When Sam and I were planning our trip to Istanbul, going to a hammam, or a Turkish bath, was high on our list of must-do activities, along with going on a cruise along the Bosphorus Straight and eating an obscene amount of baklava.
We wanted to go somewhere that was both authentic but where we wouldn’t feel completely out of place and have no idea what happening since we don’t speak Turkish. Our fabulous tour guide, Oz, from Circle Istanbul, recommended Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı. Sam was hooked as soon as he saw the pictures and that night booked appointments for both of us for the following day.
Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı is situated behind a wall next to a mosque in a little complex. At first we almost walked into the mosque, but thankfully the men doing the ritual pre-prayer wash outside indicated that we were at the wrong building. I bid Sam goodbye outside the large metal door where a sign informed us that women’s hours were until 16:00, feeling a bit nervous and unsure what to expect. I think one of the most magical things about traveling abroad, though, is opening yourself to new and perhaps somewhat unusual experiences.
When I entered the over 400-year-old Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı I felt like I had stepped into another world and for a moment wondered if this is what it felt like to be royalty. The reception area — which also doubles as final relaxation spot after your bath — is grandiose and airy with a high, domed ceiling. The room is surrounded against the walls on three sides by oversized chairs and chaise lounges with white cushions, and all around one floor up you can see the changing areas. Soft music is playing in the background and you are immediately put at ease. It felt like a luxurious spa and while Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı does seem to cater more to tourists — and therefore charges a higher rate than some of the hammam’s that are geared more at locals — at 150 Turkish lira, or about $50, it’s still quite affordable and, from what I could tell, authentic.
As soon as I checked in I was seated at a little table in the center of the room and was given thin white slippers to cover my shoes and a glass of sorbet. Unlike sorbet here in the U.S., which is something more akin to a fruity ice cream, in Turkey sorbet is a sweet, fruity beverage. After enjoying my sorbet and taking in my surroundings, another attendant came over to explain the process to me, gave me a key to my locker and sent me upstairs to change.
I had read that women could wear a bathing suit if they preferred, so I changed into a bikini — my first time donning one in three years, I might add — before wrapping myself in the Turkish bath towel and the special sandals the hammam provides. Just a side note: I highly recommend if you go to a Turkish bath you go to one where men and women are not together; you’ll understand why in a moment!
I made my way back downstairs to a door where I had seen the other guests enter. A woman opened the door and greeted me with a smile before ushering me into a small room. She took off the towel which I had wrapped around my chest, folded it in half and rewrapped it around my waist, and instructed me to sit down on the marble floor. She then poured several buckets of warm water over my head before leading me into the next room. The next room is bigger than the first room and is hot and steamy, somewhat like a sauna. In the center is raised marble area and along the walls area faucets denoting the bathing areas. Whereas in the first room I was by myself with the attendant, in the main chamber there are other bathers and attendants.
I was instructed to lay down on hot marble in the center of the circular room and was given a glass of water to drink. I stared up at the cut-out stars in the tall, domed ceiling, mesmerized by the light pouring in. I have to say, it was incredibly relaxing and meditative. At this point there is one topless woman being bathed and two other women about my age also laying down on the marble, plus several attendants walking around.
I stared up at the ceiling, considering if I was comfortable enough to experience my bath topless. I’m rather self-conscious — at the gym, I prefer to change in one of the little closed off areas — so admittedly I wasn’t 100% comfortable about being topless in front of a bunch of other people, especially once a group of tween girls entered. When I was led to my bathing area, my attendant, Helena — who was not topless, but was rather wearing what appeared to be the uniform dark gray shorts and black sports bra — instructed me to take off my bikini top. Surprisingly, I didn’t hesitate to do so.
I figured if you are going to experience a Turkish bath, you might as well fully do it, even if I was a bit out of my comfort zone. But hey, isn’t that what traveling is all about?
At this point this is where the experience really began. I was exfoliated and scrubbed just about everywhere, had hot and cold water poured on me — including into my bathing suit bottom — and left feeling rejuvenated and completely relaxed. I mostly let go of the fact that I was topless in a room with at least 13 other women and was being washed by a stranger and took in the experience.
After being bathed I was led into a smaller room, where two other bathers and their attendants were. Helena wrapped a long towel around my chest, one around my hair, and draped another one around my shoulders. We said goodbye and she returned to the bathing room, and I was led back to the first room. I sat on one of the chaise lounge where I was brought hot tea and a warm towel to wipe my face, relaxing and fully absorbing the experience and feeling again for a moment that I had been transported back in time. If I weren’t meeting Sam, I probably could have stayed there for hours. I changed back into my street clothes feeling all soft and cozy and met Sam back outside before they switched it to the men’s hours.
While experiencing a Turkish bath requires a certain amount of comfort — and perhaps letting go of your ideas of modesty — it is something I would definitely do again. As I experienced it, I actually thought it would be really nice to take Eve there one day when she is older. Even though it was unbelievably relaxing to travel without a toddler in tow, there are experiences I look forward to sharing with my children one day, and this is high up on that list.
Have you ever gone to a Turkish bath? What is something that has taken you out of your comfort zone when traveling?