While Maintaining Your American Modesty
If there is one German activity worth stepping out of your comfort zone for, it’s the public sauna. You won’t find anything like their sauna experience back in the States, and if you don’t try it at least once, you’ll never know what a good thing you’re missing out on.
The first time I went, I was terrified. All I could think was, “Oh my gosh. Naked people. Naked people everywhere. I can’t do this!” I imagined this immorally reprehensible Roman scene playing out. Or walking into a modern day Sodom and Gomorrah. What I found was that it was neither of these things. And, in fact, I enjoyed it so much that I’m now a sauna regular. Luckily, I had my German husband there with me to guide me through the process. I would never have gone if I didn’t have a German right there beside me. Since not everyone has that luxury, though, here is everything you need to know, along with my advice for how to maintain your American modesty (unless, that is, you decide to dive right in and do it the German way all the way!).
How to Avoid Being Naked
I think this is the most important tip as it’s usually the number one reason why Americans never try the German saunas. So, let me reassure you – if you don’t want to go naked, you don’t have to. Sure, there are some parts of the sauna you won’t be able to go into, but that can always come later. It’s way easier for the men. They just wear a towel around their waist – done. For women, it’s a little trickier. You can wear a towel, but there are times when it will be a hindrance. I would recommend getting one of these:
You can get them in most stores that sell towels, or you order them online. Just search for “sauna towel wrap.”
This is much better than a normal towel because it will stay closed with velcro, leaving your hands completely free. I’ll explain why this is important further down.
The Sauna Bag
You absolutely need to take a bag to the sauna with you. You’ll need the towel or towel wrap that you plan to wear in the sauna, plus one extra towel, and sandals or water shoes to wear in the sauna area. Don’t take flip flops. I found out the hard way that these absolutely do not work. Either they get very slippery or they soak up all the water and make you walk like Frankenstein. Most people wear these types of shoes:
You don’t need to buy special sauna shoes (although they have them). They just need to be made of hard material and easy to slip on and off.
Other than the towels and shoes (which are absolutely necessary), I would also recommend packing a small bottle of shower soap and a bottle of water.
Arriving at the Sauna
Most saunas have you pay by the hour, which you do when you first get there. Most people pay for two hours. If you leave before two hours are up, you don’t get a refund. But if you accidentally go over your two hours, you just pay the difference on your way out. Two hours is usually the amount of time most people spend in there, though.
I have to point out here that every sauna is different, so the system might vary slightly from place to place. But more than likely, once you pay, you’ll get a card (like a hotel key card) that gives you access to the changing rooms. If there is also a swimming pool at your sauna, that changing room will be separate. So, you won’t be mixed in with the general public. The sauna changing rooms are mixed gender, so you may be confronted already at this point by naked people. You, however, don’t have to change into your sauna towel in front of them. There are almost always one or two private changing booths available. You’ll put your clothes, keys, etc. into the locker, but hold on to your sauna bag. You’ll need to take that with you. Usually, you’ll have a slot on the locker for your card that will let you close the locker and remove the key. The locker key will be on a band that you can put either on your wrist or your ankle.
So, you leave the changing area with your sauna bag, wearing your sauna towel and sandals, locker key on your wrist or ankle.
Now, you’re in the actual sauna area. You won’t normally see the sauna rooms immediately. You should first see bathrooms, showers, and a small area with cubby holes. This space with the cubbies is where you will leave your sauna bag. It is crucial to know that you need to take a shower before entering the sauna rooms. Yes, even if you showered before leaving the house, do it again. The showers are separated by gender, so no worries that you’ll be mixed in with the opposite sex. Take your shower soap, and walk into the showers – you will keep your shoes and towel on. Once you’re actually in the shower room, take your towel off. There are hooks inside and little shelves for your soap. Take a quick shower – don’t bother drying off – put your towel back on, and either put your soap back in your sauna bag or leave it right outside the showers on the small shelves (where you should see other people’s soap, too).
Note – if you wear glasses, you can wear them into the sauna, but beware that the frames might get so hot that they burn your skin. There is usually a rack for glasses at the door to each sauna room where you can leave them.
One final thought is that it is probably a good idea not to wear any jewelry into the saunas. The metal can sometimes burn your skin from the heat.
Types of Sauna Rooms
You might not have all of these rooms at every public sauna, but you should have most of them. You don’t have to go into every sauna room. Just pick the ones you like.
The Finnish-Style Sauna is probably the most well-known type of sauna. The temperature here is normally between 175 and 195 degrees. You wear your towel into this sauna (but you’ll leave your shoes outside); although, most people will take their towel off once inside and use it to sit on. Keep in mind that the higher you sit, the hotter it is. One important note about hygeine here is that your bare feet are not supposed to touch the seats. You’ll see that the Germans lay their towels in a way that their butt and feet are always on the towel. If you don’t want to take your towel off in here, that is perfectly okay. But make sure you sit on the lowest seat so that your bare feet stay touching the floor.
You are not allowed to wear your towel into this room. So, if you want to avoid being naked, skip this room. If you want to give it a try, leave your shoes and towel outside the door. When you walk in, you’ll first need to take that hose and water down the area where you want to sit. Hang the hose back up, and sit down. This picture is a little misleading because there is no steam. Usually, these rooms are so steamy that you can barely see. You can also use the hose on your arms and legs while sitting down if you need to cool off a bit. Once you’re ready to get out, hose the seat off again. Go in and out the door as quickly as possible to keep the steam from escaping. These rooms are not as hot – only about 115 degrees.
I actually don’t like this room, but a lot of people do. It’s not nearly as warm as the others. Most places keep it around 120 to 140 degrees. There is no steam here. But, you can wear your towel inside. Just sit down on the tile seats and relax.
The sauna in this picture has windows, but you more than likely won’t see any windows in a public sauna. These are usually outside, and sometimes half buried in the ground. This room is a litte more intense. The heat usually kicks up to 195 degrees. You can absolutely wear your towel in here if you want, but the same rule applies about bare feet on the wood.
This is the most intense sauna of them all. It’s also normally found outside and half buried in the ground, but here the heat gets up to 230 degrees. You are allowed to wear your towel inside, but the same rule applies with bare feet on the wood.
The Aufguss (What Makes the Public Sauna Worth Experiencing)
The sauna is wonderful and all, but if you don’t sit through an Aufguss, it’s a waste of time (at least, in my opinion). I am completely hooked on Aufguss(es). The word doesn’t seem to translate into English, though. So, let me explain what happens.
Most of the time, they will offer the Aufguss in the Premium Saunas. One of the staff members will come into the room (don’t worry, the staff isn’t naked) and start by walking around with a bucket of ice. Hold your hands out, and they’ll scoop a huge portion of crushed ice into your hands. Form it into a ball, and either set it down on your towel by your feet (if you’re naked) or on your towel in your lap. You will use this ice throughout the experiece to cool yourself down. You’ll see other people rub it on their faces and arms. You can always just copy what they do.
The Aufguss “theme” is always different. So, you might get a fruit kabob to eat, or a glass of juice to drink, or even (especially if you’re around Bitburg) a glass of non-alcoholic beer. The staff member will then pour water and herbs over hot stones, making steam and a wonderfully smelling aroma. It might be mint, berry, etc. Then they will go around the room fanning the air with a towel. This will make it very very hot on your skin. The smell will get very strong. They usually repeat this process (water and all) three times. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you’ll get a honey and salt Aufguss. This starts out the same way, but then there is a break in the middle where everyone walks out of the room and forms a line. The staff member will ask if you want honey or salt or both. TAKE BOTH!!! You will smear the honey all over your skin. I know, it sounds sticky and awful, but your skin will soak it up and you’ll sweat the rest off. This is where that normal towel can be a pain for women. The velcro will make it much easier to keep the towel in place while applying the honey. Once you’re covered in the honey, rub the salt in. Then everyone will go back into the sauna and sit down. The staff member will do one or two more rounds with the water and fan, and then it’s over. Remember to clap!
Your skin will feel like silk after this, and you will sleep deeper than you ever thought you could.
There is also an Aufguss in the Erdsauna. This one is much more intense but also completely worth doing. There’s just a tiny difference. After the water and fanning process happens twice, you will see everyone either lay forward over their laps or turn around on their knees while bending forward (think a worship pose on the floor). The staff member will then take turns swatting each person on the back with branches. It sounds awful, and I have to admit that the first time I did it, my initial observation was, “How odd that we’re all lining up like slaves to be whipped!”
It doesn’t hurt, though. It just makes a very very intense heat on your back. This is the most popular Aufguss, though. So, usually the room fills up 15 minutes before it starts. If you want to try it, get there a little bit early to claim your spot!
With the Heat Also Comes the Cold
What makes the sauna experience so effective is the shock to your body from going extreme hot to extreme cold. You will see, throughout the sauna area, different places with cold water. Their temperatures will range, so you can always dip your finger in first to see how cold it is. Okay, you have to get into the cold water naked. And they are usually out in the open, so people are walking by. You might also see what looks like showers out in the open – sometimes even a bucket with a string – that people will use. These are also cold water. The buckets are freezing, but they’re the most fun. It’s up to you if you want to use them since you have to remove your towel. You can always go back to those private showers in the front area of the sauna and take a cold shower there, but it won’t be nearly as cold, so you’ll lose out a little bit on the experience. Baby steps!
These are examples of cold water pools at a sauna in Bitburg.
You might also see various types of relaxation rooms like this one below.
You keep your towel on in here, and also your shoes. People will usually come in here with a book or magazine and just read silently. There is no talking allowed in here! It is extremely quiet, and people use this area to calm down from the sauna. It’s usually a fairly cool room, and sometimes you might even see people napping.
Things to Remember While at the Sauna
- Shower! Shower! Shower! You should shower upon arrival, between each sauna room you go into, and before leaving. They take the hygeine issue very seriously. If using a cold water shower or cold water bucket after a sauna room, it’s okay to take your normal shower afterwards. But definitely shower before getting into a cold water pool.
- Always take your shoes off before entering a sauna room
- Once you sit down, your bare feet should never touch the wooden benches
- There is always an Aufguss schedule posted somewhere in the sauna that will tell you their schedule for that day (including which sauna, what the aromas will be, if there are drinks or food included, etc.)
- Get to the Aufguss early before the room fills up
- Clap at the end of each Aufguss
- Use the hourglass timers inside the sauna rooms. Most people only stay in the rooms for 15 minutes at a time.
- Don’t stare. That sounds self-evident, but it’s harder than you might think. It is a culture shock for sure!
- When in doubt, watch what everyone else is doing.
Leaving the Sauna
When you’re ready to leave, take one last shower in those private showers up front. Go back over to the cubby area where your sauna bag is, and dry off using your spare clean towel. There is no privacy here, so if you want to dry off and change your towel completely, you can always duck into the bathroom. Then just head back to the changing room. Once you’re dressed again, you’ll leave your locker key in the keyhole and use your entry card to get back out. Usually, you have to scan your card on a turnstile to get out. If it flashes red at you, that means you went over on your time. There should be a machine in that area where you can add money to the card. It will show you your balance (usually just 60 cents or so), you pay the difference into the machine, and it gives you the card back. Then the turnstile will let you out. Get outside and drink your water if you haven’t already. You will be amazed at how good you feel.
Why Germans Love the Sauna so Much
Most Germans swear by the sauna experience. They believe that the alteration between that extreme heat and extreme cold strengthens your immune system. Ask any German who frequents the sauna, and they will tell you that people who go to the sauna on a regular basis never get sick, have much fewer muscle aches, and breathe easier. It also makes your skin incredibly soft and helps you to sleep.
But, it’s also a social gathering – even though that sounds odd since everyone is naked. Germans, who are not usually known for making small talk, are actually quite chatty in the saunas. On my last visit, we had a lovely conversation between a couple of Germans, a Spanish lady, and a half Portugese/half Luxembourgish man. It was a beautiful mix of German, English, and Spanish all jumbled into one. And the more you go, the more you’ll start to see the same people there, and the more chatty and friendly and social the whole experience becomes.
The ideal frequency for most Germans is once a week for two hours. They go most often in the winter. In the summer months, the saunas are sometimes a little bit empty. If you want to try it out when the fewest amount of people are there, try going on a Saturday night. Check their websites ahead of time to see what their times are. You’ll also be able to see which types of sauna rooms they have so you can mentally prepare a little bit before going.
Now, get out there and try it!