The tradition of bathhouses and public bathing stretches back thousands of years, and reaches all over the globe. In some cultures, it holds religious importance, in others its social aspects are a crucial component. But in all, the ultimate goal is cleansing of body and mind. For those who could use a soak and a spa, we share a few outstanding establishments that take relaxation seriously.
1. TERME DI SATURNIA // TUSCANY, ITALY
Translating to Spa of Saturn, this Tuscan retreat (pictured above) offering spa services, hotel accommodations, and golf, is named for its mythic origins. During a dangerous quarrel, Saturn narrowly dodged a lighting bolt hurled by Jupiter. Crashing to the ground, the godly weapon sliced through the earth’s crust, resulting in the heated healing waters that have attracted visitors for thousands of years. Bathhouses in Italy reach back as far as 300 BC. Over the centuries, Roman baths would evolve in complexity and grandeur but few compete with the natural beauty of Terme di Saturnia’s pool, which rest in a bubbly volcanic crater.
2. BATHHOUSE ROW // HOT SPRINGS, ARKANSAS
Thanks to the city’s namesake natural landmark, Hot Springs, Arkansas, boasts a whole district dedicated to bathhouses. After a 19th century boom in spas, the U.S. government founded Hot Springs National Park in 1832 to preserve its eponymous founts. The mineral mix of these therapeutic baths doesn’t give off the unpleasant smell of sulfur that plagues so many natural hot springs. This may have spurred eight bathhouses of varying styles—from neoclassical to renaissance-revival to Spanish Colonial Revival—to pop up in a row. Most shuttered when bathhouse popularity waned in the mid-20th century. However, Buckstaff has survived since its opening in 1912, while Quapaw reopened in 2008, after being abandoned for 24 years.
3. THE SPRINGS RESORT & SPA // PAGOSA SPRINGS, COLORADO
According to legend, the Pagosa Hot Springs on which this 1881 bathhouse was founded were the result of ardent prayers of a Native America tribe that was riddled by a plague. Desperate for healing that their Medicine Man could not provide, they begged the gods for salvation—worshipping and dancing all night long in a religious frenzy. The next morning, they were roused by the bubbling of a new spring, the waters of which healed their sick. The Springs Resort and Spa maintains the numerous pools, while providing a bathhouse, canteen, and other attractions like dog sledding and hot air balloon rides. The site, which previously held the Guinness World Record title of The World’s Deepest Geothermal Hot Spring, has proudly played host to World War II hero Major Jimmy Doolittle and Hollywood icon John Wayne.
4. BATHHOUSE OF THE WINDS // ATHENS, GREECE
Named for the Tower of The Winds that stands nearby, this landmark is the only Athenian public bathhouse to have survived the centuries. Dating back to at least 1667 (when Turkish traveler Evlia Tselebi noted its existence in a diary), the place welcomed guests for three centuries, until it closed in 1965 when ownership transferred to the Ministry of Culture. Today, you can no longer take a soak at Bathhouse of the Winds but you can visit the location in its new renovated form as part of the Greek Folk Art Museum. The site not only displays modern works of art, but also shines a light on the inner workings of the ancient bathhouse and its culture.
5. GELLERT BATHS // BUDAPEST, HUNGARY
With over 100 natural hot springs, 15 public bathhouses, and many more private ones, Budapest earned the nicknamed the City of Spas in 1934. This culture of bathing was forged first by the Romans, then shaped by the Turks. However, when spas became all the rage in the early 20th century, Hungary defined a bathhouse style all its own. A vibrant gem in the City of Spas crown is Gellert Baths, which was founded in 1918 and was officially dubbed the seat of the International Balneological Association in 1937. Today, this art nouveau palace contains two effervescent bath sections, eight thermal bath sections, and three outdoor pools, all with different temperatures, plus a wide array of spa services.
6. PORCHESTER SPA // LONDON
Built in 1929 and renovated in 2006, this Art Deco palace—tucked discreetly in West London—offers bathhouse techniques from around the world. The Porchester Spa boast Turkish hot rooms, Turkish Soap Massages, Polynesia Spa Ritual, Moroccan Hammam Ritual, Russian steam rooms, a Finnish sauna, cold-water plunge pool, and Thai herbal compress massages. Like the bathhouses in the Ottoman tradition, the space has designated men-only and women-only days. It also holds a weekly couples day and offers discounts to locals.
7. HIERAPOLIS-PAMMUKKALE // HIERAPOLIS, TURKEY
Located in southwestern Turkey, this UNESCO World Heritage Site features a naturally formed hot-spring bath that has existed for more than 2,200 years. The springs’ waters have used the centuries to carve out steps of travertine pools that make up and overlook a majestic landscape that includes mineral forests and petrified waterfalls. On their fringe lie the remains of the Byzantine city of Hierapolis. These ruins of bathhouses and temples add to the atmosphere of history, enriched by stepping into pools that were long ago a luxury of second century BC royalty.
8. SANDUNOVSKY BANYA // MOSCOW
Bathhouses have a rich tradition in Russia. Founded in 1808, The Sanduny Bath House (as it’s known in English) is the nation’s oldest and a major point of pride. Within its spacious quarters, the banya contains lounges, swimming pools, hothouses, classical Russian steam rooms, beauty salon, restaurant, and 8 private bath rooms. Not to be confused with bathrooms, these smaller spaces allow for parties of 4 to 15 to lounge, get massages, soak in a hot tub or Jacuzzi, and enjoy other spa treatments in a more intimate environment. Keeping up the high-class atmosphere of this literal hotspot, each bath room offers a distinct yet ornate design, with influences ranging from Indian and Roman to Russian fairytales. And on Tuesdays, tours are available for curious tourists too timid to take a dip.
9. CAGALOGLU HAMAMI // ISTANBUL
Another Turkish treasure, this was the final hamami (traditional Turkish bathhouse) built under the order of the Ottoman Empire. Sultan Mahmut wanted the establishment’s revenue to fund the construction of his personal library as well as the Hagia Sophia Mosque. Built in 1741 on land that once held a palace ravaged by fire, Cagaloglu Hamami holds separate hot rooms for men and women, complete with separate entrances and cooling rooms. This was a unique element, as most hamamis were segregated by schedule, not architectural design. Dedicated restorations have maintained the marble fountains and grand domes of this impeccable destination.
10. THE SPA IN GARDEN FIVE // SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA
Korea’s gender-segregated bathhouses are generally open 24/7, and known as jjimjilbangs. They possess saunas (both wet and dry) to sweat out toxins, and custom suggests you go from the hot tubs to the cold baths and back again to increase blood circulation. Modern bathhouses like The Spa in Garden Five, located in a shopping center, also include extras like restaurants, nail salons, and lounge areas with books and board games, all for a flat rate.
11. JIGOKUDANI ONSEN // YAMANOUCHI, JAPAN
Bathhouse culture in Japan is rooted into the rise of Buddhism, which spurred temples to include saunas for ritual purification and public use. Hot springs or onsens became popular places for communities to bathe. Initially men and women bathed together, but segregation has emerged as onsens and sentos (communal bathhouses) became a vibrant part of Japanese tourism. This particular onsen is popular not only because of its open-air baths and incredible views, but also the native snow monkeys, which visitors can watch frolic in the winter.