What it is
Although it was a practice of the elite or wealthier class during the Ottoman Empire, the Turkish bath or Hamam is now a staple of Turkish culture as public bathing is for many asian nations. Locals will make it a part of their routine to try to go once a week or at the very least once a month to get a good scrub. You might wonder why that’s necessary but give it a shot and you might discover that you aren’t as thorough of a bather as you thought.
Scattered across Istanbul you’ll find baths with an entrance fee for under $20 US as well as others for well above $100 US. Within that range you have the untouched minimal hamam, the preserved and rennovated hamams and the modern-day ultra-luxurious baths. The prices for these places vary not only by entrance fee but by the additional services you might opt to include.
Step through the doors of the entrance and you will be greeted by something of a lobby. Some look more like lobbies while others just look like a waiting area. You can see from this one at Kilic Ali that they can look stunning while the one at Cemberlitas gives off a more homely feel.
At the Kilic Ali Pasa, you will be asked to wait momentarily while drinking the most delicious quince juice (present in both pictures). Once you finish your cup, the second in my case, you head upstairs to the lockers. The entire layout is open space so you can see the lobby area from above.
After a quick change, come back down in your traditional peshmetel and slippers. Most places have a shared lobby area and separate the women and men for bathing but this hamam dedicates the morning to women and the evening to men. As is the case with all Hamams, you will be brought into the hot room where you will spend 10-20 minutes laying on top of heated stone in the middle of the room. The hot steam in the air is not only relaxing but will loosen your pores to help give you the best scrub.
When it’s your turn, you’ll be taken to the perimeter of the dome-shaped room next to a faucet for your scrub. Some places will scrub you directly on the stone in the middle of the room but here you’re washed sitting up. There’s no need to feel uncomfortable since these men (for men) and women (for women) are very friendly and professional. You are covered at all times unlike many Asian baths where you’re completely nude so it might be a good first step for those who might be a bit more timid.
It’s not even three strokes in that the dirt and the dead skin begins forming on my skin. He continues to scrub me down with occasional splashes of warm water until he’s washed every part of my exposed body. Then, with the most interesting technique I’ve seen to create bubbles he covered my entire body in a matter of seconds. I can’t say I didn’t get a few giggles out of this.
On top of a good clean, he included a quite painful but refreshing massage, although I was probably just being sensitive. With a quick rinse we finished off the bath and headed over to another room where I really felt like royalty. A towel for my head, a towel for my body, and a towel for each foot that was gently placed in my slippers. I could get used to this I thought.
Right when I was hoping to extend my stay in the steam room, he led me out back into the lobby where a place had been prepared for me to lounge. Quality couches line three of the walls on an elevated porch giving you the feel of lounging outdoors. There’s a thin sheet laid on top just for that added layer of unnecessary accommodation and there’s quite a bit of space between you and your neighbor. Yes, you could definitely stretch out and take a nap.
You can stay as long as you want since there’s no time limit and can choose from coffee, tea, juice, or other beverages to complete the experience. And you bet I ordered the quince juice again.
What really differentiated this place for me was not only the price point but the pristine amenities and service that really made me feel like I was getting a treat.
For anyone looking for a visit into one of these over-the-top steam rooms, something like Cemberlitas at $20 US will do just the thing. But if you tack on the scrub and the massage, it will cost you $50 US. At first glance, that seems quite reasonable for about an hour of added service, but when the Kilic Ali Pasa also costs $50 US for everything, it really isn’t a competition.
The bathing process took about an hour and I extended my stay for another hour taking pictures and being lazy in the lobby. Just be sure to call in ahead and make a reservation so you can make sure you don’t miss such an amazing experience.