“There’s a saying in Russia,” says Alona Krug, owner of the Brooklyn Banya (the Russian word for steam bath). “If a banya couldn’t cure you, you’re terminally ill.” It’s a tangible sentiment at many of New York’s old and new bathhouses alike, where heat-seeking habitués seek an escape from winter in saunas, steam rooms and hot tubs.
These days, there are more ways to “take a shvitz,” as old-school heat worshippers call it, than ever. If you want to be massaged, surrounded by salt, beaten with oak leaves or chow down on blini or dumplings, we have the place for you — and the inside knowledge to make the most of it.
Here’s what to know before you go to the best shvitzes in the city:
Mermaid Spa is quite the schlep for a shvitz, but there’s free parking when you get there. Near the entrance to Sea Gate, a private community at Brooklyn’s watery southern edge, Mermaid Spa’s seven-option dumpling menu ($ 9 to $ 22) will have you making the trek again and again, despite the lack of subway access — and if you want to eat and skip the shvitz, you can visit the restaurant without paying an entry fee.
All the towels you need and a locker are included in the price of admission ($ 50/adult), as they are at most NYC bathhouses, but it’s uniquely BYO flip-flops (or “taapki” in Russian) at Mermaid Spa. Want to wish a fellow banya-goer well? Tell them “Slyogkim parom,” says owner Zina Kotlyar. “It’s very hard to translate, but usually when people finish their ritual here,” they say it to one another, she says. It translates loosely to “easy steam” or “enjoy your bath.”
Insider tip: Don’t miss the ice cave, a smallish room with walls coated in ice. Somewhat hidden from the dining area, away from the saunas, there are a couple of big wooden chairs facing each other. You’ll see your breath. Don’t stay too long. 3703 Mermaid Ave., Brooklyn; SeagateBaths.com
An unassuming oasis tucked between auto shops along Kensington’s Coney Island Avenue, Brooklyn Banya has three heated chambers and a staff made up of former Russian athletes turned masseuses. All are trained in the bathhouse’s signature massage ($ 95 an hour), a hard rubdown focusing on specific knots or strains.
Visit on your birthday, owner Alona Krug says, and you’ll get a shot of vodka. Day passes ($ 40 per adult) give you access to all the facilities until closing, plus unlimited towels, flip-flops and a locker key. Check Groupon for discounts.
Insider tip: Look for special events, like alt-party planner Gemini & Scorpio’s annual Valentine’s Day brass band bash. 602 Coney Island Ave., Kensington; BrooklynBanya.com
Spa 88 /Wall Street Bath
This hidden Financial District gem has been steaming weary Wall Streeters in its three-story subterranean Fulton Street facility for 20 years. Finance bros aren’t the only fans: “We have a lot of celebrities,” says owner Dmitry Lerner, who claims Cynthia Nixon and Lindsay Lohan among the clientele.
Lerner suggests the Russian treatment called platza ($ 45), which involves being beaten by a handful of leafy oak branches while you lie in a sauna set to 194 degrees — the hottest temperature allowed by the city Health Department.
Insider tip: The spa’s Matryoshka restaurant — its walls lined with the titular nesting dolls — serves Russian fare including the stuffed-cabbage dish golubtsy ($ 16). 88 Fulton St.; WallStreetBath.com
Russian and Turkish Baths
Possibly the city’s oldest bathhouse, now 126 years old, it’s a beloved haunt for lifelong New Yorkers, Harvey Fierstein and Angelica Page among them. Most sauna regulars are amused by the feud between owners Boris Tuberman and David Shapiro. Sworn enemies since at least the early ’90s, they’ve managed to go on together by dividing their shifts: The online calendar marks black days for Boris, red for David. Either way, admission is $ 45 a person — just make sure it’s for the manager whose day it is you’ve booked online.
No hot tub here, but the brave can take a dip in the freezing sunken pool to cool down. The kitchen, tucked into a corner of the first floor, serves both borscht ($ 4) and dolma (rice-stuffed grape leafs, $ 4). Those hardy enough to hit the uncovered roof deck can cool off up there.
Insider tip: Boris’ shift days are known for having more of an old school energy. 268 E. 10th St., East Village; RussianTurkishBaths.com
Smack in the middle of Koreatown, the detoxing here goes on 24/7, every day of the year. A day pass is $ 50, and if you want to supersize that with an overnight stay — there are separate sleeping areas for men and women — it’s $ 20 more. Manager TJ Kim says the experience here is much like that of Korea’s traditional jimjibang — literally, “heated indoor room.” One heated room has walls of red clay; another, with salt from the Himalayas. There’s an in-house juice bar and a restaurant that serves dumplings ($ 10) and the steamed rice and pork dish called jaeyurk dup bab ($ 14).
Insider tip: Body-scrub packages for singles and couples ($ 60 and up, plus a $ 10 cash-only tip) are done fully nude: the clients, that is. The masseuses remain clothed. 22 W. 32nd St., third and fourth floors; KTownSauna.com
Aire Ancient Baths
Soothing music, marble floors, brick walls: This luxurious bathhouse, part of an international chain, promises an Instagrammable experience. Based on the age-old concept of group bathing, Aire specializes in individual treatments, albeit at premium prices. For example, the “wine bath experience,” in which you’re completely submerged in Spanish Ribera del Duero red grapes, runs about $ 500. Massages are offered as well. A 90-minute pass costs $ 96 per person weekdays, $ 106 on weekends, and only 14 people are allowed in at any one time. A second AAB is expected to open on the Upper East Side later this year.
Insider tip: Looking for a more affordable splurge? Buy an entry package that includes a 30-minute massage for $ 161.98. 88 Franklin St., Tribeca; BeAire.com