A guide to Istanbul’s bath houses
The stately Cagaloglu Hamam was built during the Ottoman empire. (Izzet Keribar/LPI)
Want to steam away the travel grime in Istanbul’s famed hamams – but confused by the rituals? Here is a simple guide to keeping your cool.
First, talk to the receptionist (most of them speak English) and decide on the level of treatment you want. DIY wash? Wash with attendant? Oil massage with that? You will pay the receptionist and they will take you to a change area, usually your own lockable room, where you will undress and leave your things.
"Undress" means pretty much what you want it to mean. Most hamams have separate steam rooms for men and women. In this situation, men are expected to maintain a certain loin-cloth level of coverage, but women can throw caution, as it were, to the winds. Most Turkish women subtly drape themselves with their cloth when they are not actually bathing, but if you prefer to bask nude, no one will bat much of an eyelid. If you are feeling shy, part or all of a swimsuit is acceptable; if you find yourself in the kind of hamam that has mixed-sex steam rooms and male attendants, it is common to keep on at least the bottom half of a swimsuit.
The attendants will give you a cloth (resembling, in most establishments, an over-sized red gingham tea towel). You will keep this on to travel from the change rooms to the hamam. You will also be given some shoes by your attendant - either traditional wooden clogs or fluorescent flip-flops. Stick with them. As a surface for pratfalls, only banana skins beat out wet marble.
Once you have been shepherded into the hamam you will be left to lounge on the heated marble. In most cases, there'll be a göbektaşı (belly stone), a round central platform where you can loll around like a sunning python. If not, take a seat and lean against the walls. The idea is to sweat, loosening dirt and toxins in preparation for your wash.
If you are going self-service, follow this up with a loofah-and-soap rub-down and douse yourself with water from the marble basins. If you forked out for an attendant, they will catch up with you after you have a good, 15-minute sweat. You will be laid down on the edge of the göbektaşı and sluiced with tepid water, then your attendant will take you in hand.
First up is a dry massage with a kese (rough mitt). Depending on your attendant, this experience can be delicious (a little like being washed by a giant cat) or tumultuous (picture a tornado made of sandpaper). If you get to feeling like a flayed deer, use the international language of charade to bring it down a notch or two.
Next will be the soap. The attendant will work up an almighty lather with an enormous sponge and squeeze it all over you - it is a bit like taking a bubble bath without the bath. The foam will be worked into every inch of you. Next, more sluicing, followed by a shampoo, and voila, you are clean as a whistle: the shiny kind.
If you ordered an oil massage, you will be ushered into another room for it. Unless you are particularly flush, it is probably best to skip this bit: the massages are brief and often lack finesse, and the oils are hardly deluxe.
After the massage, either soap or oil, you are on your own. Many tourists splash-and-dash their way through the hamam experience, leaving immediately after their treatment. Do not be one of them. Hang around. Overheat, cool down with a dousing and repeat to fade. Let your muscles turn to toffee and your mind go pleasantly elastic. This is what the hamam is really all about.
Three of the best
Cağaloğlu Hamamı: By far the most spectacular of Istanbul's hamams; its steam rooms are lavishly arched and domed, and decorated with tulip tiles.
Çemberlitaş Hamamı: Built by the famous architect Sinan in 1584, this is a classic hamam experience.
Sultanahmet Hamamı: Granted, there is no belly stone and the 17th-century steam rooms smell faintly of mould, but come here for above-average massage and service.