Visiting North Africa's Public Hammams

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Hammams are public steam baths popular throughout North Africa, and particularly in Morocco and Tunisia. Historically, they were the only places that people could come to bathe and scrub since a private bathroom in a house or apartment was a luxury few could afford. There are fewer hammams now since the advent of modern plumbing; however, hammams remain very much a part of the culture in Tunisia and Morocco. They offer an opportunity for people to meet, catch up and exchange gossip, and visiting a hammam is a fantastic way for visitors to immerse themselves in the local culture.

 

Finding a Hammam

Hammams can be found in almost every Moroccan and Tunisian town. The ones with the most character are found in the old medinas, and in the historic heart of cities like Tunis, Marrakech and Fes, hammams often double as examples of exquisite Moorish architecture. Often, they are located near a mosque, since it is customary for Muslims to wash before praying. Ask the advice of a friendly local, or inquire at your hotel or nearest tourist office. 

Many upscale hotels (known as riads in Morocco or dars in Tunisia) have their own hammams. These private hammams offer a more Westernized experience, with massage tables and aromatherapy oils. Public hammams, however, are the real deal - with no frills and plenty of character. They can be a little intimidating, with low lighting and plenty of nude or semi-nude strangers. However, for those with a sense of adventure, they also offer a glimpse of North African culture at its most authentic. 

Your Hammam Checklist

Hammams are either exclusively for men or women, or they will have separate opening times for both sexes. Men's hours are usually in the morning and evening, while women's hours are typically in the afternoon. This means that the dress code in the hammam (for both men and women) is underwear only. Women usually go topless, so if the idea of mingling with nude strangers makes you feel uncomfortable, you may want to reconsider visiting a public hammam. If you're still keen, here are a few of the things you might want to bring with you:

  • Spare underwear since the pair you're wearing will get soaked
  • Towel
  • Shampoo (in Morocco, consider buying ghassoul, a clay from the Atlas Mountains traditionally used to wash hair)
  • Razor
  • Clean flip-flops or sandals
  • Soap (in Morocco, buy traditional black soap made from olive resin)
  • Scrubbing mitt (known as a kassa in Tunisia, or a kiis in Morocco).
  • Bottled water
  • Mat or stool (for sitting on - this is optional)
  • A few words of Arabic 
  • A keen sense of humor!

The Hammam Experience

The first step is to pay your entry fee, which is usually minimal. Opt to pay for a massage as well -- this is part of the experience and is generally far cheaper than massages in Europe or the United States. Next, check your valuables in at the front desk, and follow directions to the changing area. Here, you can strip down to your underwear and stash your clothes until you're ready to get dressed again. 

Every hammam is slightly different, so once you enter the steam-filled bath area, take a look at what other people are doing to get an idea of how things work. Usually, you'll be given two buckets and a bowl (or an old can). One bucket is for cold water, the other for hot. Some hammams will have an attendant to fill these up for you, but normally it's self-service.

Find a space to sit down, and spend a moment soaking up the heat whilst letting yourself unwind. Hammams are often quite dark, and you may need time to adjust to the low light. The noise level is significant, as gossip is rife and echoes beautifully around the hammam's traditional domed ceiling. For women, the sound of bathing children adds to the general racket.

Once you get your bearings, it's time to fill your bucket and start soaping, scrubbing and shaving. Some hammams will have separate areas for shaving and shampooing. Watch your fellow bathers carefully, since dirty water generally flows in one direction - and sitting downstream of other people's bathwater is never pleasant. Always use your own can or bowl to rinse with clean water.

Your massage begins when one of the attendants calls to you in Arabic, motioning for you to take a seat on a stone slab in the center of the hammam. Wearing an abrasive mitt, the attendant will scrub your skin until it feels raw - whilst you watch in amazement as your dead skin is sloughed away, leaving you feeling cleaner than ever before. 

After your massage, you can continue bathing if you want to. There's no restriction on the amount of water you can use, and a key part of the hammam experience is simply sitting and enjoying the hot water whilst listening to the people around you. When you're finished, make sure to use the bathroom before getting dressed. Most hammam toilets are the squatting kind, and you'll want to rinse off before you get dry.

After leaving the hammam, make sure to rehydrate by drinking plenty of water. 

This article was updated by Jessica Macdonald on October 20th, 2016.