A Guide to Roman Bathhouses & Why They're Great

BY: Sarah Gorr |Dec 14, 2018

I love Roman bathhouses. I absolutely love them. They are my preferred mode of relaxation above massages, facials, and wraps, and until recently, they seemed to be impossible to find in my hometown of Chicago. Instead, the only options were Korean spas and Russian bathhouses. The latter is more sauna focused than bath, the former involved more nudity than this bashful Midwesterner could bear.

You might be wondering if Roman bathhouses are so difficult to find, how did I come to love them? Well, when I was backpacking through central Europe in college, I eventually made my way to Budapest, which sits atop a network of 125 thermal springs. When a family of friendly Romanians in my hostel invited me along to check out one of the city’s oldest and most famous bathhouses, the Rudas Baths, I had to say yes. I fell in love with the experience, going to a different bathhouse every day I was in the city. When AIRE Ancient Baths finally opened a location in Chicago in 2017, I was ecstatic. It was everything I’d been looking for since Budapest, but in my hometown!

Now that the trend has finally made its way to America, I’m here to share what I know with you.



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An Ancient Tradition

Bathhouses have their roots in ancient Rome. Back then, the bathhouse, or thermae, was used by the wealthy and lower classes of ancient Rome alike for, well, bathing. Most homes didn’t have bathing facilities of any kind so heading to one of the public bathhouses was standard practice. That also meant it was an incredibly social activity where people could get together to share news and ideas.

The concept of the communal bathhouse isn’t purely a Roman tradition, though. You’ll find similar establishments with their own rich histories in Turkey, South Korea, China, and Russia. But the idea never really seemed to take off in America. Which begs the question…


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What Is a Bathhouse?

Basically, a bathhouse is part public pool, part spa, part community center. It kind of flies in the face of the typical American spa experience, which often involves private treatment rooms and a sense of seclusion from the outside world.

In a Roman-style bathhouse, you’ll typically find these rooms:

  • Apodyterium: the locker room, essentially; this is where you can change clothes and store your belongings
  • Tepidarium: the “warm room” or “warm pool”; this will be warm, but typically the most comfortable temperature compared to the other pools
  • Caldarium: the “hot room” or “hot bath”; the hottest area, with pools reaching temps of over 100°!
  • Frigidarium: the “cold room” or “cold pool”; the polar (literally) opposite of the caldarium, where temps are as low as 50°
  • Laconicum: a warm sauna or steam room

In more modern versions, you might also find a whirlpool bath or a float bath, which uses ultra salinated water to make you float effortlessly in the pool.


Roman Bathhouse Tips and Tricks

There’s not really a right or wrong way to enjoy the pools at a bathhouse. If you want to spend the entire time in the tepidarium, go ahead! If the sauna is more your thing, enjoy it. But there are still a few things that can be helpful to keep in mind if you’re a newbie:

Bring your bathing suit!

Ritzier establishments like AIRE Ancient Baths may offer suits for rent, but you’ll definitely be more comfortable in your own. The general rule of thumb is that if a bathhouse is co-ed, you’ll need a suit. If it’s not, it may be a nude bath so you should double check ahead of time.

Don’t forget the flip-flops.

Whether they’re provided or you bring your own, they’ll help you keep your footing as you hop from pool to pool. And (of course) it’s more sanitary.

Circulate through all the pools and rooms.

On its face there’s nothing super appealing about a freezing cold plunge pool, but trust me, it’s worth it to try them all. That’s half the fun! The temperature changes are part of what make you feel so refreshed afterward so why not give them all a go?

Pay attention to the house rules.

Not all bathhouses are created equal. AIRE’s bathhouse fosters a quiet, tranquil spa environment where loud talking isn’t permitted. At Budapest’s Széchenyi Baths, the outdoor pool is as loud as a park and the chatter is welcomed. Try to follow the lead of regulars.


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