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Best hamams and spas in Istanbul, Turkey

There are plenty of countries around the world where it is perfectly acceptable to nude up.

The naturists among us, for example, will find great joy in the nude beaches, boathouses and parks of Germany, Jamaica is home to a flood of clothing-optional resorts, and no one’s really shy about removing the bikini top on our very own beaches (or in some cases, nightclubs). Transcontinental Turkey, however? Not so much – unless you’re visiting one of their famous bathhouses, known locally as hamams. 

Traditional hamams have long been a place to cleanse both the body and soul, serving the community as a gender-segregated meeting place for men and women to gossip, problem-solve or organise unions between families. Today, communities gather elsewhere (usually in spaces where large amounts of food are laid out) but hamams remain popular a place to get clean, relax and – if you’re a tourist – ponder many of life’s many big questions. Why am I paying someone to torture me? Is my sexuality more fluid than I realised? How soon is now when it comes to eating again? 

The Turkish Bath. Found in the collection of Musée d’art et d’histoire, Genf. Artist : Vallotton, Felix Edouard (1865-1925).

My first hamam experience played out like the opening scenes of a ‘marital aid film’ – complete with that boom chaka bam bam electronica music ringing in my head. My ridiculously attractive masseuse was dressed in a flimsy white dress (what better outfit to wear in a water-soaked room?) and she first led me to a steam room where I sat until I was deemed to be sufficiently half-dead and therefore, limber. Then, over to the gőbek taşı (heated marble table), where she straddled my mostly naked form (I kept my underwear on) and ran soap bubbles along my body with a muslin cloth. By this stage she was soaked and I was thinking about asking her to marry me, but just as I was getting comfortable under the delightful touch of her powerful hands, my soapy massage came to an abrupt end by the introduction of the kese.

A woman having a traditional treatment in a hamam.  Picture: Getty

A woman having a traditional treatment in a hamam. Picture: Getty

For those who’ve yet to know the joys of the kese, it’s essentially a hardcore exfoliation mitt designed to take the first two to three layers off your skin (or so it seems). As she scrubbed my whole body red raw, I pressed my tongue to the roof of my mouth to keep from screaming or crying, and just as I was beginning to think that my ‘rest and relaxation area’ post-hamam was going to have to take place at a local hospital, she began waterboarding me. I mean proper ‘not a single break between pours over the head and face’ so that I couldn’t draw breath. Finally, as I lay traumatised with my knees up to my chest, she delivered the final blow – an attempt  to sell me overpriced creams and lotions. 

As I paid for my experience that day, I thought briefly about pressing assault charges but then I caught sight of my glowing reflection and reconsidered. Then I realised how good I felt in the days that followed and I became hooked, going on to have at least one hamam experience every year that I returned. Would I recommend it to the average Aussie? Obviously we’re tougher than the average bear but depending on your pain threshold, I would recommend those who want the ‘hamam lite’ experience to book one through a luxury hotel, while others likely to describe themselves as ‘hardcore’ should go traditional. 

Obviously hamams are scattered all over the country but some of the best ones in Istanbul are:

My top tip? Nude up as often as possible in Istanbul, but be sure to keep it within a hamam setting. Good luck!

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