Long before homes had indoor bathrooms, the bathhouse, hamam or natural spring was not only a place to wash, but also the centre of a community’s social life in Azerbaijan. Relaxing together in the water – and possibly getting a vigorous rub-down – was the perfect opportunity to gossip and do business, not to mention get clean.
The social side of bathing has endured in Baku, especially in the Old Town where communal, single-sex bathing remains common. Add in a new generation of bathhouses – upmarket hotel spas – and you’ve got yourself a world-class spa destination.
Ağa Mikayil Hamami
Baku’s oldest functioning hamam, Ağa Mikayil Hamami was built in the 18th century. Accommodating men and women on different days of the week, the spa is an atmospheric oasis set right in the Old Town, and is entered through an archway beneath a canopy of trailing vines. The vaulted interior is attractively painted in warm tones, and the ambience is simple and unpretentious. Ask for a hamam package, which includes a fragrant scrub made of coffee, honey and salt, leaving your skin feeling incredibly soft. Ağa Mikayil is the perfect choice for anyone looking for an authentic, less touristy spa experience.
Atilla Fitness and Hamam
The grand Atilla Fitness & Hamam resembles a historic palace, but behind the ornate stone facade you will find entirely modern facilities. Run back and forth between the ice plunge pool, the salt bath and the steam room, enjoying a variety of traditional Azeri, Finnish and Russian bathing experiences. Atilla is a professionally run, well-organised spa with lockers for your valuables, plenty of clean towels and an efficient wristband system to show the staff you have booked a massage. It gets busy at the weekends, so come early to avoid the crowds.
Eforea at Hilton Baku
The blue glass Hilton Baku looks out over the business district and the waterfront, a short walk away from the Old Town. The Eforea spa is on the 23rd floor, enthralling visitors with views across the city through floor-to-ceiling windows. Here, there is an 18m (59ft) indoor pool, a yoga studio, a Turkish hamam plus whirlpool and saunas, along with five treatment rooms and a spa suite. All the treatment products are made using organic ingredients and, as it is an adults-only space, you can guarantee a few hours of peace and quiet.
If you have in mind a traditional spa complete with painted domes, columns and marble fountains, then HamamBath fits the bill. The outdoor pool looks and feels like a lake – perfect if you are into wild swimming – but when you step inside you are treated to all the delights of a traditional Azeri hamam, albeit one with a touch of contemporary architectural flair. HamamBath is particularly popular with groups of women, so plan to come here on a long weekend with friends.
Built in the 19th century, for much of its existence She-Bi Hamami was open only to female guests. Now, it’s exclusive to men, with the majority of bathers popping in for a soak after work. She-Bi Hamami offers the most authentic, old-fashioned hamam experience in Baku. Bathers wear only a towel to protect their modesty, and combine a dip in the pool with a shave in the barbers and a strong black coffee in the café. Sign up for a scrub, a therapeutic whipping with twigs or a rather more gentle mochalka (a wash down with soap).
Carol Joy SPA at Fairmont Baku
Baku’s trio of Flame Towers are the most iconic buildings on the city’s skyline, and inside one you will find the five-star Fairmont Baku hotel and its equally fancy spa. Spread across two floors, the Sky Garden, with its open-air swimming pool and sun terrace, boasts stunning views across the Caspian Sea. Indoors, there is a yoga studio, the biggest hamam in Baku, a mosaic pool, an ice fountain and sauna. The spa treatments have been designed by London-based skin and hair care specialist Carol Joy, and will ensure you resume your sightseeing in Baku feeling Zen.
Taze Bey Hamam
Taze Bey is the most famous hamam in Baku, housed in an extraordinary building that’s more museum than bathhouse. The walls are crowded with curios varying from portraits of Stalin and Donald Trump to taxidermy animals, wooden masks and signs. In the words of travel blogger Praveer Mishra, “whomever decorated the place has a wonderful sense of humour!” The entrance ticket includes access to the Azeri and Turkish baths, ice room, sauna and pool. You can also pay extra to have your skin beaten with branches, scrubbed, massaged or lathered with soap.