The Russian Baths: New York's Ultimate Beauty Experience

I was dripping in sweat, surrounded by nearly-naked men wearing little more than a towel and a felt banya hat. Slowly sipping my horseradish vodka and nibbling on pickled vegetables, I tried my best to relay a year’s worth of life updates - at lightening speed - to my bestie.

This was not exactly how I’d imagined spending my first weekend in New York City. But I’m not one to say no to an insider’s travel recommendation. And I am certainly not one to say no to an original beauty experience. So when M (yup, that’s bestie) suggested we host our epic reunion in a traditional Russian Banya, a New York cultural institution, it was an offer I simply couldn’t refuse.

So on Saturday morning I packed my backpack with all the necessary Russian bath house essentials: a swimsuit, some flip-flops, a change of dry clothes, a hair tie, two hefty water bottles and of course some extra beauty essentials including like a body oil and a few sheet masks. All the while, I was clamouring with excitement at the prospect of hitting up such a local beauty gem.

The unassuming Russian spa entrance

And local it certainly is. If you don’t know someone who happens to know someone (in my case, M’s Russian friend has the lowdown on every bathhouse in the city), then this spot likely won’t fall under your radar. But I’m here to help change that. Because if you’re a fellow beauty devotee, need to escape the rush of the city or simply want to go somewhere where you’re guaranteed not to bump into another tourist, then Wall Street Bath and Spa is probably for you. In fact, it’s the perfect place to rest your feet after pounding the pavements of Lower Manhattan. Just head to Fulton Street, look for the unassuming Wall Street Bath and Spa sign (which I nearly confused for a local restaurant) and head downstairs for a truly one-of-a-kind spa experience.

As soon as you pass through those double doors, you’ll feel a lot less Big Apple, and a lot more Mother Russia. And like a New York City local that seriously knows what’s up. And hey - whats possibly more New York than that?! (Thanks for being so hip, M!)

Once you recover from your shock at the retro Russian interiors, head to reception where you’ll exchange your belongings for a key bracelet that will give you access to a locker as well as a personal tab to which you can charge as much food (and infused vodkas) as your heart desires.

The spa’s cafeteria, where you can grab good, drink infused vodka and apply your face masks

But before I go on: a warning. If you’re looking for the classic chic spa escape, the Russian Banya won’t be for you. Russian baths are the very definition of rough around the edges. But with that, also comes some serious character, and the privilege of entering what feels like a sanctified space from a bygone era. And well, it sort of is. The Russian bathhouse has long been a convivial place for New York’s Russian community. It’s a spot to catch up with your buddies whilst you shvitz (sweat). And surprisingly, these Russian steam rooms were once heavily supported by the city itself, in an effort to keep immigrant neighbourhoods that lacked decent hot water facilities clean. That is, until they became a meeting space for the local mafia, and eventually sex clubs in the 1970s. But more recently, Russian bath houses have seen a revival, as younger crowds on the hunt for all things experiential have been drawn to these local haunts.

Our sheer joy over our girly spa day

And you too can enjoy a seriously good sweat sesh, gabbing away with your bestie, perched up right next to older men in felt hats, Wall Street bankers and those ubiquitous bearded hipsters. And I guarantee you’ll love every minute. Just strip into your swimsuit, grab a towel and get to sweatin’. Wall Street Bath and Spa has quite a few rooms to choose from, including an eucalyptus-scented steam room and an infrared sauna, but you can work your way through the lot as you see fit. We started in the steam rooms, where we slapped on some sheet masks and soaked for ages. Then it was off to the sauna, where we lingered as long as we could possibly bear the heat, just for the chance to catch a glimpse of a few men slapping each other with a venik (an old birch branch). These “stick massages” are said to improve blood circulation and capillary activity as well as increase metabolism. The spa also has a few icy plunge pools for those who are brave enough to cool off instantly. Not feeling particularly bold, we gave these a miss and opted for a water break instead.

Pickled veggies are surprisingly delicious

But whatever you do at the spa, don’t miss the cafeteria. In this main room, which is, naturally, decked out in matryoshkas (nesting dolls), you can sample both traditional Russian fare and any infused vodka of your liking. I enjoyed a shared plate of pickled vegetables and, perhaps slightly less so, a horseradish-infused vodka. Though this spicy treat certainly perked me up the rest of afternoon, which I spent in the jacuzzi swapping stories with M.

The great thing about the Russian Banya is that once you’ve paid your entrance fee (which is around $40, about £30), you can hang about for as long as you like. So if you want to sample every single room, you’re free to do so. Just be sure to check in now and again on how your body’s handling the heat. And take plenty of water breaks. We stuck around until we’d attained that perfect glow, as which point we finally mustered up the will to say goodbye to Mother Russia and head back into the urban chaos.

Leaving with one serious glow


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