One of the things people are always curious about when they come to Turkey is the Turkish bath. Many even mention that they have seen Turkish baths in their own home towns, but were always too afraid to try it out. Your first visit to a hamam (as the locals call it) can be intimidating, but as with most scary things, the anticipation is much more stressful than the actual event. In fact, a Turkish bath is one of the most relaxing experiences in the world, and if some of the mystery is taken out of it, perhaps more people will be encouraged to try it out.
First of all, it’s useful to distinguish between historical baths (which are often geared toward tourists), and the more authentic baths that the local Turks use. Historical baths are of course very old, and usually have beautiful or noteworthy architecture. When you visit them, you are going as much for the cultural significance as for the spa treatment. There is nothing wrong with going to a historical bath, but just be aware that not only will the prices probably be higher than other Turkish baths in the area, but also the bathing experience itself may take a back seat to the sightseeing aspects. Local baths for the residents may or may not be located in a noteworthy building, but it hardly matters because the focus is entirely on the bathing process itself. You won’t get much in the way of a grand tour, but you will certainly get clean, and you will be able to say you did it the way the Turks do. In any bath you go to, men and women will either have separate buildings, or if they share a building, the bath will designate certain times of day for the different sexes (e.g. women in the morning and men in the afternoon).
As for the actual bath itself, here’s a quick run-down of how it works in most historical baths (though there is some variation at each location). When you enter the front door, there will probably be an English-speaking (more or less) receptionist to take your payment and give you a locker key. You’ll be led to a dressing room where you can change into whatever you want. At tourist baths, people tend to go with whatever level of undress they’re comfortable with. Some wear full bikinis, some just a bikini bottom, and others are completely naked. Whatever you decide, you are given a towel to wrap around you regardless, so it’s not like you’re just walking through a public place with no clothes on.
You’ll be led into the bathing room, where you will wait on a hot marble bench, letting your pores open in the steamy heat. When it’s your turn, one of the employees will show you where to lie down on a marble slab in the middle of the room, and then she’ll get to the scrubbing. In my experience, a scrub down at a tourist bath is less assertive than at local baths, but it’s still pretty vigorous. After the scrubbing (during which you’ll lose a lot of dead skin), she’ll soap you up with a wonderful, soft lather, and then rinse you thoroughly, leaving your skin wonderfully exfoliated and soft. The process is no more invasive than a full body massage at a regular spa, and in fact after the bath you will have the option to go to another room and get an actual massage if you wish. Some tourist baths also offer manicures and pedicures after the bath, and almost all offer tea or other drinks. It’s very much a luxury experience.
In a local bath, on the other hand, there is less babysitting, but a lot more thorough washing, and any fears you have about being naked will not necessarily get you softer treatment. Chances are, no one there will speak any English, but since they only offer one service at one price, it’s not difficult to get on the right path. They know what you’re there for. You will be expected to strip down to nothing, not even a bikini bottom, though you’ll still have a towel for when you’re walking around. If you think that sounds harsh, keep in mind that literally everyone else will be naked also, and if you were wearing something it would only draw attention to you, which is probably not what you want if it’s your first time. Just play it cool, and no one will care about one extra naked woman in the room.
The scrubbing at a local bath is more… assertive. No body part is spared. Turks go in there to get fully exfoliated, and that’s what you’ll get, also. The woman scrubbing you will be thorough and efficient, and if you complain about it, she will likely just laugh and keep going. She’s there to get you clean, not to listen to your whining. I make it sound aggressive, and it is, but it’s also a great deal of fun. They enjoy having foreigners in the local baths, and they do want you to come away with a positive feeling about the experience.
Turkish women are not often fond of having body hair, so if you are not waxed everywhere (and I mean everywhere), you may be offered a shave or a wax at a local bath. If you’ve never had a full wax before, I highly recommend it — I was against the idea at first, but after I tried it I became a convert. I’m not so much a fan of shaving, simply because the almost immediate presence of stubble takes away from the nicest part of being hair-free, which is the wonderful feeling of your clothes against your silky smooth, newly-exfoliated and hairless skin. Local baths do offer oil massages after the bath as well, and you can often get a great price for the bath-and-massage combo. Again, the massage will be more assertive than it would be at a tourist bath, but in my book that’s a good thing.
A Turkish bath is not something to be feared, but rather something to look forward to. Approach it with the same mindset that you would for any pampering spa treatment, and already you’ll be on the right track. Just keep in mind that everyone in there is in the same boat, and that can help you get over your nervousness and enjoy what is one of the great luxuries of Turkey, and of the rest of the western world.