WHO KNOWS how many bottles of wine were consumed? On a rainy Paris night, I hunkered down with a group of friends for a dinner party of roast chickens with potatoes drenched in the drippings; we ate like people younger than we are. Corks continued popping. Dancing ensued.
Wisely, the women in the group agreed to gather the next day at the Grand Mosque of Paris, a Latin Quarter fixture since the 1920s. We wanted to sweat out the residue of the previous night’s decisions, and we’d heard the Mosque had a spectacular hammam, or Turkish bath, inside.
Famously a capital of overindulgence, Paris is also a remarkably good place to recover with a good, cleansing schvitz. Public bathing was once a necessity for Parisians with no means of doing so at home. Jews as well as Muslims established baths for ritual cleansing. In the late 19th century, a faddish commitment to hydrotherapy and a fascination with the exotic Near East prompted the construction of Turkish baths, or fanciful approximations thereof, in a number of European capitals; even today, Paris has its big, theatrical, emphatically orientalized hammams. But France is also home to Europe’s largest Muslim population, and its capital boasts a proportional number of smaller neighborhood hammams that cater to them and to anyone else interested in retreating from the clamor of the city into a cloud of fragrant steam.
While some Paris hammams admit men and women on alternating days, the one at the Grand Mosque currently serves only women. We showered, then sprawled on heated marble slabs in the “hot” room, a colonnaded space more accurately described as pleasantly warm, and let our muscles loosen and our pores dilate. When we’d absorbed enough heat, we strolled over to a pool of cold water and splashed our rosy skin or boldly plunged in. I’d been lectured by a few Parisian friends that wearing my bikini top would be a major faux pas, but the women lounging around this hammam were topped and topless in equal measure. All around us, they rubbed themselves with “black soap,” a sticky tar of olive oil and herbs meant to help exfoliate the skin. After a while, a powerfully built attendant came in and examined the bracelets we’d been given at reception, tagged with the treatments we’d paid for. It was time for the gommage.
This vigorous scrubbing is central to the hammam experience. The attendant invited me onto her table and set to work on my steam-softened body with a rough mitt, gleefully pointing out the shocking amount of dead, gray skin she sloughed away. After a thorough rinse-off, I headed into the domed salle de repos, paneled in intricately painted wood. Women wrapped in towels lolled on cushions, sipping mint tea from tiny glasses, waiting their turn on the massage tables. The masseuses chatted in Arabic as they casually manipulated shoulders and limbs—a gentle sort of massage aimed at encouraging circulation. Between the gommage and the massage, I felt like a baby at bath time, capably handled and swaddled, clean and soft and smelling of orange blossoms.
As I visited more hammams, I came to see them less as antidotes to overindulgence and more as portals to a Paris I’d never known. I was steamed, scrubbed, kneaded, nurtured, fed baklava, and even bathed in donkey milk. I paid as little as $22 for entry and as much as $250 for a 3-hour spa package treating every inch of me with organic plant-based products. Some hammams were over-the-top luxurious; at the other end of the scale, Belleville’s tiny Les Bains de Saadia felt like a modest apartment. I went on the recommendation of Aude Leriche, a music-industry executive who is a regular there. “Going to the hammam, I isolate myself from the intense city rhythm and noise,” she said. “But it’s also interesting to encounter people I may have seen outside or in the metro with all their clothes, simply sharing themselves.”
Karima Lasfar, a native of Algeria, opened O’Kari in 2009. “All over North Africa, [hammams are] in the culture,” she said. “Women take their kids. They go home and then the men come, to talk about science, learning—it’s like a library.” Though the hammam is traditionally a social space, O’Kari—by far the most tranquil I visited, with its soothing sandstone décor—also makes a comfortable outing for a solo traveler. Outfitted in the odd yet surprisingly comfortable paper thong dispensed at reception, I easily lost track of time, melting in the steam room and floating in the tepid pool. The welcoming staff delivered water infused with detoxifying citron and gently nudged me in the direction of my various spa treatments—the best I found at any hammam. I could see making O’Kari a habit. “In Algeria, we do the hammam once a week,” said Ms. Lasfar. “It’s about quality of life.” 22 rue Dussoubs, o-kari.com
THE PEDI CURE
If you’re traveling with a group torn between seeking luxury and wanting something a little cozier, this Left Bank stalwart makes a good compromise. The facility contains both a Turkish-style steam room and a Nordic sauna, as well as a pleasant floating pool. While the quality of spa treatments varies drastically from hammam to hammam, here an air of quiet professionalism reigns. Pro tip: Whatever package you choose, add a 15-minute massage plantaire, a foot-and-calf-focused treatment that is a footsore tourist’s dream come true. 17 rue Mayet, hammampacha.com
THE CULTURAL IMMERSION
Les Bains d’Orient at the Institute of Islamic Cultures
In December, Tunisian actress Rim (Riahi) Belaid, owner of Les Bains d’Orient in Place Stalingrad, opened a second location inside the Institute of Islamic Cultures. It offers the added benefit of the Institute’s exhibitions, which help to situate the hammam in its contemporary cultural context. The surrounding Goutte d’Or neighborhood is full of North African and West African shops selling everything from spices to healing potions for hair and skin, to help prolong that hammam glow. 56 rue Stephenson, lesbainsdorient.com
The Grand Mosque of Paris
Built by the government after World War I as a tribute to North African soldiers who fought for France, the Grand Mosque has a hammam that’s big and majestic, but not luxe. The vibe is very YMCA, and the prices are reasonable (about $22 for entry and $44 for a 30-minute massage). The minareted Mosque complex, a community hub, also offers a lively restaurant serving couscous and tagines, a nice shop stocking colorful leather babouches (slippers) and other souvenirs of the Maghreb, and a pleasant courtyard where you can pause before heading back out into the city, nurse a mint tea and a pastry sticky with honey, and bask in the equanimity a couple of hours in the hammam will invariably confer. 39 rue Saint-Hilaire, restaurantauxportesdelorient.com
THE BEGINNER’S BATH
Hammam Medina Center
I was happy to discover this small, friendly hammam right around the corner from my apartment rental in the 19th arrondissement. The other patrons presented a cross-section of the surrounding area, a mix of Arabs, West Africans, Orthodox Jews and the bobos overtaking the canalside neighborhoods. Though not especially large overall, Hammam Medina Center has a notably generous floating pool. For the hammam newbie, this place is exceptionally user-friendly, with helpful signage spelling out the various steps of the hammam ritual. 45 rue Petit, hammam-medina.com
THE ROYAL TREATMENT
Les Cent Ciels
Choose this hammam if you want the maximalist experience. The most luxury-spa-like of the facilities listed here, Les Cent Ciels is well suited to larger groups; when I visited, there were a couple bachelorette parties in attendance. The facility is labyrinthine, largely candle-lit and immaculate; the experience, rather impersonal. My gommage was downright cursory. But all was forgiven when I settled into a fragrant bath swirling with essential oils. With great ceremony, an attendant tipped a crystal flagon of donkey milk into the water. “Comme Cléopâtre!” she enthused (apparently the Egyptian queen swore by the stuff). Skeptical as I was, I have to say, I emerged from that bath with skin softer than it’s likely been since toddlerhood—whether from the milk or the oils, I’ll never know. 7 rue de Nemours, paris.hammam-lescentciels.com