The sulfur baths of Tbilisi combine the magic of warm water with the horrifying smell of rotten eggs; an unlikely pairing, to be sure. However, despite the smell, a dip in these unique baths is a must-do for anyone visiting Tbilisi.
A Brief Background
The sulfur waters of Tbilisi have been an integral part of Georgian life throughout history. The word Tbilisi actually comes from the word “warm place” and references these renowned springs. A soak in sulfur water is said to be therapeutic and may relieve acne, skin ailments, digestion, insomnia, and other disorders.
The bath houses were a big part of the culture in the heyday of the Silk Roads and attracted many visitors passing through, along with local clientele. During the Soviet occupation, when electricity and hot water were hard to come by, people could bathe and keep warm in the natural sulfur springs. Today, the baths primarily draw tourists.
Before you go to the sulfur baths of Tbilisi
When visiting the sulfur baths, bring clothes to change into, a swimsuit, plenty of cold water to drink, and a towel, as it costs extra to rent them. Remove any jewelry before entering the sulfur water. My metal ring was completely tarnished but came clean after soaking and scrubbing it with vinegar.
Most bathhouses are located in Old Town near the Legvtakhevi (Fig) Gorge in the Abanotubani district. The Tsavkisitskali River flows from the Legvtakhevi waterfall at the end of the gorge and saunters right through the center of the bath district.
Which bathhouse to choose?
There are many bathhouses in Old Town Tbilisi, ranging from rustic to luxurious, public to private. My friend, who had been living in Georgia, recommended and booked our stay at Chreli-Abano/Orbeliano Baths.
Towering above the river gorge, this impressive building, in the design of a tiled mosque, is undoubtedly eye-catching and impossible to miss. Chreli-Abano is said to be the most luxurious bathhouse in Old Town and caters more to the tourist crowd.
If you want a run-down of all the bathhouses in Tbilisi, check out this highly comprehensive and insanely well-written blog to ensure you select the experience that is just right for you.
The Chreli Abano bathhouse
The Chreli Abano bathhouse was as beautiful as promised on the website, with tiled rooms and a grand entrance. After checking in, paying, and confirming our services, a woman escorted us to our private room.
This particular spa has many rooms and suites available to rent; I recommend checking out the pictures on the website, as each room is elaborate and unique. They even have a 12-person private apartment available to rent.
The suite we rented had a sitting area, a bathroom, and a changing area separate from the sulfur bath, all at room temperature. Inside the sulfur bath were two tall marble showers, a dry sauna, a larger room with a tiled bench for scrub treatments, a hot sulfur-water pool, and a cold plunge pool.
Many treatment options are available at the bathhouses, but I chose a kisi (exfoliating) scrub. After soaking a bit to soften my skin, a Georgian woman entered to give me my scrub.
I lay face down on the marble slab. First, the woman used a rough mitt to scrub off the dead skin all over my body.
This sensation was very similar to the scrubs I used to receive in China, just a bit rougher. By the time she finished, little pieces of my dead skin were everywhere, like little eraser bits.
Next, she fluffed up what looked like a pillowcase, submerged it in soapy water, and gave me the soapiest, foamiest body wash I’ve ever had. This bubbly rubdown was my favorite part of the experience as it was completely new; I felt like I was in a cloud.
The kisi concluded with the woman unceremoniously dousing me with multiple buckets of warm water to remove all the suds and dead skin. The entire experience lasted about 15 minutes. Afterward, I put my swimsuit back on and returned to the sulfur water, feeling slippery clean.
A word about the smell of the sulfur baths of Tbilisi
One thing I stupidly didn’t expect was the sulfur smell. Yes, I knew it was a sulfur bath, but to know it is one thing, and to experience it is another. Over the hour or so that we spent there, I did get used to the smell, but I made one horrible error: the last shower at the end of the soak.
How nice! I thought to myself. I can rinse off, wash my hair, and leave extra fresh and clean. As I was happily lathering up, my friend shouted over the sound of the spray: “You know you’re showering in sulfur water, right?”
I did not. And I paid the price. Despite multiple washes, my hair smelled faintly of rotten eggs for the next two days.
Final thoughts on the sulfur baths of Tbilisi
Even though we went on a hot day in June, and I smelled like eggs for two days after, I enjoyed the entire experience and would do it again. I loved seeing the historic district, strolling along the river outside the spa, and getting the kisi scrub. It was a very memorable part of my time in Georgia that I highly recommend.
Want more like this?
This Vogue Article also gives a great account of a sulfur bath experience in Tbilisi.