hammam for us. A hammam, if you’re not familiar, is a traditional Turkish bathhouse that has become popular as a tourist attraction. They are still very much used by locals, so you can easily find a very authentic place!
If you’re in the same boat and trying to figure out what you’re in for, here’s another personal account of what to expect at a Turkish hammam – and first let me say that you should totally do it. We were sent to Gedikpasa Hammam, but there are tons that are fairly similar. Side note – there is another article coming about a hammam experience in Marrakesh, which was possibly the most amusing experience of my entire life as apparently there is such a thing as a COED HAMMAM. I can’t wait to write about that.
The first choice you have to make is what type of treatment you’d like. Of course, the options (and everything else) will vary based on what hammam you go to, but at mine we went for the most basic, which included a soap massage and then a scrubbing. You can add things like an argan oil massage or a fish footbath, but we are poor backpackers and therefore could not. Once you’ve selected your treatment, you’ll be led to either a locker room (single-sex) or a private cabin – we got a cabin. We were instructed to change into our bathing suits and then wrap the provided towel around ourselves.
A common theme of our experience was confusion – we were constantly wondering if we were supposed to stay in our cabin, what we were supposed to wear, where we were supposed to go, how we were supposed to act – but rest assured, you’re a tourist and you’re supposed to be confused. The locals won’t judge you, so just go with the flow and laugh at your stupidity!
Eventually, after lots of the aforementioned confusion, we were led into the actual bath section, past lots of naked women (#cultureshock) and into a sauna. We spoke French with a few locals and laughed uncomfortably with an Australian woman until finally we were brought outside the room – it was our turn.
If you’re uncomfortable with nudity, a hammam is GOING to be an awkward experience. I eventually got over it, but for the first little while I forced my sister to look the other way and I’m sure my cheeks were bright red. Just accept that none of these other women are judging you, this is normal, and you’ll relax a bit. The next twenty minutes were a haze of soap in my eyes, buckets of water dumped over my head, and lots of dead skin being sloughed off my body. The attendant kindly led me around by the elbow, understanding that I had no idea what was going on.
At this hammam, at least, the basic procedure was as follows:
• Cool water is dumped over your head, which feels glorious after too long in an obscenely hot sauna.
• All the dead skin is removed from your body with a sponge. This is gross and you will wonder where it all came from.
• More buckets of water rinse all the dead skin off of you, and you will then marvel at how soft your skin feels.
• You get a glorious soap massage on a hot marble slab, where the attendant will touch you in places you didn’t expect to be touched. She’ll crack every bone in your body and you will marvel at how relaxed you can somehow feel while a stranger is getting to know you so well.
• Another rinse, and then you’re set free to wander in confusion and try to figure out what you’re supposed to do. If you’re me, you’ll dip into the plunge pool, get scared because the water is dim, then take a shower and head back out to wait while your sister follows the correct procedure. If you’re not an idiot, you’ll alternate between the sauna and the plunge pool, THEN take a shower.
We paid around 30 dollars for our hammam experience, which in my mind is pricey, but you’re getting both an awesome spa experience and some nice cultural immersion. There’s a huge range of prices depending on whether you go to a super local hammam or a super touristy hammam: ours was in the middle but closer to a local venue.