Tbilisi, Georgia isn’t just a city you visit, it’s a city you experience. That means over-indulging in carb-loaded cuisine, accepting shots of homemade chacha (and trying not to wince as the potent liquor hits your stomach), tripping over broken sidewalks in the Old Town while wondering in amazement at the barely-standing buildings…and making a visit to the Tbilisi sulphur baths.
The ancient Abanotubani District sits below the imposing fortress; the brick, domed rooftops of the baths bubbling up like the water itself. The district is the most historic part of the city, as according to legend, it was the sulphur springs that enticed King Vakhtang Georgasali to settle the land and declare it the new capital city in the 5th century AD. At the height of popularity, there were more than 60 bathhouses in Tbilisi where people could get squeaky clean or stay for a soak, letting the curing Sulphur water ease their ailments. Fast-forward to today: there are five surviving bathhouses in the Abanotubani District where locals and travelers can experience a sulphur bath.
Tbilisi Sulphur Bathhouses
The most intimidating part of the Tbilisi sulphur baths is not knowing what to expect. As Americans, we are not exactly familiar with the procedures and protocol of public bathing. In our travels, we’ve soaked in local baths in Budapest and dipped into outdoor pools in Iceland – and survived both experiences, even though they began with hesitation and uncertainty. However, we didn’t have much faith that our Tbilisi sulphur baths experience would yield the same result – yet, we couldn’t resist giving it a go.
In our online research, reviews of the Tbilisi sulphur baths fell on a scale from delightful to dreadful, which wasn’t particularly helpful. We did determine that we would forgo the least expensive – but most local – experience of a community shower. From what we could gather, the shower rooms, which are separated by gender, are a local gathering place to gossip, shave and shower. Somehow, paying to bathe nude with strangers – especially when we couldn’t even join in on the juicy chatter – just didn’t sound appealing…even if it did only cost a dollar an hour.
The upgraded option – selected more by tourists than locals – is a private room rented by the hour. Since we’re not often in the market to rent private rooms by the hour, we did a little investigating. We walked into all five bathhouses in the Abanotubani District to consult the price list at each location (but stopped short of asking to see a room). We quickly surmised that the bathhouses range from rock-bottom basic to upscale luxury – and were priced accordingly. The offerings, however, were all quite similar: a room with a deep pool of hot sulphur water, a marble slab for massages, a private toilet, shower and sitting room and sometimes a sauna – with an additional option of a scrub and/or massage.
Since we are budget conscious travelers, we opted for the cheapest private room option we could find, which was at a bathhouse tucked down a footpath marked 24/24. The hourly rate for a private room without sauna was 30 lari ($12.50 USD). The room could accommodate up to four people, but we weren’t inclined to invite anyone to join us. A body scrub and massage were offered for 10 lari each ($4 USD) per person.
Our Tbilisi Sulphur Baths Experience
We made our way in the Abanotubani District carrying a bag containing a towel, soap, hairbrush and hair dryer; the pungent scent of sulphur telling us we were heading in the right direction. Walking along the wooden planked sidewalk that led into the gorge, we turned left down the alley marked 24/24 King Erekle’s Bath. Five teenage boys sat outside the bath entrance, smoking cigarettes and eating sandwiches.
In the lobby the air was warm, although the greeting was not. Two customers stood in the lobby organizing their belongings, a stout, frumpy woman sat on a bench and three young men crowded onto a single couch staring at their phones. We waited about two minutes before the receptionist roused from her daydream and absent-mindedly pushed the price list toward us.
We requested a private room without sauna for 30 lari. Before paying, she showed us the room, which was right off the main lobby opposite the sofa where the bored-looking men sat. The room was dank and decrepit and reeked of rotten eggs, but included a sitting room, toilet, shower, massage bench and pool of steaming sulphur water, just as advertised. We paid the 30 lari for the room and I requested a scrub and massage for me (Kris hasn’t been keen on massages since getting Thai Massages in Chiang Mai) for the total cost of 50 lari – or $20 USD.
Behind an unlocked door (the masseuse let’s herself in after a 15-minute soak), we undressed, showered and then immersed ourselves in the pool. The water was hot, the air was stifling and the hygiene questionable, but we bobbed around the hot tub-sized pool, exchanging unsure glances as we wondered if we were doing it right. Within minutes, the heat and humidity were already overpowering, but the dizzying sensation was all part of the experience, we supposed.
When the masseuse – the stout woman who had been sitting in the lobby – arrived, she ordered me out of the pool and onto the marble slab. She didn’t speak – presumably because she couldn’t speak English – but rather pointed emphatically, making it clear what she wanted me to do. It was a relief to escape the intense water, but I felt clumsy and foolish moving around the room unclothed in her presence. My brain logically reminded me that this woman, who looked like a someone’s tough grandma, was seasoned to nudity, but that fact didn’t make me feel any less self-conscious.
As I sat naked facing her, she lathered up a coarse glove that looked like an abrasive oven mitt, then set to exfoliating every inch of my bare body (except my face). She moved me onto my back, then had me flip over onto my stomach and she scrubbed and scrubbed and scrubbed – paying no attention to the moments when my muscles tensed as she scoured areas of my body not accustomed to a stranger’s touch. It was awkward, but not intrusive – perhaps how a dirty dog might feel about getting a rough washing. Regardless, I was ecstatic to be having millions of dead skin cells removed from my body.
When she finished, she dipped a bucket into the pool of hot water, where Kris was still soaking, and threw it on me. She repeated the dipping and throwing routine several times, rinsing the freshly peeled skin from my body. And it felt marvelous.
She again positioned me on my stomach and then proceeded to use a bar of soap on my entire backside. Once I was soaped up and slippery, she began to fiercely massage my shoulders and neck and then pounded on my back. She never inquired if the pressure was amenable, but I’m not averse to an aggressive massage, so I wasn’t bothered. After about 10 minutes, she again doused me with a bucket of water. With her 20-minute, 20-lari task completed, she collected her things in her bucket and left the room without saying a word. I crawled back in the pool with Kris for another five minutes, until the oppressive heat became too much to handle – even though we had 20 minutes until our hour was set to expire.
We quickly got dressed, aware of the lobby lingerers on the other side of the thin door – as we didn’t want to risk the improbable possibility of one of them deciding to randomly walk into our room while we were standing there stark naked. There was so much moisture in the thick air that it was impossible to get dry and the room had no outlet for my hair dryer. We lazily stuffed our wet towel and supplies back into our damp bag, then walked out of the bathhouse and inhaled a deep breath of fresh air.
We were relaxed, but not tranquil. We were still attempting to ascertain how we felt about our Tbilisi sulphur baths experience. My skin felt soft as a baby (as it would for days), so I was particularly pleased that we made the effort to go. Kris, on the other hand, was mostly pleased that I was pleased. While I whole-heartedly believe that the Tbilisi Sulphur baths are a unique experience, I honestly can’t say that our budget trip to the baths was not without What-the-*#&%#-is-happening-here? moments. The jury is still out on whether or not we would go again…but I’m pretty sure I would.
We want to know: Have you ever experienced the Tbilisi sulphur baths? Did you love it or hate it? If you haven’t been, do you want to go?
Our Top Tips for your Trip to Tbilisi, Georgia
More Experiences in Tbilisi, Georgia
The Tbilisi sulphur baths aren’t the only experience to be had in the city! We suggest starting any trip to Tbilisi by touring the city on foot – either with a guided tour of Tbilisi or on your own (our handy Tbilisi Self-Guided Walking Tour is a great place to start!). After you get the lay of the land and a feel for the city, dive into the local cuisine and venture beyond the Old Town city limits for phenomenal Tbilisi, Georgia experiences!
- Eat Georgian Cuisine: Take a guided food tour through the city’s best market or join a chef and learn how to prepare a traditional Georgian meal.
- Tours from Tbilisi: Learn about the history and tradition of Georgian wine on a 1-Day Wine Tour in Kakheti or explore Kazbegi and the region on a private, full-day tour.
Where To Stay
During our visit to Tbilisi, we stayed in this awesome Airbnb Apartment. (Not already a member of Airbnb? Use this link to create an account and save money on your first stay!) However, for those who prefer staying in traditional accommodations, there are many Tbilisi hotels to choose from in – or close to – the city center. Check out these top-rated hotels (based on guest reviews!) for your upcoming trip:
Or These Hostels:
Before You Go
- Don’t forget to pack a pair of lightweight and comfortable walking shoes for your trip. I (Sarah) have traveled with these shoes by Columbia and Skechers. Kris prefers wearing these shoes by Merrell and Sanuk.
- We’re certain you’ll be snapping tons of photos during your trip. Rather than relying on your mobile phone to capture the sights, upgrade to an actual camera for higher quality photos (that can later be beautifully compiled into a travel photo book). We travel with a Canon Rebel (which takes amazing photos, but can be a bit clunky) and a Canon PowerShot ELPH (which takes beautiful pictures, is slim and lightweight – and the new models are wifi enabled so you can share your trip pics to social media in real time!).
- It’s easy to get turned around in any foreign city…and especially Tbilisi! Make sure to have a good city map and/or guidebook before arriving.
- We think travel insurance is essential! If you haven’t already obtained travel insurance for your trip, travel protected with World Nomads.
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