Hamams have an odd perception in the West. Thanks to a series of Orientalist paintings of “hamam scenes” or “Turkish bath scenes,” mention to the average American that you’re heading to a hamam for the afternoon and if they don’t look at you blankly they’re a little perturbed.
I can’t speak for men’s hamams (sorry guys), but women’s hamams are just great. They’re relaxing, a great traditional experience, intercultural exchange, and fantastic for your skin. My introduction to hamams was in Ankara, so I’m much more familiar with the more traditional, neighborhood-style hamams than the touristy ones in Istanbul. I have been to Cemberlitas, though, and it was beautiful.
Going to hamams is a social experience; back in the day you’d go to the hamam with your friends and your kids, bathe the kids, and catch up on gossip with all your neighbors. The conversation was vital – decisions on whose son should marry whose niece were made at the hamams, or at least debated at length there.
Nowadays there’s less marriage-matching, at least among the yabancis going to hamams. But they’re still awesome. I would recommend the touristy ones for people who’ve not had the hamam experience before. In Istanbul, that pretty much means Çemberlitaş or Çağaloğlu hamams (those ğ’s are mostly silent). Çemberlitaş was built by Mimar Sinan in 1584 and is situated right at the Çemberlitaş stop on the tramway. It is beautiful inside. Çağaloğlu was built in 1741 and is on Yerebatan Caddesi, so down the street from the Basilica Cisterns. I’ve never been to Çağaloğlu, but it was featured in Indiana Jones and also was the scene of a Kate Moss photoshoot for W magazine in 2008, so it’s pretty famous and also gorgeous. At both, the staff are very used to foreign visitors who’ve never experienced a hamam before. They also generally speak a bit of English, German, French, etc. Actually, the attendants when I went to Çemberlitaş spoke more English than they spoke Turkish. But I digress. Because so many of the hamamgoers are tourists, there’s very little full nudity, at least when I was at Çemberlitaş. It’s a bit of a conveyor belt of an experience: after everyone in your group (and I do recommend going hamaming as a group, at least 2 or 3 people) gets down to their skivvies, you’re shepherded along to the hot room, where you hang out on the large central marble stone while waiting for your skin to heat up. After awhile, you’re scrubbed down by one of the hamam ladies, then you retreat to the side of the chamber to rinse at a marble basin before getting a massage, if you’ve paid for a massage. It’s fairly efficient, but also relaxing and a fun experience especially if you’ve not been to a hamam before.
The more traditional hamam I’ve checked out in Istanbul is the Cinili (“tiled”) Hamami, in Uskudar. As the name suggests, the hamam is famed for its tiles. I’d comment on them, but the tiles are on the men’s side, so I’ve never seen them. It was built in 1640, commissioned by Kosem Sultan, a powerful valide sultan or mother of the sultan. Even without the tiles, it’s a very pretty hamam. When you walk in, your group gets a changing cabin, towels and hamam sandals; once everyone’s toweled up (the only bathing suits you’ll see at Cinili, and at most local hamams in my experience, are on the hamam attendants; this is one of the main differences between local and tourist hamams and also apparently entirely not true on the men’s side) you head through a large wooden door to the hot room, liberally dousing yourself with water from one of the many marble basins around the room’s perimeter and catching up on gossip. Once your skin is sufficiently warmed up and such, you get the full scrub-down by a hamam lady on the marble slab in the middle of the room, complete with recriminations in Turkish about how much dead skin yabancis have and how we just don’t exfoliate enough. Then, after some rinsing and hair-washing, it’s massage time, then rinsing again, and then a nice sit-down session in the sauna before ambling out to normal temperatures and a restorative glass of tea.
The biggest differences between the touristy and local hamams are the atmosphere and the price: the full works plus buying a kese (scrubby cloth) at Cinili will set you back 33 lira, plus maybe 5 as a tip for your hamam lady. At the tourist hamams, you’re looking at 60 lira without a massage, before tipping. Still, the tourist hamams have beautiful interiors and are much less daunting for the first-time or linguistically challenged hamamgoer. Also, they’re really convenient to Sultanahmet and more reliable – if you just walk into a local hamam you find while exploring, it might be a little sketchy. I love the atmosphere of the local hamams and find the service generally better as well. There’s a pretty fantastic hamam review website if you’re looking for a different hamam or one that’s closer to you.
Hamams are not an everyday, or even an every week thing for me, but they are so very much a part of my Istanbul. It’s a relaxing communal and cultural experience almost impossible to replicate outside Turkey. I think everyone should visit a hamam at least once, and hopefully time and again. I find the process cathartic.
At the Çemberlitaş tramway stop
TL 60ish, depending on what’s included
Çavuşere Caddesi No. 204, Uskudar
Hammam Guide: A guide to hamams of Istanbul