On our recent trip to Istanbul, I decided to book a hammam spa treatment at a traditional Ottoman bathhouse. It was essential that our experience be authentic and I didn’t feel like we would get that from a hammam experience at the Four Seasons. Therefore I opted for Ayasofya Hurrem Sultan Hamam instead.
I decided not to share all the details with my husband about what happens during a Turkish bath. I instead sold it as a relaxing morning at a luxury spa. All this was true except for the relaxing part and a few other details that I’ll share in this post.
All I’m going to say is that if you are in any way inhibited this may not be for you. If the simple fact of being naked in a locker room makes you cringe, a Turkish bath scrub will scar you for life. Or cause you to break out of your shell and never be shy again! It could really go either way.
Hammam Spa: This is what happens in a Turkish Bath House
What is a Turkish bath?
The Ayasofya Hurrem Sultan Hamam is a traditional hammam spa. The facilities for men and women are entirely separate. There is an entrance for both which means you don’t run the risk of bumping into anyone of the opposite sex. In fact, the Ayasofya Hurrem Sultan Hamam was built so that the men and women’s facilities are mirror images of one another. The hammam treatment involves cleansing, scrubbing and a massage in a room filled with hot air or steam. In simpler terms, it is public bathing where you’re washed and scrubbed by a complete stranger. Why would you want someone else to bath you in public, you ask? Well, it’s an experience everyone should try at least once, and you shouldn’t knock it until you do. I personally enjoyed and would do it again, despite the occasional uneasiness.
I booked the AB-I HAYAT, which happens to be the longest treatment at 110 minutes. This hammam treatment includes body scrubbing, body clay mask, a bubble wash ritual, head and neck massage, an aromatherapy massage, facial mask with a facial massage and foot massage.
Turkish hammam etiquette
Once we arrived at the hammam spa, we went our separate ways. As I entered the women’s section, there was a box containing shoe covers with a sign requesting that you put them on before entering the premises. As a clean freak who has these at her front door at home, I appreciated the first signs of cleanliness. I made my way to the counter, checked myself in for my appointment and completed a form in the waiting area also known as the cold room. Once done, I was escorted to my changing room, which consists of a private locked area where you can leave your belongings and change into the pestamal (silk wrap).
Hammam Spa Dos and Don'ts
Disposable Underwear – You are provided with disposable underwear, and unless you bring an extra pair of your own, I would highly recommend you use them. Yours will be soaked, and you’ll end up going home commando.
Make-up – Don’t wear any. Trust me. If you have plans after your hammam bath, be sure to bring a few beauty products.
Jewelry – Take it all off. Especially if it contains delicate gemstones like mother-of-pearl, is made of silver or has grooves where dirt can get lodged.
Hair – Don’t get a blow out before your hammam experience. There is no way to avoid getting your hair wet.
Deodorant – I recommend bringing deodorant as this is not provided.
Spray tan – You can kiss it goodbye after your Turkish bath scrub. Getting rid of dead skin cells before a beach vacation is perfect for those like me who prefer a natural looking tan.
Tipping – It is customary to tip your hammam bath attendant between 10-20%.
Mobile phone – Leave it in your changing room. I tried to sneak mine through but failed and was told to leave it a reception. There is no way a phone can survive a hammam bath so avoid the potential damage and leave it behind.
What happens in a Turkish bath?
Turkish Hammam Hot Room
This is where it gets interesting. I really wasn’t too sure what to expect from this hammam experience and was caught off guard a few times. My hammam bath attendant took my hand and walked me into this beautiful white marble hot room. The hot room is surrounded by open nooks containing basins filled with water and the temperature in the hammam spa hot room is about 50 degrees Celsius. This is where water is poured over your body, and the heat prepares your skin for the body scrub.
I was escorted to one of the nooks and asked to hand over my pestamal. And just like that, I am standing naked in front of a complete stranger. Without any warning, the lady fills the gold-plated bowl with water and starts throwing water all over my body and then throws the water on my head and at my face. Now, I know comparing this to waterboarding is a little excessive but for someone who hates having her head under water, it sure felt like torture. “Stay, relax, I come back in 10 minutes”, were her next few words. So, I stayed. But somewhat tense instead of relaxed.
Turkish Bath Scrub
10 minutes went by, and my attendant was back. She unwrapped a loofa glove and began scrubbing my arms, then my legs, and soon enough every inch of my body. Because that wasn’t embarrassing enough, there was also a bunch of dead skin all over the white marble floor once she was done. I was clean alright.
Judas Tree Scent Moisturizing Body Clay Mask
Once she cleaned the gross residue away, it was time for the moisturizing clay mask. Once again, my personal space was entirely non-existent. As she made sure to apply that clay in every nook and cranny, I didn’t know whether to close my eyes or watch her work. So I did a little bit of both. “Sit, relax, I come back in 15 minutes”, she tells me. 15 minutes later, she was back to wash off the clay mask.
Bubble Wash Ritual
Once the mud was removed, she took me by the hand and walked me over to the massage platform located under the dome. I was asked to lie down on my stomach on a pestamal while she lathered my body with the bubble wash which was followed by a head and neck massage. She also shampooed my hair before escorting me to another nook where she washed the soap off. The last time I experienced anything like this was when I was given a bath by my parents as a small child. Talk about rehashing childhood memories.
Cold Room Relaxation & Sultan’s Massage Room
Once the hammam bath and scrub were done, it was time to relax in the cold room before my next treatments. The last part of the hammam experience took place in the Sultan’s massage room. This is where I got the Aromatherapy massage, facial mask with face massage and Judas tree scent oil foot massage.
After your Hammam Spa Experience
There’s no need to rush after your treatments, in fact, you are encouraged to relax in the cold room for as long as you’d like. We had plans as it was our last day in Istanbul and wanted to see as much as possible, so we didn’t linger. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel relaxed and really clean after my Turkish hammam experience. Yes, you can get a full body scrub at a luxury spa but where’s the fun in that? I found out later that there is also a hairdresser on location so if you have plans afterwards, you can get a blowout.
Would I do this traditional hammam spa again? The answer is yes. I also encourage anyone who hasn’t tried Ottoman baths to do so. I promise you’ll feel like a million bucks afterwards.
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