NYC is dripping with places to sweat out stress, heat your body to the core, and drink all the beet juice you desire.
The bathhouse is traditionally a place where people go to unwind, socialize, and recharge, and in New York City, taking a steam bath to destress and decompress could be just what everybody needs to make it through the slog of winter. Spending a few hours steaming in the sauna with friends and family is the custom in many wintry climates, and although American culture has yet to enthusiastically embrace the practice, the saunaphiles of New York City refuse to let this enviable tradition slip through their fully relaxed and sweaty fingers.
Raise the Core Temps
Once the distractions of the holidays have come and gone, the frigid, unrelentingly bleak reality of winter finally gets around to Arctic blasting everyone in the face. Those people who already run cold begin to question why they agreed to reside in a place where the sun turns its back on them so harshly in spite of their fanatical worship.
Enter the bathhouse, where there is a healthy supply of opportunities to heat up. Dry saunas vary in temperature and range from delightfully toasty to brutally fiery. Steam rooms turn up the heat even more with plentiful humidity that is ideal for cleansing the pores and releasing the toxins. Pools can vary in number and temperature, from piping hot to comfortably warm to refreshingly cool (merely a detour on the road to heating back up).
Shed Those Layers
Keeping out the cold is not the only obstacle to surviving the NYC winter. Head-to-toe outfitting is required for the wind-tunnel trekking and slush-dodging that is inherent in sidewalk navigation, and this hefty outerwear eventually starts to wear on you. Shuffling back and forth between the freezing cold to overheated indoor spaces results in near-permanent levels of discomfort, and even when the time finally comes to remove said clothes wear, the challenge becomes where in the world to put it.
The bathhouse is a place where your body can return to its unburdened state, offering a friendly reminder of what it feels like to be freed from the suffocating embrace of a Canadian goose. After peeling off your downy shell, take a loofah to that gray, flaky skin to bring the slough full circle.
Learn Your Spa Personality
The popularity of the sauna experience across a variety of cultures makes New York City an ideal location to try out more than one style of bathhouse.
The Russian bathhouse, also known as a banya, embodies a low-key, neighborhood atmosphere that is short on luxury but big on serious heat. Many of these can be found stewing in the depths of Brooklyn, and the Russian bathhouse tends to be no-frills, offering more straightforward amenities such as a hot sauna and an even hotter sauna, a steam room, pools of varying temperatures, and basic services like massage and platska.
Korean bathhouses emphasize the healing properties of various natural elements that are set within visually appealing interiors and heightened by zen vibes. Saunas are designed with an array of temperatures and features—at King Spa in Fort Lee, bathers can experience the crisp, cool Ice Sauna or the gentle heat of the Infrared Ray Room. At Paradise Spa and Sauna, visitors can relax in a Himalayan Salt Sauna or the Loess Room, where the body is immersed in a pit of tiny red clay balls. The health and wellness don’t stop there—services such as aromatherapy, reflexology, hot stone massage, and facials are also available.
Another factor to consider when choosing a bathhouse is the size of the facility itself. Larger bathhouses like King Spa can quickly deteriorate into a very unrelaxing situation when visiting during crowded peak times. These larger, tricked-out bathhouses also are more expensive than the smaller, more modest iterations.
INSIDER TIPIf you decide to visit one of the larger spas, try to go during off-peak hours—Monday through Friday before 5:00 pm.
Snack It Up
Sweet, freshly squeezed juices and frosty mugs of beer taste even better when you are hot and sweaty, and (usually) both are on hand at the bathhouse. Drinks and snacks can be enjoyed at tables within the spa area so you can relax and sip a refreshingly chilled beverage as a reward for all the sweat you’ve been working up.
Whip Yourself Into Shape
If a straight-up steam isn’t enough to get the blood flowing, the Russian bathhouses (such as Brooklyn Banya) offer platska, which is when a sweaty man in a hot sauna slaps soaking wet, hot, leafy birch branches all over your entire body (and with more force than you expect a stranger to slap you with a branch). Continuing for about 20-30 minutes, the body becomes intolerably hot, and when you think you can’t take it anymore (or have spent the last 20 minutes thinking you can’t take it anymore), you are dragged out of the sauna, shoved into a shower, and a deluge of ice cold water is dumped over your head. The body then goes into a state of shock, the lungs feel as if they are collapsing, and several seconds pass before a tingling sensation begins to radiate throughout the entire body. The result is an all-encompassing massive physical invigoration unlike anything else. This experience is not for everyone, and it’s safe to say that the absolute best part of the platska is when it is over.
Get Those Deals
Coupon sites like Groupon or Yelp often have deals for those who love a good bathhouse bargain. Many spas will also send discounts to those who subscribe to their email list, offering reduced admission prices or buy one get one so you can take your friend along for simultaneous euphoric (or torturous) experiences.
Take All the Time You Need
The price of admission gets you access to the bathhouse for as long as you can handle, and plenty of snacks are available for purchase making it easy to bliss the day away. Food, drinks, and services are extra, and to avoid the nuisance of carrying money on your person, bathers are issued a numbered locker and a bracelet that tracks purchases and serves as a reminder of where in the world you left all of your stuff.
Explore the City
Next-level relaxation needs a lot of room to spread out, therefore most bathhouses set up shop in parts of the city where real estate is not as much of a hot, steamy commodity. It helps to have a car to access those hard to reach places, but there are plenty of locations within proximity of the subway or bus. In New York City, it is possible to find yourself out of your element even when you are only a few miles away from where you live. Traveling out of your normal orbit is good practice and a way to acquaint yourself with how your fellow New Yorkers are living. No need to worry, any feelings of discomfort from being out of your usual zones can be soothed by a nice hot soak.
Fire, Then Ice
Dumping a bucket of ice cold water on your head or taking a plunge in the cold pool after enduring unbearably hot temperatures is truly horrible and addictively wonderful. This practice improves blood flow and rejuvenates the entire body, and is a nice respite from rushing down the sidewalk with your shoulders hunched by your ears. Plunging into the cold after finally getting warm is not an easy thing to do, but once you catch your breath after the initial shock, the resulting body sensation is worth all the mental anguish.
Wear a Cool Hat
For those who want the full legit experience, wearing a sauna hat will instantly step up your game. Made of wool or felt, these helmet-shaped hats help to regulate the temperature around the head, either by sealing in heat or keeping the head cool so you can last longer in the sauna. The head is the part of the body where the heat can feel unbearable, so you can buy yourself more longevity (and street cred) when you are sporting the proper gear.
Get It While It’s Hot
After spending the day sweating your heart out, a nourishing meal is in order. Some bathhouses have a menu of hot foods or even a full restaurant, serving deep purple borscht, steaming bowls of bibimbap, or plump dumplings topped with thick sour cream. The clientele frequenting these bathhouses has a low tolerance for subpar homestyle cooking, and the kitchen is encouraged to deliver some unforgettable classic dishes. The Russian Baths of Brooklyn has such a notoriously good restaurant that sometimes people go just for the food.
Test Your Grit
Many bathhouses have that one sauna that should be avoided by the faint of heart precisely because it could cause dizziness and fainting. The experienced bathers who have been in and out of saunas since they were children have been able to work their bodies up to withstanding these excruciatingly high temperatures. At the Russian Turkish Baths in the East Village (in operation since 1892!) the Russian Sauna is heated to a blood boiling 190 degrees Fahrenheit.
Fun With Friends
The bathhouse is a great place to socialize but maybe not the most comfortable scenario for making new, half-naked friends. Bring your buddies along for a fun and relaxing group activity where you can throw back a few beers between steams and perhaps learn more about each other’s bodies than you ever have before.
INSIDER TIPSome bathhouses have gender-specific areas or dedicated times of the week where the facilities are for men or women only. When the genders are separated, it is common for bathers to remove all of their clothes for a more liberating experience.