As is said: “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” So when in Turkey, do as the Turks do – and visit a Turkish bath! It’s a great way to experience the local culture & a time-honored tradition. And I promise, you will come out relaxed, rejuvenated and scrubbed squeaky clean.
The Turkish bath (or hamam) is an ancient bathing ritual that is as popular today as it was in centuries past. In fact, Turkish baths are closely related to the bathing practices of the ancient Greeks and Romans! During the Ottoman Empire, Turkish hamams were not only places for cleansing and relaxation, but centers for socializing. Today, for example, it is still common for a bride to share the bathing tradition with close friends before a wedding ceremony (a bridal hamam).
Beautiful Antalya – The Setting For My Turkish Bath
My Turkish bath experience took place in the lovely Mediterranean seaside town of Antalya. I was enjoying a wonderful 2 ½ week tour of Turkey with Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT) – and our action-packed itinerary gave us a free afternoon in Antalya. Turns out, this was a perfect place to “do as the Turks do” and bathe at a Turkish hamam.
Sebnem, our excellent Turkey tour guide, highly recommended Antalya’s Demirhan Hamam, because this particular Turkish bath would provide us with an authentic hamam experience. They cater to both local Turks, as well as visitors – and they have been around since 1995.
Quick Fast Forward: Yes, our time at Demirhan Hamam was fascinating, fun & pleasurable! In this blog post, I want to share that experience with you. I hope to give you a good sense of what a traditional Turkish hamam is like. And what you might expect when you yourself visit a Turkish bath – whether in Antalya, Istanbul or anywhere else in Turkey.
We’re Off to the Turkish Bath
Sebnem called ahead to Demirhan Hamam to make reservations for us. Our adventurous “bathing group” from the tour included four women (2 Americans, 2 Canadians) and Steve, one of the brave husbands! We went by taxi since the Hamam is located in Antalya’s “New City” and our hotel was in Old Town, near the beautiful Old Harbor. (see photos above). It was about a 15-minute drive.
We were all excited about visiting a Turkish bath but none of us had any idea what to expect. But hey, how can a local, traditional “spa-type experience” not be worthwhile – or at least make a great story later! The taxi driver dropped us off at a non-descript, 3-story building which housed Demirhan Hamamm (on the first two floors).
As is Turkish (and Islamic) custom, Turkish baths are definitely NOT co-ed. Demirhan Hamam has separate facilities for men & women, along with different entrances (above). This is typical. However, in Istanbul, I remember passing by a hamam that had only one set of facilities, so they offered separate hours for men and women.
Changing Rooms & Turkish Pestamals
We women bid Steve goodbye and headed inside the Hamam to the reception/lounge area. We were greeted warmly and taken upstairs (via a staircase) by a staff member to the private changing rooms. Nancy & I shared a cubicle, which had two pestemals – a traditional Turkish towel – and two pairs of rubber shower shoes waiting for us.
Pestemals are a special Turkish cloth made of silk and/or cotton designed to cover the body, like a pareo or sarong. They are colorful (often checkered or plaids), absorbent, fast drying, and an essential element of the Turkish bath experience. In the changing room, we stripped down into our skivvies. In a Turkish bath, women usually wear either their under panties or a swim suit bottom (like I did).
The changing room was locked by a key, which was on an elastic band for wearing around your wrist in the baths. Darn, I hadn’t realized there would be a safe place to lock our belongings or else I would have brought my iPhone for taking a few photos at the end (like in the lounge area, where women were safely covered!).
Wrapped in our traditional pestemals, we were led back downstairs to the lounge and the entrance to the Turkish bath. Like its Roman predecessor, a typical Turkish hamam consists of three basic, interconnected rooms: the hot room (caldarium); the warm room (tepidarium); and the cool room (frigidarium) – which was the lounge. Oh, boy, the moment I had been looking forward to for so long was now here!
Spending Time in the Marbled “Hot Room”
As we passed through the scrub area (“warm room”), we could feel the warmth in the air. Then we entered the “hot room,” which is called sıcaklık (in Turkish). It was a lovely square-shaped room with marble floors and walls, topped by a beautiful ceramic-tiled domed ceiling.
In the middle was a large, raised marble platform, called gobektas (tummy stone). Yes, this was really feeling exotic now! Around the room’s perimeter were ~13 “bathing alcoves” with two faucets (cold & hot water) over a small marble tub. Each had a red plastic bowl for pouring water over yourself as you sat like a queen on the marble seat.
I noticed four local Turkish women using this area to bathe. They had brought their own products in baskets. Wearing just their underpants, they would alternate scrubbing and pouring water over themselves. This was clearly the “self-service” bathing option – unlike ours!
About the large octagonal marble slab in the center: did I mention that it was heated? Like a lot! Lying on this marble stone (heated from below) and breathing the room’s hot, moist air causes you to sweat. This helps to relax and purify you, apparently by bringing your body’s toxins to the surface.
Personally, I found it too hot to lay directly on the marble so I placed my pestamal underneath my body. Barbara, a hearty Canadian, was the only one of our group who was able to lay on the marble sans towel. So, for the next 15-20 minutes, we four ladies “lounged” on the marble platform, along with a lovely young Swiss woman from Zurich. We learned she had been to Antalya a total of ten times on vacation – but this was her first time to a Turkish bath. We were all newbies!
One of the attendants would occasionally come around, as we were baking on the marble slab, and splash water over us – which felt great! However, the towels underneath were now wet and getting hotter. I will admit that I am not really a sauna or steam room aficionado – so the time spent in the “hot room” was plenty. When it was time for the scrub portion, an attendant would come get us individually.
Time for Our Body Scrub
I was the last of our group to be called. Wrapped in my now-wet pestamal, I was led into the adjoining “scrub room” by my attendant / masseuse named Altun. The room was noticeably – and delightfully – cooler, although it was still the “warm room” in the Turkish bath tradition. Like all the female attendants, Altun wore brief black shorts and a black bra. As you would imagine, attendants only work on members of the same sex – so only women were here in the women’s hamam.
In the scrub room, there were five “unheated” marble slabs – so they were pleasantly cool to the touch. Altun took my pestamal and laid it on the marble. Starting with me lying face down, she did a full body scrub – using a rough exfoliating mitt (called a kese). First my backside and then my front. This “vigorous” body scrub is done to get rid of all those dead layers of skin we carry around!
At intervals during the scrub, Altun would wash me off with water – poured from the same type of red dipping bucket. Sometimes, the water was warm, sometimes cool (but never cold). Altun was definitely thorough – she pulled my panties up and then down to access all areas of my buttocks. All areas of my body were scrubbed, except for my face and my “female privates.”
I’ll be honest – the scrubbing was a little bit uncomfortable at times, but not really painful. So, that was a nice relief! That’s because I had visited an authentic Korean spa in my San Diego home town several years before. There, the Korean style body scrub was really abrasive and downright painful – I had marveled afterwards that I still had any skin left on my body! But my skin did feel very smooth – just like mine felt after today’s scrub.
The women attendants were cute and chatted amongst themselves during the scrubs – in Turkish, of course. Altun didn’t speak a lot of English but universal hand signs worked just fine. With the exfoliating scrub complete, Altun had me stand and she washed me off one more time. Then, she turned my pestamal towel over to the clean side and I laid back down.
A Mountain of Soap Bubbles
Aaah…now comes the totally pleasurable part – the soap wash & foam massage. Altun covered my entire body with frothy, white soap bubbles – and proceeded to use her hands to wash my entire body. This also included some gentle massage. I didn’t want this part to end! She asked if I wanted a shampoo and, of course, I said yes! Who doesn’t love someone else washing their hair?!
At the time, I couldn’t quite figure out how they created all those heaps of soap bubbles. I got a quick glimpse of some sort of long “white balloon” that the bubbles emerged from. I later watched an on-line video from a different Turkish bath, in which I saw the attendant dip a long cloth tube – closed at one end – into soapy water. He inflated the tube with air and then squeezed it out, creating the frothy bubbles. Another blogger described it as a lacy cloth, like a large pastry icing bag, through which the therapist blew to create the bubbles. Very clever!
Way too quickly, this soap wash was done. After being rinsed and dried, I stood up and walked “naked” in my shower shoes – minus the pestamal but still with my swim bottom – into the lounge area. The lounge was filled with comfy, padded chairs and was refreshingly cool, temperature wise. The staff promptly covered my body with a clean, full sized towel and a small towel for my shoulders. Two of my friends, Barbara & Mary, were already there – and soon Nancy joined us.
Lounging, Facial Mask & Final Oil Massage
Happily “lounging” in the lounge, we ladies relaxed and chatted. We were served apple tea, a popular Turkish drink. A woman came by and offered us the option of a facial mask for 15 TL (Turkish lira). Nancy & I both said yes. Gosh, for just around $5 USD, why not? The woman soon came back and “painted” on a green facial mask, made of some type of natural clay. After 15 minutes, we were directed into a small bathroom where we could wash off the masks.
Now it was time for the grand finale – a standard oil massage! We four ladies were led back upstairs to the massage room, at the end of the hall. Conveniently, there were four massage tables, separated by curtains. I was pleasantly surprised to see Altun again and learn that she was going to be my masseuse. She gave me a very nice massage – which lasted about 20-25 minutes – with my face included. Altun used a lot of oil in the massage so my skin was well-lubricated in addition to being well-exfoliated. Yes, my skin was now “smooth as silk” – or was that as “smooth as a baby’s bottom”?!
Sadly, our Turkish bath experience had come to an end. We headed back to the changing rooms and down to the reception/lounge area to pay. There was a tip basket at the front desk – so we could show our gratitude to the hardworking attendants. I also noticed some small private cubicles on this level (at the sides of the lounge) – possibly for changing clothes and/or taking a nap after the massage.
The time had passed quickly – we had been at the hamam for about 1.5 hours. After saying our final goodbyes & thanks to the staff for a wonderful experience, we headed back to the hotel by taxi. We had returned victorious – happy, clean, scrubbed, relaxed & rejuvenated! And, most of all, grateful for the opportunity to have experienced an authentic Turkish hamam. Yes, it’s true: “When in Turkey…”
The total cost for the Demirhan Hamam Turkish Bath (in 2015) was:
- 90 TL for the full Turkish bath experience
- 15 TL for the facial mask
- 10 TL tip
- Grand Total = 115 TL (Turkish Lira) / around $38 USD (in 2015) and ~ $33 (with 2017 exchange rates).
Some Tips for Your Demirhan Hamam Turkish Bath:
- Most hamams will allow you to bring your own body scrubber (kese), if you don’t like the idea that scrubbing mitts are often used on multiple customers. You might be able to purchase a kese in a local Turkish market.
- You should make advance reservations – just to be safe.
- Be sure to bring an extra pair of underwear, if you plan to wear panties for the hamam. If you plan to wear a swimsuit bottom instead, don’t forget to bring that!
- Additional information can be found on Demirhan Hamam’s website on their Turkish Bath Guide page.
- Demirhan also has a sauna which you can take advantage of – if you haven’t yet gotten enough hot air!
PHOTO CREDIT: The photos of Antalya’s Old Harbor are mine. All other Turkish bath photos (except Terapeak’s) are by Demirhan Hamam and taken from their website and Facebook page.
Here is a good article entitled: What To Expect When Visiting a Turkish Bath or Hamam
- This article by Erland Geerts from the “Istanbul Insider” covers the male author’s experience at the famous Cemberlitas Hamami in Istanbul, located in a beautiful building dating back to 1584. There are some good tips, as well as a view into some variations between Turkish baths.
COMMENTS: Have you ever visited a Turkish bath? How was your experience? If not, would you like to experience an authentic Turkish hamam? Do you have any questions?