I slipped on the saggy black pair of disposable underwear that was given to me at the front desk, and debated whether I should remove my bra. I was in the locker room at a hammam, or a Turkish bath, in Istanbul. I heard it was normal for women to go topless in these establishments, and despite the fact that this hammam was divided by gender, my Puritan American roots led me to believe I should be modest and keep myself covered. I slipped on a towel and made my way to the steam room.
As I pushed open the door to the main chamber, the first thing that hit me was the searing wave of heat and humidity that made it hard to catch my breath, but the second was the multitude of flesh. The massive, circular marble room was teeming with dozens of women in all shapes and sizes, all wearing only the oversized black knickers. Of all the women in the room — at least 40 — I was the sole person wearing a bra. I originally thought keeping on my bra would help me blend in and be more comfortable, but it was immediately apparent that it did nothing but make me awkwardly stand out.
I shamefully slithered back to the locker room and succumbed to Turkish tradition as I shed my black brassiere and my modesty, and I reentered the room full of bare breasts. I relinquished control and let the sweaty, overweight, humming staff woman only wearing a bra and panties scrub my nearly naked body with suds from head to toe. I let her drag me to a basin in a side room where she rinsed my body and hair with shockingly cold water. After being transitioned to another room a small swimming pool, I moved to the next room and received an incredible oil massage. By the end of the experience, I realized that fitting in while traveling abroad sometimes involves stripping down, despite the potential for embarrassment. If you’re headed to a hammam for the first time, but worried about the awkwardness of being nearly naked with strangers, here’s what you need to know.
What are hammams?
Hammams are bathhouses primarily found in Turkey and Morocco. They have been a cultural staple for centuries in those countries and are now a popular stop for tourists who want to clean off, detox, and relax after a long day of exploring.
Traditional hammams contain three chambers: a hot room to steam, a warm room to scrub, and a cooler room to relax. Not all hammams have this exact layout, but they all involve a hot marble steam room with a raised circular platforms on which patrons lay to soak in the sweltering heat. The steam rooms also have small alcoves with basins around the perimeter of the room where you can splash yourself with cold water.
In some hammams, such as the one I visited, you get scrubbed down in the stream room rather than it being in a separate chamber. If you’re brave, you can pay to have an attendant scrub you down and rinse you off, or you can opt to do it yourself. Many hammams also offer add-on services, such as massages and waxes, though these aren’t as luxurious as those at spas in the Western world. My massage was in a room with four other tables and four women being massaged at the same time, and the masseuses chatted with each other the whole time.
Some larger hammams are divided by gender, with separate sides for men and women. Others have one bathing facility that is used by women at certain times of the day and by men at other times. A few hammams are coed, but this is not the norm.
A brief history of hammams
Hammams are modeled after ancient Roman baths, with domed ceilings, regal columns, and a marble interior. The bathing facilities have been around for centuries, and Istanbul has several operating hammams that date back to the 1500s and 1700s. Hammams are often called “Turkish baths” due to their popularity during the Ottoman Empire.
Muslim men often bathe before their prayers, so hammams originated as a place where men would go to clean themselves before praying. For this reason, some hammams used to be attached to mosques. Muslim women would use hammams as a place to socialize. Hammams eventually became more of a social and cultural institution than a religious tradition.
The hammam process
First, know that not all hammams are built the same or have the same amenities. Do your research to find out what the hammam provides and what you need to provide. Some give you underwear, scrubbers, and soap, while others require you to bring your own.
When you first enter the hammam, you tell the person working at the front desk what services you would like. You can merely pay for entry, or you can pay to be scrubbed by an attendant. You can also pay for additional services, such as an oil massage. At the hammam I visited in Istanbul, all of the women were given a free pair of black panties. Depending on your services requested, you will usually get tokens to carry with you.
In Morocco, public hammams generally cost between 5 and 10 dirhams (50 cents to a dollar). You will pay a few more dirham for soap, towels, and any other toiletries if you don’t bring your own. Private hammams, such as those in riads and hotels, can cost up to 200 dirham (around $20 USD). In Istanbul, hammams cost a bit more. While Turkish currency is the lira, most businesses accept euros. At most Turkish hammams, expect to pay around 25 euro (around $33 USD) for a basic bath, and more like 30 or 35 euro for a scrub by an attendant. An oil massage can bring the cost up another 10 or 15 euro.
First, you will be led to the dressing room, where you will have a locker or cubby. After stripping down to the panties, you’ll head to the bathing area with a towel. In some hammams, you will relax in a warm room to acclimate to the heat. In other hammams, you go straight to the hot room, where you will lie on the raised marble platform and sweat.
In the hammam I went to, patrons did a scrub-down in the same hot room. In other hammams, you go back to the warm room for it. If you pay to be scrubbed, an attendant will scrub you from head to toe with soap and water, and then lead you to a small basin and douse you with cold water. If you don’t pay an attendant, you can scrub and rinse yourself.
As mentioned, not all hammams are the same. At the hammam I visited, the first room you entered was the hot room, which is where you were bathed. Then we went into a room with a small lukewarm pool to start to cool off.
If you ordered a massage, you will get that next, often in a separate room. However, note that it’s not like a normal spa—you may be in the same room with several other people. Once you’re done with everything, you can change back into your clothes and lounge around. Hammams are very social – you can relax with your friends (or make new ones) as you sip tea.
Men and women generally go topless in hammams, but they do wear underwear. Don’t get completely naked—that is taboo. It’s not required that you go in topless, but if you don’t, know that you will stand out. It’s also wise to wear dark underwear so it doesn’t become transparent once it’s wet.
It’s also proper etiquette to tip the attendants who scrub and/or massage you. Just a few dirham or lira are sufficient.
Tips for making it an enjoyable experience
• Some hammams are geared toward tourists, while others are primarily visited by locals. Some hotels have hammams, but those are more luxurious and less authentic since they are for tourists. For a more genuine experience, ask your hotel staff, waiter, or another local where they would go.
• Do your research. Some hammams provide cubbies or lockers for free, and some don’t. Some give you free underwear, and others don’t. Some hammams in Morocco even require that you bring your own buckets.
• The steam room can get extremely hot, so if you’re very sensitive to heat, hammams may not be for you!
• Don’t be shy. Ladies, you may think you’re saving yourself some embarrassment by keeping a bra on, but it will actually make you stand out.
• If you opt to get scrubbed by an attendant, know that they can be a little rough. It’s not like someone gently bathing you—you really will get a good scrub-down!
• If you don’t use the undies they give you, or if the hammam doesn’t provide any, bring a second pair with you. The pair you wear in the hammam will get soaked, so you’ll want some dry ones to wear home.
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