Featured in
Frieze Week Seoul 2023

Five of Seoul’s Best Bathhouses

From the humble to the sumptuous, traditional spas are an integral part of the Korean capital’s culture

BY Payal Uttam in Frieze Seoul , Frieze Week Magazine | 04 SEP 23

Seoul is a beauty capital: chock-a-block with massage parlours, medi-clinics, public bathhouses and luxury spas. Koreans are known for maintaining elaborate skincare regimens at home and making regular trips to the spa. After a hard day’s work, locals don’t compromise on self-care; besides being serious about skincare, Koreans enjoy unwinding and socializing in bathhouses called jimjilbangs which translates literally as “steaming rooms”. A distinctly Korean institution, they are fascinating social microcosms. Large, casual and communal, jimjilbangs are gender-segregated and nudity is the norm. Open 24/7, they not only offer saunas, soaking pools and steam facilities but often contain fully-fledged restaurants, cave-like rooms for taking a nap and relaxation zones where people can lie on floor mats, chat, watch TV or play computer games. 

From luxurious jimjilbangs to a futuristic “life centre”, here is our shortlist of the city’s best spas.

Spa Lei

According to an old local saying, “You’re not really friends with someone until you’ve bathed naked together in a jimjilbang.” While most bathhouses give you an unusual brightly-coloured uniform consisting of matching oversized t-shirt and shorts, Spa Lei is among the more refined women-only jimjilbangs where you can don a stylish robe instead. After an evening out or along work day, locals often head here for a night of pampering and relaxation. A rarity in a city spa, it boasts a charming outdoor bath as well as a series of indoor pools. Try the Korean scrub—called seshin—administered by an ajumma (the affectionate Korean term for an older lady). While this is not for the faint-hearted—they vigorously buff every inch of your body with a coarse cloth—it does slough away dead cells and results in baby-soft, glowing skin. Finish the treatment with a relaxing hair wash and simple facial with a chilled cucumber mask. You can also get your nails touched up or your eyebrows shaped before heading to the green rooftop restaurant which features a healthy menu of Korean classics.

Illustration by Joonho Ko
Illustration: Joonho Ko 

Retreat Signiel Seoul

Stepping into Retreat Signiel is like being transported to a serene sanctuary in the sky. Perched on the 86th floor of South Korea’s tallest building, Lotte World Tower, the recently opened spa is already generating a lot of buzz. Celebrated South Korean designer Teo Yang—known for his modern take on traditional Korean aesthetics—designed the spa to be a journey through various Zen-like spaces. Beginning in the opulent oil atelier, you select a scented oil for your treatment before entering the tea atelier, and then finally settling into a tranquil treatment room. You can opt for a soothing aroma-therapy massage or try the trending 24K anti-ageing gold facial. Another favourite on the menu is the chocolate facial in which your face is coated with 64 percent edible cacao, packed with antioxidant-rich polyphenols leaving you with dewy, healthy skin. Stay on and linger in the post-treatment lounge where you can savour dainty Korean desserts while enjoying the city views.

Sulwhasoo Flagship Store and Spa

Stepping into famed Korean skincare brand Sulwhasoo’s Dosan-daero flagship store is like entering a labyrinthine art installation. Inspired by a glowing lantern, the interior of the building is cocooned in glimmering bronze lattice-work. Spread across five storeys, it houses two spas with both contemporary and more traditional offerings. For head-to-toe pampering, go for the Heritage Ginseng Journey in the luxurious basement spa which includes a facial and full-body treatment. It begins with a soothing red ginseng-infused foot bath and scrub. Upon lying down, a therapist places a metal singing bowl on your abdomen and strikes it gently, allowing the sounds to vibrate through your body. Acupressure techniques are combined with products from Sulwhasoo’s concentrated ginseng range to minimize signs of ageing, and tighten and brighten skin. A series of airy passageways flanked by delicate brass latticework lead to the Sulwhasoo Balance Spa on level four which has a more modern menu. You can relax in a sunlit treatment room with lush views of Dosan Park as a therapist applies a medley of soothing products to your tired skin. The Calming and Vitalizing Treatment accompanied by a Gua Sha-style facial massage is a popular choice. Beauty buffs will enjoy hanging out in the brand’s powder room, where you can touch up your make up and try new products.

Joonho Ko - Frieze
Illustration: Joonho Ko

The Spa at Four Seasons Hotel

For a luxurious take on the jimjilbang experience, head to the Four Seasons’ three-storey spa which has separate facilities for men and women. Arrive early and while away the afternoon in the shimmering hot and cold pools—clad with 18-carat gold mosaic tiles—overlooking the city, or cocoon yourself in the sauna before getting a traditional Korean scrub. You can choose a signature treatment which starts with a sauna session, followed by a detoxifying seaweed wrap and a restorative hair and face mask. The session culminates with a rejuvenating hour-long massage. If the whirlwind of late-night events and dinners surrounding Frieze Seoul have left your skin looking tired and dull, try the Plump and Shine facial; including a lymphatic massage, the treatment will boost moisture, detox skin and reward you with a radiant glow. Once your session is done, you can unwind in the TV and reading lounge, take a midday nap or get your nails done at their stylish nail bar. Before you leave, stroll through the property’s art-clad interiors, housing a collection of more than 100 works by Korean artists.

Chaum Life Center

Locals swear by the cutting-edge skin treatments at Chaum Life Center—the most technologically advanced anti-ageing clinic in South Korea. Located in the swanky Gangnam district, it features a futuristic mix of medical and wellness facilities spread across five floors. Chaum’s team of experts conduct full medical examinations and there is also a dedicated plastic surgery clinic. A highlight of the spa menu is personalized facials which begin with an evaluation by a dermatologist and aesthetician, followed by a customized treatment plan. This often includes “facial muscle stretching therapy”, a plumping treatment in which a device delivers a low-power electrical current to stimulate facial muscles and tone skin. Next comes stem cell rejuvenating micro needling therapy and finally a soothing anti-ageing face mask. The goal is to stimulate collagen production, and improve skin elasticity and regeneration. The results are immediate and you’ll leave refreshed, with glowing, lifted skin. Chaum’s dedicated hair spa is another favourite. After evaluating your scalp health with a microscope camera, a doctor recommends specialized treatments that often incorporate stem cell technology.

This article first appeared in Frieze Week, Seoul 2023 under the headline ‘Calmer Waters'

Main image: Illustration: Joonho Ko

Payal Uttam is a writer and editor. She lives in Hong Kong and Singapore.