Before leaving for Istanbul, I knew I wanted to experience a Turkish bath, so I did some research. Since I normally prefer to find real local flavor, rather than the tourist version of the local customs, I was excited to find information on some recommended neighborhood baths. This was a mistake; if you're going to get naked and lie on a marble slab, you want to do it somewhere they cater to tourists, believe me. (And I don't think there really is much such 'catering' going on; the prices are steeper, sure, but I don't consider cleanliness 'touristy.')
A friend and I set off on our bath adventure (no sense my going with family, as they're all guys, and the baths are segregated by gender) and walked to two of the neighborhood baths: Gedikpasa Hamam at Hamam Caddesi 65, and Kadirga Hamami on Kadirga Hamami Sokak. We realized as we approached the neighborhood that we had not seen another woman on the streets for about 10 minutes of walking. No one accosted us, but we did feel a bit peculiar about this.
One of the baths we never did find; the other was a ruin of a building and appeared so dirty on the outside that we thought it was no longer in operation. When we tiptoed in, we discovered a lone attendant, dressed in rags, and a dark, cavernous place with no other people around. We were so uncomfortable with the looks of the place that we simply smiled at the woman and left.
So, we wound up at the most touristy of the baths, the Cagaloglu Hamami on Yerebatan Caddesi, near Aya Sofya. (Actually, the woman's section is around the corner, but not well-marked--go in the main bath building and they will take you around the corner.) There are many different choices as to what services you want; we didn't know what any of the choices were, and didn't understand the explanations either (it's not a Turkish language barrier--it's a question of not knowing the different types of Turkish massage etc.), so we picked something in the middle of the price range and smiled a lot.
We were each given a cubicle in what I believe to be the frigidarium--not that the room was cold, but it was not warm either. Each locking cubicle had a bed, big towels, and a place to hang your clothes. And hang 'em you do--you wear nothing but your towel to the baths. Each of us was assigned an attendant, or masseuse, whom we followed (based on hand signals) to the caldarium, or hot room--the main room of the baths. (There was another chamber we walked through--perhaps the tepidarium? or was it the frigidarium and the first room the tepidarium? Hard to tell--we only walked through the middle chamber, and the temperatures in those two rooms were the same.) By the way, the attendants are rather scantily clad, since they get very wet in their work. They wear only nylon panties and head scarves--I will leave to your imagination the chuckles this can lead to, especially with an attendant like mine, who was elderly and overweight. I was rather glad I had left my glasses in my cubicle...
The main room of the baths is beautiful (and consistent in all the baths)--a circular room with pinpoint skylights, a raised circular marble platform in the center (heated--it feels wonderful!), and a marble bench all around the outside walls, with basins and hot water taps at intervals.
Our first task was to remove our towels (rumor has it the men do not remove theirs, as it is a serious breach of etiquette, and are responsible for washing their own privates--but since my husband refused to try this, I can't say for sure) and scoop water out of our basins with a bowl provided for the purpose, and pour the water over our heads. We did this for 5-10 minutes, again following hand signals, and the water (and we) got hotter and hotter. Then our masseuses led us down to the raised marble platform, where we lay while they worked on us.
I cannot really say exactly what they used on us, except that they lathered us with soap, using a sort of coarse washcloth, and then scraped off about seven layers of skin using various implements (including, at one point, a block of wood, I think). They also vigorously shampooed us, then had us go back for more 'water, water.' After 5-10 minutes of rinsing ourselves at our basins, we were called back down to the platform for more ministrations (such as rubbing and pummelling). The attendants scrub the marble where their clients have been lying and sitting, so that it is clean for the next patron. When we were done, we were led back to our cubicles, where we dressed (and should have rested--it is expected--but we had to get back to our families.) When we exited from our cubicles, our attendants were waiting for us with hands extended for their tips.
I loved my bath, and will do it again someday. It is important to realize, though, that you will really be walking around naked a lot, in front of a lot of people if the baths are crowded; the bath and especially the massage is invigorating, not relaxing--and expect to shampoo your hair again right away and put some lotion on your skin, as the products used are strong cleansers, NOT moisturizers. But you won't need to exfoliate for a while!