Moscow is strong in its bathing traditions. The Sandunovsky Baths were once praised by the capital’s main historian Vladimir Gilyarovskiy, and the Seleznyovsky Baths were often frequented by the beautiful wife of Pushkin, NataliyaGoncharova. But to get real pleasure from the bathhouse, it is important to clearly understand the differences between the many bathhouse establishments in Moscow and what you can expect to find at each of them.
If being among crowds of naked people doesn’t bother you, then the best way to experience a Russian bathhouse is at one of the public bathhouses, where men and women bathe separately. The majority of public bathhouses has been renovated in recent years and maintains a good level of cleanliness. In many of them you can choose between two classes of bathhouse experiences: high class and first class. They differ in level of comfort, the amount of services available and in price. For an additional cost you can rent a private room and bypass the common bath halls completely, enjoying your bath in your own space.
The most well-known saunas in Moscow are the Sandunovsky Baths. Bathhouse connoisseurs may say that the steam room there is not the best in the city; however, even if you are not an expert in the trade it’s worth it to visit the Sandunovsky Baths at least to admire the amazing interior and enjoy the services of a personal bathhouse attendant. For an additional cost, he won’t just provide the steam but will also assist in washing you using the best traditions of 19th century Russia.
In general, bathhouses in Moscow open at 8 am. It makes sense for early risers to come by this time, especially on the weekends, for two reasons. First of all, the majority of Moscow’s bathhouses offer discounts in the early morning. And second, at this time in the morning steam-lovers who know the ins and outs of all things bathhouse can be observed.
Don’t worry about bringing your own towel or sheets with you, everything you’ll need will be available for you on site for a small fee. The same goes for bathing slippers. Single-use shoes are offered at any self-respecting establishment. However, it is advisable to bring your own sauna headwear with you: a special felt hat or even a simple bandana will do.
If you’d like to visit a bathhouse with a group of both men and women or simply relax in private, the best option is to rent your own small sauna. There are a lot of them in Moscow and all information regarding location and price can be found on the Internet.
It’s best to make reservations in advance as most of the better bathhouses can be booked as far as a week out.
Clarify with the administration to find out what kind of food and drinks are offered at the bathhouse. As a rule, you can buy tea, beer and various snack foods like bagels at public bathhouses. In more upscale establishments you can order from local cafes or restaurants and have the food delivered directly to you. The same goes for private saunas: fancier bathhouses allow you to order food from local cafes and restaurants; and in simpler, further from the center bathhouses, you can’t buy much more than water, beer and chips (although no one will mind if you bring your own food and drinks with you).
Alas, many private saunas which advertise themselves as bathhouses are in reality nothing more than a brothel in disguise. Clients who wish to enjoy their sauna experience may run into a few problems here. For example, there may be no cold rinsing bath – which is essential to any bathhouse connoisseur – and in its place you will find two or three bedrooms. The administrator may not wish to let the female part of your company into the bathhouse, not knowing that they may be simply someone’s wife or girlfriend and not a “professional”. To avoid such unpleasant situations, check with the administrator prior to booking your sauna about the infrastructure of the establishment, ask about the size of the steam room, (in private bathhouses the rooms are usually designed for two), if it’s possible to regulate the temperature yourself, if there is a rinsing bath, and which additional services they offer. It isn’t recommended to visit bathhouses in hotels (especially those which you can rent by the hour), in restaurants complexes and, also, bathhouses which advertise massage services.
Although Soviet films such as “The Irony of Fate or Enjoy Your Bath!” tout the consumption of vodka in Russian bathhouses, it is strongly not recommended to drink anything stronger than beer while in the sauna. In the best situation, you will negate all of the benefits you’d get from the effects of the sauna and, in the worst, you will forget what a wonderful time you had at one of the capital’s great bathhouses.