One of Zürich's best kept secrets is a 2000 year-old Roman bathhouse underneath Thermengasse. In 1983, when a large part of Zürich's Altstadt streets were dug up to lay new pipes, workers discovered the foundations of Roman baths.
After two years of archeological work on the site, the greater portion was catalogued and re-buried. A small strip was left exposed and is open to the public on Thermengasse, a narrow, steep alley connecting Weinplatz with St. Peter's Church, wedged between Pastorini toy store and a branch of the Trois Pommes clothing store.
The excavation site is covered with metal grating, creating a walkway over what remains of the pillars of the baths' old heating system, in which a hypocaust circulated hot air through flues, heating the floors and walls in the building. With a series of wall plaques offering information on the old Roman settlement and its baths, you can easily imagine a time when Zürich was even smaller than it is now.
Around 80-70 B.C., Turicum (Roman Zürich) was a village of less than one hundred inhabitants on the fringe of the Roman Empire. The main road heading northeast from Aventicum (Avenches) through Aquae Helveticae (Baden) to Vitudurum (Winterthur) and Arbor Felix (Arbon) by-passed the village completely.
It was the town‘s position at the end of two large bodies of water, Walensee and Lake Zurich, that eventually made it the choice for a border post. Lake-going cargo ships coming from the east in Raetia transferred their goods to riverboats and paid duty at the toll station in Turicum for transportation down-river and points west.
The original baths at Thermengasse were built during this time, and show that even a small outpost benefited from the Roman social service of baths for the general public. As the rest of the Empire expanded and settled, Zürich grew as well. Renovations to the baths in the 2nd century AD and an addition in the 3rd century AD enlarged them to approximately three times their original size.
Originally modest buildings with a cold pool (frigidarium), humid-hot room (caldarium) and a steam bath (lanconicum) similar to the Scandinavian saunas of today, the Roman "therms" eventually developed into elaborate pleasure palaces. Paint and mosaic fragments found during the excavation of the newer construction suggest a change towards the ornate. This is consistent with the progression of the baths' function throughout the rest of the Empire. It is not known, however, whether the baths of Turicum ever reached the brothel stage in their evolution as they did elsewhere.
In the 4th century AD, as the Roman Empire became increasingly threatened from inside and out, a citadel was built on Lindenhof hill as a defensive measure, and the Roman population of Turicum began to decrease as military and administrative functionaries were called back to Rome. The baths fell into disuse until the 15th century, when they were renovated and comprised at least three public bath halls and a steam room.
Prudish attitudes during the Reformation soon put an end to the lascivious practice of bathing in front of one's neighbours with its perceived potential for debauchery, and the chore of keeping oneself clean was banished to nightly visits to nearby outdoor fountains or indoors to bedrooms stocked with a pitcher and bowl for quick "cat-baths" – those with room and means enough for a tub painstakingly filled it for a good scrubbing every two weeks, or, more likely, just once a month.
Zürich's remaining open-minded citizens took their bathing custom to nearby Baden, which had its own hot springs, a more relaxed attitude towards social bathing and a well-stocked pool, as it were, of prostitutes.
As Zürich grew exponentially with industrialisation in the early 19th century, so did water consumption, and water quality in the city's network of pipes soon became an enormous problem. With hygiene more important than religious Puritanism, ten bathing areas were built along the river and the lakeshore, with men's and women's sections safely segregated.
Most of these are still in use today as the city's Badis: The Badi Utoquai, Frauenbadi, Männerbadi Schanzengraben and the Unteren Letten Badi, although most have now gone co-ed – with some including charming elements of the original architecture, although the 1890's construction of the original Utoquai, with its wonderfully over-the-top turrets, was modernised in the 1930's.
These days, while Zürich's Badis no longer have a hygienic function, they certainly still have a social one. They have developed into multi-use venues for relaxing in the sun and swimming, also hosting saunas (Badi Enge), bars (Barfussbar at the Frauenbadi; Bar Rimini at the Männerbadi), flea markets and other events year-round.
Download a leaflet on Roman Baths in Turicum