If you’re anything like me (and I realize I’m in the minority here), the phrase “Turkish bath” evokes less of a sense of warm relaxation than it does a heavy-hanging dread. The age-old tradition has been around in Turkish culture for hundreds of years, and is known internationally for its hot air and cool water application as well as its open (what some of us would describe as partially public) nakedness.
Yet when I was offered a visit to the Ayasofya Hurrem Sultan Hamam as part of our sponsored visit to Turkey on behalf of Turkish Airlines (see disclosure statement here), my nerves were overpowered by my thirst for history and culture. So with an open mind and a traveler’s heart, and I dove in, towel-first.
If you’re headed to your first Turkish bath, here are four things you’ll like to know beforehand.
1. Hamams have been a part of Turkish culture for centuries.
The Ayasofya Hurrem Sultan Hamam is like nothing I’d ever known. Instead of the traditional spa-like atmosphere that I expect in the United States, this felt more like a religious experience. This particular hamam is a nearly 500 year-old Turkish bath located right near the famous Hagia Sophia. It was built in 1556 by request of the wife of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, constructed where the ancient public baths of Zeuxippus (100-200 AD) used to stand, as well as the Temple of Zeus.
The baths consist of two separate sections – one for men, one for women – with entirely separate entrances. The baths historically were as much a place of cleansing as they were for celebration, often being the site of evening music and socializing.
2. Yes, you will take all your clothes off. But only if you want to.
Traditionally, Turkish baths are best when the patron is entirely naked (except for a tiny paper thong, in our case, which provides a laughable amount of coverage). Not only is it part of the experience, but it also makes the cleansing process more efficient (we all know where soap bubbles can get trapped while wearing a bikini).
When you first enter the hamam, you’ll remove your shoes and walk into what’s known as the “cold room”. Of course, the room isn’t cold at all — it’s just not hot like the rooms following it. The massive and architecturally gorgeous space is filled with benches with pillows for lounging before the service begins. You will be given a pestamal, or a silk wrap, and a private changing room where you can keep your belongings.
This is the point where you can decide if you want to wear a swimsuit underneath your pestamal, or your birthday suit. Opt for the latter – trust me, it’s worth the experience.
3. Get ready for the best bath of your life.
After returning to the cold room, your attendant will walk you into the hot room, a roughly 110-degree sauna where your skin will soften as it prepares for its scrub. Each guest is walked into the room while holding the hand of her attendant, a historic tradition that gives a nod to the Sultan-like experience. After this, you are seated next to a fountain of warm water. The attendant uses beautiful metal bowls to splash water over you, varying the temperature between warm and cold.
After the hot room, you are led into a “warm room” where your attendant scrubs your skin. Watch in mild horror as layers of skin slough off your body (even though the feeling itself is actually lovely) and are then washed away by endless bowls of water.
Once appropriately exfoliated, you are guided back to the hot room where the real bathing begins. You are laid out on a large stone in the center of the room and are washed chin to toes with bubble foam. The attend takes a bucket of soapy water and inserts a massive pillow case-like fabric. She then vigorously waves the fabric back and forth in the air in order to make it extra foamy, then squeezes the bubbles out onto your body in towering piles so that you are nothing but a head with foot-tall piles of bubble foam around you. She then lightly massages your skin, washes the soap off and does it again.
The feeling is magical.
Once everything is over, you will be properly rinsed and returned with your towel to the cold room, where you are treated to steaming cups of Turkish tea and as many Turkish delights (delicious confections of starch and sugar) as you can eat.
4. There’s nothing more powerful than the overwhelming feeling of sisterhood.
One thing I wasn’t sure about when I visited the hamam was how it would go being naked in front of people that I was only beginning to know in a professional manner. Five other female travel bloggers joined me and I’m sure we were all slightly nervous, regardless of how excited we were for the bath.
When the time came, I think we realized the same thing – we were all women, and our existence as women connected us together in a deeper way than anything else. At the same time, we became equally vulnerable, and in a way that strengthened us. No longer were we professional bloggers with personas to keep up. Our physical nakedness made us emotionally open, and we connected in a way that I’m sure is precisely why Turkish baths have existed as long as they have.
If you’re debating trying out a Turkish bath, my advice for you is this: Do it. Do it even if you feel nervous or awkward or afraid. The experience is as cleansing as it is holistic, and I can think of no better way to connect on a new level with the beautiful and historic culture of Turkey.