The Moroccan Hammam: What to Expect

Bathing pool inside of Hammam turkish bath Morocco

[Peter Niesen] / [iStock] / Thinkstock

It’s hot, dry, and dusty. You’ve been wandering for hours through the medina of Marrakech. Your feet are tired, you’re covered in the dusty sand of the desert, and if one more vendor jumps out at you to come and look at the wares in his shop, you’re going to scream. Sounds like you’re ready for a hammam (communal bath house) and a stiff drink. The alcohol is harder to track down, but the hammam should be easy to find.

If you’re looking for a luxurious, relaxing, rejuvenating experience, then head to a tourist
hammam, essentially a Western-inspired spa with a Moroccan twist that bears little to no resemblance to the traditional bath houses you’ll find scattered in the villages and cities throughout Morocco. These hammams, situated within hotels or areas densely packed with tourists, offer pampering massages and gentle scrub downs against a background of soothing music and aromatherapy. They’re clean, spacious, well lit, and beautifully designed, but if you’re looking for an authentic cultural experience, you won’t find it there.

Now, for the real deal. Ready?

Step 1: Locate.
Unless your Arabic is up to par, you might have trouble locating a hammam by its sign. You can ask around or just keep an eye out for people armed with buckets full of shower supplies. Careful though. If you’re a guy and you notice a bunch of women with buckets, shower supplies, and a line of kids, you’ll want to proceed with caution. Hammams are separated by gender. Some have separate areas for men and women, while others designate certain times of the day for each sex. Typically, opening hours for women are during the day while the evenings are reserved for men.

Step 2: Supplies
While most hammams supply buckets for water, you’ll want to bring shower supplies (shampoo, conditioner, etc.) as well as a towel, change of clothes, and a kessa– a glove used for exfoliating that can be found easily in any marketplace. Also bring a small bowl or container to pour water over yourself and money to pay the entrance fees (usually not more than few dollars) and tip the attendants.

Step 3: Undress
This is not the place to practice modesty. While you should leave your underwear on (tip: don’t wear white), women who wear full bathing suits or bras will be looked at as overly self-conscious. Let it all hang out, ladies. Nobody cares.

Step 4: Get Yer Water
First you’ll enter “the warm room,” where you’ll fill your buckets. One with cold water and one with hot water. Don’t take more than this as it’s considered greedy and rude. Use some of the water to rinse yourself. This is primarily just to get wet and rinse the first layer of dirt off.

Step 5: Scrub
Once you’ve gotten accustomed to the temperature and have used some of the water to rinse yourself, move to the “hot room.” This is basically a sauna that will open your pores and get you prepared for the scrubbing. Once you’ve done that move back to the warm room and start scrubbing. Most of the hammams will have an attendant that you can pay to scrub you down. This is definitely the recommended option, but be prepared. You will be scrubbed within an inch of your life, often while lying on a slab of marble or stone. If no attendant is available, it’s possible that someone else in the bath will offer to scrub your back. This is totally normal. They’re not looking for money. It’s just a courtesy, but be sure to return the favor.

Step 6: Rinse
Once you’ve been scrubbed out of your old skin, it’s time to rinse. Use the remaining water in your buckets to rinse off the dead skin as well as any remaining soap or shampoo.

It really depends on the hammam, but many will have staff on hand to give you a massage or to walk you through the entire process if you desire. Ask around or check your guidebook to see which hammams around you offer which services. If you have the chance, be sure to sample local Argan oil as a hair and skin treatment or get a scrub down using the supple and smooth olive oil soap.

By Nikki Hodgson