What to Expect When You Go to a Turkish Bath
The tradition of public baths goes back thousands of years to ancient Greece and Rome. Today, they still are an important part of life in the Middle East and the Maghreb (Northwest Africa), and they are becoming more popular in America.
The baths are more than just a place to get clean. They serve as a popular spot for community gatherings. People cleanse their bodies with the bath and their souls with the gossip. Because of its health benefits and its incredible ability to melt your stress away, the Turkish bath has become a global phenomenon.
If you're ready to experience it for yourself, either in Turkey or the United States, we're here to help. This is what you can expect when you go to a Turkish bath.
What Exactly Are Turkish Baths?
Back before indoor plumbing inside houses was common, the Greeks and Romans spent time and resources building grandiose public baths where people could go and cleanse themselves.
As the empires interacted with the Ottomans (both as conquerors and conquered), this tradition was brought to the Middle East, where it was adapted to the local culture. Thus was born the hammam, or public steam room, which is generally called a Turkish bath in English.
Originally, they were used by men who were going to the mosque, since being clean before praying was very important. Then, women began gathering there and using them as a place where they could openly talk without the presence of men. Eventually, the baths became so important to the culture, that not even the proliferation of residential showers could displace them.
It's not that the baths are strictly Turkish. They can be found throughout the Arab world, which includes the Middle East and Northern Africa. That said, there are variations. Moroccan hammams, for instance, use hot water to create steam baths, whereas Turkish baths use dry steam to ready the skin for cleansing.
Today, people still go weekly (or even more often). Showers are seen as somewhat superficial, while the baths are where you go for deep cleaning. After experiencing a Turkish bath (as I have), you will realize you have never before been truly clean.
What Is it Like to Go to a Turkish Bath?
Many foreigners feel intimidated by the idea of bathing in public, but we promise Turkish baths are not nearly as scary as many people think. In fact, you'll leave feeling utterly relaxed and glowing with skin as soft as a baby's.
The Turkish hammam experience depends on the country and how "fancy" the bath is. But in general, all baths are segregated by gender. When you go in, you'll be in a locker area where you can undress and put your clothes and things away. Normally, you either keep your bottom underwear on or wear a pair of a cloth given to you by the hammam.
Once you're ready, you can enter the warm room, and this area is usually a visual feast for the eyes. A round basin dominates the circular space, which is tiled with intricate mosaics. At the top, light filters through, bouncing off the tiles and providing a hypnotizing haze. You'll sit here for a while, letting the steam open up your pores and soften the dead skin that you definitely have, even if you don't know it.
When enough time has passed, you can start the scrubbing part of the experience. The bath section is sometimes separated from the warm room by marble slabs, but not always. Traditionally, you pay a bathing assistant to scrub your body vigorously using special soap and a washcloth. These expert bathers know exactly how to get off the gray layer of dead skin that is usually just sitting there.
Then, they'll wash you with cool water. You'll be amazed by how much skin comes off — and how beautiful and soft the skin underneath is. But if you don't feel comfortable with someone rubbing you while you're half-naked, you are definitely welcome to scrub yourself.
If you really want to do it right, you should then go back to the warm room, where another assistant will lather you up with foam and give you a quick and relaxing massage, before rinsing you again. You are then very much welcome to stay in the steam, enjoying the glow of your rejuvenated skin and partaking in the socialization aspect of the Turkish bath.
Turkish Baths in the United States
Hopefully, you're now very excited to try the Turkish bath experience. But we're not all part of a reality TV star family that can go to the Middle East on a whim. Luckily, a more globalized world and immigration have brought this incredible tradition to Europe and the United States.
In the U.S., Turkish baths are still mostly available in high-end hotels as part of spa and wellness offerings. On the bright side, this means you'll likely find a Turkish hammam in any major city. But on the other hand, it certainly will not be an "authentic" experience.
Most hammams found stateside are much fancier and costly than the ones found in the Middle East — although hotels in the area also offer Westernized versions of the baths for tourists. This means that instead of dropping less than $10 for the experience, you'll likely be charged over $100 for it.
There will also be much more emphasis on the individual experience rather than on the community aspect of it, as socializing in a public bath is not a widespread tradition in America.
Still, the experience is certainly relaxing and well-worth having. If you're curious, here are five of the best Turkish baths in the United States.
1. Russian and Turkish Baths — New York City, New York
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many Turkish baths were opened throughout the U.S. New York City's Russian and Turkish Baths are one of the few that have survived.
This facility has been providing a space for relaxation mostly to immigrant communities since 1892. It offers saunas, steam rooms, a cold plunge pool, a roof deck, and a restaurant. At $55 per person, it's still one of the most affordable public bath experiences in the country.
They also are special treatments such as Swedish/deep tissue/sports massages, platza oak leaf cleanings (they're famous for this), Dead Sea or seaweed sea salt scrubs and black mud treatments.
As they say on their website: "It's a stress-free zone designed to let you chill out and get some peace of mind. So just kick off your shoes and take off your clothes and we'll give you a robe, some slippers and all the towels you want. You'll be in for a new old world pleasure of being totally relaxed and spanking clean."
2. Aire Ancient Baths — Chicago, Illinois
This trendy modern hammam wants to bring back the ancient experience of public baths, combining elements from Greek, Roman and Ottoman traditions. It has locations all over the world, including New York City, London and Barcelona.
The Chicago Aire Ancient Baths location is within an old factory, which has been restored rather than torn down and which provides a very interesting — though nontraditional — setting for a Turkish bath.
Their special experiences include relaxing massages, thermal baths, salt scrubs and more. They are great for individuals, couples and athletes. There really is something for everyone here.
3. Hammam Spa — Houston, Texas
Houston's Hammam Spa is more attuned to a Moroccan bath than a Turkish one. But the experience is similar enough to warrant a spot on here.
The spa uses argan products to hydrate the skin after it has been steamed and exfoliated. It also offers extra treatments like peels. You can also expect some soothing tea at the end, which takes your day of relaxation to another level.
Their "mission is to provide our clients with quality skin health care treatment, using products made from all-natural ingredients from Morocco. From body scrubs to full-body massages, we hope to provide maximum benefit, with long-lasting results. We aim to give our customers a spa experience like they’ve never had before."
4. Hammam Luna — McLean Virginia
Located in McLean, Virginia, Hammam Luna is certainly not the most traditional Turkish bath. The spa specializes in providing massage therapy. However, before the massage, guests spent a considerable time in the Turkish steam room, where the skin prepares for rejuvenation.
Moroccan elements are also incorporated into this spa's experience, particularly the use of argan oil. The hammam experience starts at $125 for 60 minutes, and you will not be disappointed.
Afterward, you will feel like a new person.
5. Laila's Spa — Stockton, California
Though not a traditional hammam, Laila's Spa does offer an experience similar to that of a Turkish bath.
At the Stockton spa, all treatments begin with an hour-long session in the Turkish steam room, which is private. The whole session follows the traditional bath experience: You steam to let your pores open up, then a skin therapist exfoliates and scrubs you, and then you get lathered with essential oils.
They also offer an extensive menu of services and packages. The goal at Laila’s Spa is to help you relax and rejuvenate your mind, body, and spirit. And they don't disappoint.