A Mom’s Oasis in Brooklyn’s Backyard

Liz Tortolani, owner of cityWell, a boutique bathhouse in Brooklyn, reminds me of the perfect cup of tea. When you meet her, you feel warm and at ease, and when you step into the urban oasis she created, you won’t believe you’re still in the city.

Imagine cedar saunas in little cabins under the sky. A heated soaking tub steps away from a fire pit and hammock. An aromatherapy steam room with tea and clementines waiting for you after your rain shower rinse. This is the environment Liz dreamed up and brought to life in Brooklyn’s backyard.

photo credit: Francesca Magnani

“Inspired by the ancient tradition of communal bathing and caring for the body, cityWell is a small, intimate gem, tucked away in Gowanus, Brooklyn. It is thoughtfully designed and filled with hand-picked items that beautifully and functionally enhance the experience. Enjoy your time here at cityWell and, then take a piece of it home.”


As a frequent visitor before becoming pregnant, I was delighted to find that in addition to the wide array of wellness services offered, prenatal massage was also available. Let me be the first to put it in words, a prenatal massage with Liz is absolutely WONDERFUL! That being said, I want to not only share a glimpse into the prenatal world cityWell has to offer, but also shed light on all of the postnatal benefits a visit has for mom.

pictured: Liz Tortolani, owner cityWell

Liz kindly shared her passion, love and offerings for the bathhouse in her own words.

Liz, you have created the first and only boutique bathhouse right here in Brooklyn. It’s truly an indoor and outdoor oasis, a wellness community to its core. When and why did you decide that Brooklyn needed (and we did!) this place for residents to come to, to feel better and live better? 

I first had this idea for a boutique bathhouse about 12+ years ago now. It look me 8 ½ years to bring this vision to life. It had a few other names and a slightly different concept but the final product is almost as good – or better than – I could have imagined 🙂

I had been living in the Park Slope neighborhood on the edge of Gowanus for 7 years or so. (At the time) I was a massage therapist and had been working at Columbia Presbyterian hospital in their Integrative medicine department, as well as, in the city with private clients. It was wonderful but exhausting, and what I really wanted to do was have a larger impact on my clients and my community. I wanted to not only be able to help them with massage, but to be able to help people feel well in between sessions and if I could not work with them one on one, I wanted people to have a place to go to feel WELL!

I love this city, but saw the real desperate need to have a place to slow down, relax and get in touch with one’s body. My hope is that in doing this, utilizing regular massage and hydrotherapy, it would not only make people feel better but even prevent not feeling well! Hence the namesake of cityWell. 

And lastly, I always loved this neighborhood of Gowanus/Park Slope. I could see that things were changing and I knew it would be a great spot! I looked for five years before finding the space that would eventually become cityWell. I designed it with my architect Deborah Mariotti, who is amazing and has been a wonderful creative partner in this project!

Your personal story of strength, healing, and self care is admirable and I know, plays a huge role in your passion for bringing cityWell to life. How did your prior bathhouse experience transform your overall health/well being and what do you hope women benefit from visiting your space? 

I experienced my first Korean bathhouse when I was living abroad in Sydney Australia for a semester in college. It was a life changing experience for me. I saw women bathing together, young and old, and taking care of their bodies while relaxing in a communal environment. It was transformative for me to see and experience this. Growing up in a small town in Vermont, it was like nothing I had ever been exposed to before.

Years later while living in Seattle, I had a place within walking distance to my apartment called the HOT HOUSE – a women only bathhouse in Capital Hill. The HOT HOUSE was like a sanctuary to me. It was very helpful in my healing, as I was dealing with many symptoms of my Crohn’s disease at that time, and the steam/soak/sauna did wonders for my body and comfort, as well as, helped me rest and heal. It was also very affordable which I much appreciated.

For those who haven’t visited yet, tell us what to expect the first time walking through the cityWell door. 

I hope women – or anyone when they visit – will find a place that they feel comfortable, welcomed and safe, in a space where they can take care and be themselves and heal. This was was always my vision (for women in particular) to have a comfortable, safe, relaxing environment to go on their own or with friends. To take time just for themselves, as I know women and particularly moms are giving a lot! I wanted (to create) a place that could give them back whatever their body was missing. A place to fill them up before going back out into the world feeling cared for, nurtured and able to give and receive!

And I think the benefits of this space, is really feeling connected with your body, and to others by taking time to just focus on yourself, without the distraction of our phones, and to be in nature and in the elements. 

One who visits can expert a warm greeting, water and/or tea to be offered, a nice little check-in chat followed by a tour of our lovely space. Depending on the service chosen, they will use the hydrotherapy that is both indoor and out, or will visit the massage room, and often times it is a combo of both!

If you come for some of our Open/Community Hours you will be sharing the whole space with other lovey wellness seekers, which always ends up being a wonderful group of people who meet one another and often become friends!

You are such a master of hospitality. I can speak from experience that every time I visit, I feel at home. Was that an important aspect of cityWell’s core values when you dreamt up this space? 

It was always so important to me that people felt welcomed and comfortable in the space. That is one of the core values for sure. I’m so happy you feel that way! Also what’s been so beautiful is that cityWell only seems to attract the most lovely people. It is one of the most amazing parts of cityWell is to get to meet and interact and care for some of the most lovely humans I’ve ever met!

Prenatal and postnatal massage are one of your special offerings and I can really tell how much providing moms with a relaxing and restorative service means to you. Why do you believe this type of massage therapy is so important for moms-to-be and moms in their fourth trimester (and beyond)? 

I have always seen the prenatal process as such an incredible and important period when women are needing extra care as their bodies are changing. It’s also such a nice time to connect with their bodies that are doing this incredible work of caring for and creating another human!

It’s so important to support the body and spirit of the the mom-to-be and take the time to recognize what an important experience is taking place. We tend to rush through these phases of life, but I feel it’s important to slow down, realize and honor the process of creating and preparing the body physically and emotionally for birth. I especially feel it’s important to get massage and hydro post birth, as this is such an impotent time to reconnect to the body after giving so much through pregnancy and birth. A time to honor and give back by replenishing your needs. 

I was trained as a birth doula about 10 years ago and the part that resonated with me the most, was mothering the mother. I think my nurturing side really loves to do that and it is part of what I have infused into cityWell. The space is really my version of a baby and birthing, and it’s been wonderful to see it now give back to so many. That was my dream!

Beautifully said. And how do you customize the experience for each mom, making it a unique hour (+) every time? 

Well, I always love to spend time with my clients getting to know them and hear about what they are going through. I will introduce them to our cityWell Essentials aromatherapy line which gives them a moment to check in about what they are needing/feeling. Depending on their service, they might get the “Expecting Moms Package” which includes a foot soak, clay mask application and massage, or just a pre natal massage. Either way, I am always wanting to tailor the session to what our clients need.

It is so important for expecting, new and experienced moms to maintain their wellness routines. Just as we schedule routine car maintenance, dental checks and doctor checkups, we should be taking care of our inner and outer bodies with the same level of care. Tell us the value, in your words, of seeing our bodies as the powerful vessels they are and breaking away from viewing cityWell’s services as a luxury or “special” treat? 

One of my very first taglines that I came up with (now almost 12+ years ago) was: making self care and wellness a part of everyday life, not just a luxury.

This was VERY important to the entire concept of cityWell. To truly feel WELL in the city, it takes making wellness and your personal care a lifestyle. That is why I also refer to cityWell as a boutique bathhouse and not a spa.

In the bathhouse culture it is ritual to do self care daily if not at least weekly. I think our bodies do so much for us. They work hard, create babies, (in some cases) are creative vessels, and if you are lucky, you are healthy too! Which is why it’s SO important to give back! The idea is not to wait till you are sick or so run down that you then need to take time off from work/life etc … it’s to integrate it into a wellness lifestyle so you fell better, and enjoy being in your body on a regular basis. 

I love that! So true, which leads me into ALL the benefits of utilizing your cedar sauna, aromatherapy steam room and heated soaking tub. What would you say those are, particularly for moms postpartum? 

There are SO many, but particularly for moms postpartum, just the act of coming into a space that is built for restoration and relaxation is a huge first step. I would then say the process of soaking in the water can help relieve muscle tension post baby. Being in the warmth and heat of the sauna and steam, further increase blood flow and can be a wonderful way to give the body a slight “workout” without having to do cardio – which is great if you are feeling sluggish and don’t have the energy for that yet. Plus it’s wonderful for the natural detoxification properties of flushing out your lymphatic system. 

Some of the other many benefits are that the use of hot and cold, in our case, warm elements and a cool shower (or cold air in the winter months – yes we are open all year round!) is that it helps release endorphins which gives you a natural sense of well being and it also elevates mood. There have been a lot of studies out recently explaining how the use of hyperthermia (getting the body temperature up) can greatly improve mood and help with depression. And all through the natural effects of the heat on the body and mind.  So if someone is experiencing postpartum depression, or feeling low and disconnected from themselves or others, it can be a great way to begin to heal.

Of course it goes without saying that postpartum depression is serious and that having a Doctors support is important too, but if you can do this one thing to begin to give back to yourself, soon after the baby is born, I think it will make a big difference in your bodies recovery process.

As you mentioned and I’ve experienced first hand, cityWell is truly more than a space, it is a community. What are some of the ways Brooklyn moms can utilize the space to connect and come together with or without their little ones? 

It really was my mission from the very beginning to support new moms, and though I have not yet started a new moms group, I think 2020 is the year! I have so many clients I see all throughout their pregnancy and then when baby comes, our meetings become rare. I would love to change that and be able to give the same support after the baby!

We are looking to have small group private sessions with about five moms and their babies with the support of child care on hand. If you are a new mom, you can come with or without your little one and enjoy two hours to soak and steam with other new moms. Look for this starting in 2020! I’m very open to talking with moms about setting up groups for friends etc. but I want to make self-care and community for new moms a priority. I have had a lot of interest and I’m really excited about finally making this happen! 

In the meantime, new moms can come to any of our open community hours that happen 5 times a week and range in price from $25-45 for two hours sessions of hydrotherapy. 

Another option is to rent the space privately for an hour for $125. Or come get a massage and add-on hydro for $125 for 45 min of hydro and a 30 min massage or up to a full body 50 min luxury massage for $175 and 45 min of hydro. My goal in making various price points is to offer the experience to as many people as possible!

And lastly, how, when and where can we visit you?!

The best way to stay up-to-date with all our new offerings is through our mailing list which is on the bottom of each page on my site. Another great way is to follow us on Instagram where I post all of our events and Happenings.

We also have an events page where I list upcoming events and happenings. You can e mail info@citywellbrooklyn.com or call 347-294-0100 for info and of course check out our website: citywellbrooklyn.com

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