Everything you need to know before you book a visit to the famous Abanotubani sulfur baths in Tbilisi, Georgia.
First published: June 2017.
Looking back on the past few years, some of my most memorable travel experiences have happened when I was feeling vulnerable. Giving in and going with the flow doesn’t come naturally to a Type A Traveller like me; but those times when I did manage to let go – or I was forced to – are moments I often look back on with a smile.
What could possible be more vulnerable than getting naked in front of a stranger?
I’m fascinated by the way nakedness is treated in different cultures. I don’t actively seek out opportunities to take my clothes off in public (control freak, remember), but any time the occasion presents itself, its always going to be a memorable experience – for better or for worse.
A perfect example: In Morocco, we visited Les Bains du Marrakech for a black soap scrub. Being manhandled by a robust Moroccan woman was awkward as hell, but we loved it! (These experiences are always better when shared with someone you can giggle about it with later.)
When we heard about the sulfur baths in Tbilisi, we didn’t hesitate in booking in for a thermal bath and massage – that’s despite the baths receiving very mixed reviews online.
What unfolded was one of the most absurd, fun, embarrassing, hilarious travel experiences of all time. In terms of vulnerability, I think this tops them all.
I’ve since been to baths in Istanbul, Budapest and Taiwan. Tbilisi is a bit different to them all. My account of our visit to Gulo’s Thermal Spa and sulfur bath FAQ should hopefully answer your questions about how it all works – and maybe even make your bath seem less awkward by comparison.
In This Post:
- History of the Tbilisi sulfur baths
- Sulfur baths Tbilisi: FAQ & guide
- Our experience at Gulo’s Thermal Spa
- How much does a private bath cost?
- Key things to remember before you book a Tbilisi sulfur bath
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History of the Tbilisi sulfur baths
Abanotubani is one of Tbilisi’s most recognisable neighbourhoods, famous for the domed brick roofs of its subterranean bathhouses. Tbilisi actually earned its name from the natural hot springs that run under this part of the city, so these baths are a pretty important part of the area’s history.
People used to congregate at the Abanotubani gorge (which still looks much the same as in this archive photo I found) to do their laundry.
Persian-style baths were erected all over the area to make the most of the hot and cold sulfur springs. Once playhouses for the rich and famous, today a visit to the public bath is a weekly (or even daily) ritual for many Georgians.
As long-stay travellers, it was something we didn’t want to miss out on – and it’s a Tbilisi activity I’d recommend to any visitor.
Sulfur baths Tbilisi: FAQ & guide
It’s important to remember that Tbilisi’s sulfur baths are bathhouses, not spas. In the past, the main objective was to get clean – not to be pampered.
Some of the baths have been ‘touristified’ and turned into ‘spas’. But they are still primarily functional, and not as fancy as bathhouses elsewhere.
Tbilisi’s baths are hot sulfur baths. They are open year-round, but as far as locals are concerned, bathing is more of a winter activity.
Is a sulfur bath right for you…?
I’m going to do my due diligence and offer my advice to help you make a decision. A Tbilisi sulfur bath might not be the best choice for you if…
- You’re shy about getting naked in public. As you’ll see, it is possible to bathe naked in complete privacy. It’s also possible to wear swimmers inside the bath. But if you’re sheepish about nudity, it still might feel uncomfortable. In this case, I definitely recommend booking a private room and avoiding the massage/scrub. (Having said that, in my experience, masseuses in Tbilisi are always same-sex and professional.)
- You’re very sensitive about germs and hygiene. As a germ-sensitive person myself (especially when it comes to feet), I did find the baths a bit of a challenge. Private rooms are a little better and visibly clean at least, but I doubt the hygiene practices are terribly thorough. Needless to say, you shouldn’t put your head under the water! Personally, I would avoid using the baths if you have a cut or deep scratch.
- You’re unsteady on your feet. Bath rooms get incredibly wet and slippery, so you really have to take care.
- You’re sun burnt or you have very sensitive skin. I obviously can’t offer medical advice – but a massage/scrub involves some pretty intense scouring. If you have sensitive skin or sunburn, I imagine this would be incredibly painful. You can still do the bath, but avoid the scrub.
Bath options & treatment types
Once you’ve decided you want to do a sulfur bath, you’ll first need to settle on a bathhouse and treatment type. There are dozens of bathhouses in Abanotubani and a few more in the suburbs of Tbilisi to choose from.
Here are a few things to consider before making a booking.
Public or private?
Tbilisi has both public (communal) bathhouses and private rooms. Which one you go for depends on your budget, and also the kind of experience you want to have.
Public baths are cheaper (around 5-10 GEL per person per hour) and offer a more local experience. They are also sex-segregated. This kind of bath involves getting naked in front of strangers and sharing the baths with a bunch of other people.
There are only a handful of baths that still have public rooms – these are Bathhouse #5 and Sulphur Public Bath House (both in Abanotubani), Kiev’s Bathhouse (Kiev Street), and Lisi Bath (at Lisi Lake).
Private baths are a lot dearer (50 GEL up to 500 GEL!), but they’re definitely cleaner and more comfortable. They’re more suitable for hetero couples because you don’t have to split up.
Private baths are more popular among tourists, so that’s what I’m focusing on here. However, if you have time, I recommend trying both the public and private baths.
All bathhouses have a variety of private rooms you can choose from. The larger and more luxe the room, the higher the price tag. Some rooms have a sauna. All have a private shower and toilet.
Bathhouses will typically advertise their different rooms online and at the front counter.
Sulfur baths are booked by the hour for a flat rate, with other treatments added on for an extra cost. I recommend getting the kisa scrub, as it’s an essential part of the experience.
Sulfur bath: An invigorating combination of hot sulfur soaks and plunges in a cold pool, this is part and parcel of visiting the Tbilisi baths. Bathing in sulfur-rich water is said to be beneficial for skin health, immune health, and circulation.
Exfoliation (kisa): A traditional exfoliation or peeling, called kisa in Georgian, is the most popular treatment you can get at a Tbilisi bathhouse. Much like a Turkish hammam treatment, it involves a vigorous scrub-down with a textured mitt to get rid of the dead skin, and a wash with a foamy ‘pillowcase’. A kisa typically takes 10-15 minutes and costs 10 or 20 GEL.
Massage: Some bathhouses also offer massages. Traditional Turkish massage is the most common offering, and you can also find remedial massage, relaxing massage and facial massage.
Bookings, payment & tipping
Most bathhouses accept advance bookings in-person or online. To avoid disappointment, it’s a good idea to book a few days in advance.
Chreli-Abano requires pre-payment by card if you book online and you also need a Georgian phone number to confirm your reservation. Gulo’s Spa takes bookings through Facebook Messenger.
If you haven’t pre-paid, payment is typically made once the treatment is complete. Most bathhouses accept either cash or card.
If you want to tip your masseuse, they are usually hanging around the waiting room. 10% is standard.
What to bring with you to the baths
Unless you decide to go nude (see the next section for more tips), you’ll need to bring a swimsuit with you. For women, bikinis are best so that you can get your top half scrubbed. Men can get away with wearing undies (no board shorts or boxers). Just remember to bring a dry pair to change back into.
Sulfur baths have been known to stain dark colours. I’ve never had a problem, but just keep this in mind. Definitely rinse out your gear at the end. A waterproof bag to carry home your wet things is also a good idea, since baths don’t provide plastic bags.
Towels can be hired, but if you prefer to use your own, bring a Turkish pestemal. Soap can be purchased for an additional fee if you need it. Plastic slippers and hairdryers are also provided, but it’s a good idea to bring a hair comb.
Cold drinking water is the big one. The hot baths can be dehydrating, especially in summer. You do get hot tea at the end, but when you’re sweating, you’ll start craving cold water. I highly recommend bringing a bottle with you.
If you have a private booking, it’s safe to bring your camera or phone as you can take photos inside your room.
What to leave at home
I wouldn’t bring excessive of cash or other valuables unless you have to. You may be asked to show ID to confirm an online booking, so it’s not a bad idea to have a photo or copy of your passport with you.
Nude or not?
That is the question!
Unlike in other countries, the Tbilisi sulfur baths have no common rooms. Once you’re inside your private bath, you wont encounter anyone else – except your masseuse if you’ve ordered a kisa or massage (more on that later).
It’s really a personal choice whether you wear swimmers or not. As you’ll see, I chose not to the first time I visited the baths.
For women who get a kisa, the masseuse will ask you to remove your bikini top for the treatment.
What happens during a Tbilisi sulfur bath?
Every bathhouse is a bit different, but this is the way things generally work.
Once you arrive for your pre-booked appointment, check in at the reception desk. You’ll be asked if you want to purchase any extras (hire towels, for example).
Someone will show you to your private room. There will be a separate sitting area where you can leave your belongings and either get changed or strip off.
Take a warm shower before getting into the bath.
The idea is to jump between the hot sulfur bath and the cold plunge pool. The hot baths range from 38 to 40 degrees Celsius and it’s recommended to only soak for 4-5 minutes at a time. If you’re prone to lightheadedness like I am, watch out for the warning signs.
If you want to take photos, now is the time to do it.
After 20 or 30 minutes, a masseuse will come in for your scrub. If you’re a couple or group, you will take turns. Women can stay in the bath room for the men’s massage, but males are usually asked to leave when the women’s treatment is happening.
Once the scrub is over, the masseuse will instruct you to shower then jump back into the sulfur pool. You’ll then have a bit more time (10 or 15 minutes) to switch between the hot and cold waters.
When it’s almost time to go, someone will knock on your door to let you know you have 10 minutes remaining on the clock. Shower, get changed, and move into the waiting room, where you’ll be served tea.
Our experience at Gulo’s Thermal Spa
Here is a detailed account of our first trip to Tbilisi’s sulfur baths.
We received a recommendation for King’s Bath, but in the end we went with family-run Gulo’s Thermal Spa because it was easy to book online.
After inquiring by private message on Facebook a few days in advance, someone from Gulo’s sent us a photo collage of the different rooms plus quotes. (I’ve included a cost breakdown at the end of this post.) We reserved a mid-range room for a standard one-hour visit.
On the afternoon of our appointment we left home early just in case we had trouble finding Gulo’s. Staff sent us detailed instructions, so we had no trouble finding the unmarked door.
Despite being 20 minutes early for our appointment, we were immediately ushered from the round reception area into the private room we had pre-booked.
We requested two big towels and a bar of soap for an additional cost. The lady who showed us to our room asked if we wanted a massage. We agreed.
The room was split into two sections: the first part, a dry room with a big leather couch, had marble walls and beautiful tiled floors. This is where we prepared for our bath.
The woman closed the door behind her but we were mindful not to lock it. We changed, hung up our clothes and put our bags on the couch.
The second room, the wet room, was separated from the first by a glass door and even though it gets foggy, you can still keep a cursory eye on your stuff from the bath if you wish. (Remember, this is Tbilisi, one of the safest cities in the world.)
Naked and a bit nervous, we headed into the bath room. This particular bathhouse dates back to the 17th and 18th centuries. Rooms are decorated in both Roman and Arabic style, with marble, tiled murals and brickwork. Ours wasn’t the most luxe interior, but the domed roof and huge hot tub made an awesome impression.
I was surprised that the smell of sulfur wasn’t at all strong; it was actually quite pleasant inside if not a little difficult to breathe. It’s etiquette to take a shower before you jump in the bath, so that’s exactly what we did.
The showers are the most rudimentary part of the set up, just a couple of plastic pipes clinging to one wall. Adjoining the main room we noticed a toilet and a two-person sauna. Showered, we cautiously climbed into the larger of the two pools, the hot bath.
After a long soak we dunked ourselves in the icy cold plunge pool.
A word of warning: The hot bath is very hot. It didn’t take long for me to start feeling light headed. As soon as we got in the hot pool, the water started gushing over the edge and completely soaked the tiled floor. It gets rather wet, steamy and slippery in there, so watch your step.
After about 15 minutes of repeated soaking and dunking we noticed that someone had entered the other room. By this point, the glass door was completely fogged up so all we could make out was the rough outline of a figure.
We sat tentatively on the twin stone slabs that serve as massage beds and negotiated who would go first.
I turned to look again and noticed that the masseuse was taking off her clothes. That makes sense, I thought, as everything was super wet and as you’ll see, the massage treatment is quite involved.
The door finally opened and we both looked over, fully expecting a topless woman to walk in. (It’s funny how we often make these assumptions without any real evidence to support them.)
So when a big, hairy Georgian guy in tropical-print board shorts strode confidently through the door, I was pretty taken aback. I wish I could have seen the look on my face.
I squeezed out a pathetic gamarjoba and did my best to play it cool, adjusting my position to preserve whatever dignity I had left. Gingerly, I sat there watching as the masseur started Ross’ treatment.
The VIP treatment
The treatment was less of a massage and more of a full-body exfoliation a la Marrakech. Using a mitten that was abrasive enough to take off a few layers of dead skin, he scrubbed Ross’ entire body – from the bottom of his feet to his face… Yup.
Next he took a fabric pillow case out of a soapy bucket, shook it and twisted it so that it was full of air. This technique seemed to make the water extra sudsy. The masseur soaped Ross up, washed his hair then rinsed him off with a few buckets of hot water. Then he instructed Ross to head into the sauna.
Naked, I was now alone with the masseur who was busy washing his gear (and himself) under the shower.
Different scenarios started playing out in my head. Was this guy going to wash me too? Is this appropriate? Should I opt out?
He pointed at the hot bath and motioned for me to climb in. Getting from the slab to the tub was probably the most awkward part of the whole experience, but I relaxed once I was safely hidden under the water.
I must have been holding my neck, a bad habit of mine, because he turned to me and asked if I was in pain. He was a lovely guy and very genuine – it was a human moment that made me relax a little bit more.
The masseur was still busy washing and rinsing cloths, filling and emptying buckets. Then he told me to get out and lie down on the slab. Face down on my stomach, anticipation was at an all-time high as I prepared to feel the touch of this total stranger on my back.
I opened my eyes to try and see what was going on and right in my line of sight… Let’s just say this is the moment I realised the masseur was now naked too.
I snapped my eyes closed, realising I was probably lying in this position for his privacy, not for my own. I started worrying that maybe he’d seen me looking… Argh! So much was running through my head at this point, the next part is a bit of a blur.
(I should probably mention that this guy was a consummate professional and that all this awkwardness was totally on me.)
I guess he finished what he was doing because he pulled Ross out of the sauna and they both left the room. I was still unsure of what was happening but feeling relieved to be alone.
Not long after, an older woman came in, fully dressed, and proceeded to scrub me down. Having watched Ross’ treatment it was obvious that my scour was a lot less intense. It still did the job and felt great.
When it was all over, she left and Ross was allowed to come back in. We went for a few more rounds of hot-bath-cold-bath before we’d had enough.
By the time we got changed and took a few photos, exactly one hour had elapsed. They seem to time everything very well. We headed back to the reception area and sat down for a complementary cup of tea.
We weren’t alone. The masseur was sitting on a couch right opposite us – I barely recognised him with his clothes on. Ever the professional, he politely smiled at us before leaving to tend to another client.
We quickly finished our tea, paid in cash, and walked out into a balmy May afternoon.
How much does a private bath cost?
A private room at Gulo’s Thermal Spa cost us 80 GEL for one hour. Our massages were an additional 10 GEL per person, towel hire 2 GEL each, and we also bought a bar of soap for 1 GEL.
We paid a total of 105 GEL (43.50 USD) – an absolute bargain for a cleansing skin treatment and a travel experience we will never, ever forget.
Key things to remember before you book a Tbilisi sulfur bath
- There are no clocks in the private rooms, so set an alarm on your phone so you don’t overstay your hour
- If you order a massage, remember to leave the main door unlocked so that the masseuse can get inside
- Do bring your camera if you’re hiring a private room – but please don’t attempt to take photos in the public baths!
- We felt perfectly comfortable leaving our valuables in the private room – if you are concerned about security, bring a lock for your bag and consider locking the door once the masseuse has left
- Bring your own towel, soap and shampoo if you want to save cash
- Being naked is part of the experience – but if you’re too shy, you can wear bathers
Cover photo & archive image by Gulo’s Thermal Spa. All other photos by me.