Zen in the City at Brooklyn's Hidden Boutique Bathhouse

© Jessica Miller Photography
Photo of Esme Benjamin
Wellness Editor13 December 2017

Legend has it Gowanus’s grimy canal was once a dumping ground for New York’s murderous mafia, but these days the neighborhood is better known for being one of the city’s last artistic strongholds. Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that this corner of Brooklyn is also home to a creatively conceived boutique bathhouse, set up with the goal of making wellness affordable and accessible to the whole community—struggling artists included.

“When I was creating this space I was thinking about what we’re lacking here in Brooklyn,” says Liz Tortolani, cradling a mug of black tea in the lounge area of cityWell, the bathhouse she launched in 2015.

“Firstly, I think it’s outdoor space, secondly nature, thirdly a comfortable and beautiful space to bathe. Because many of us here in Brooklyn don’t have a bath tub. Or we do, but it’s not a tub we want to get into.”

The steamroom at cityWell, designed by Deborah Mariotti Studio | © Jessica Miller Photography

There is something healing about immersing ourselves in water. Buoyancy of the body somehow translates to a buoyancy of the mind, which is perhaps why so many countries around the world have their own hydro-therapeutic rituals.

“Our bodies have always wanted to be in water,” says Tortolani. “It’s integral to who we are as a species. It flushes your lymphatic system, it helps with sleep and digestion, it decreases joint pain. This is one way, as an entrepreneur and somebody who cares about people, that I can contribute.”

In New York City you can experience Russian banyas, Turkish baths and Korean spas, but something about cityWell feels distinctly Brooklyn. Previously a very lackluster ground floor apartment, every aspect of the space has been designed with love and attention using carefully sourced materials from the boroughs and beyond.

Indoors is an ambient treatment room, a changing area with natural skincare products, blue-tiled rainforest shower, and a small, spotless steam room. Step out into the yard and you’ll find a hot tub, a Finnish-style dry sauna, an outdoor shower, and even a double hammock for lounging when the weather permits.

Yoga and lounging at cityWell | © Jessica Miller Photography

In the summer there are yoga classes on the deck and a gazebo for outdoor treatments. Once a month a jazz band plays over locally brewed beers at sun down.

CityWell has a down-to-earth authenticity that’s unique in the world of NYC spas, and the price is just as singular (as low as $20 for two hours during community hours, and around $140 to have the place all to yourself for an hour).

“Affordable, accessible preventative health care is my mission statement,” Tortolani explains. “I love this city, and I want people to feel well in this city.”

Feeling well in a place like NYC is something you have to participate in, carving out time for activities and self-care rituals. A session at cityWell helps you nurture a sense of equilibrium on the inside, even when the environment outside of yourself is totally crazy.

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