Naked In German Saunas: A North American Woman's Perspective
Who doesn’t love a good sauna session after a cold ride or a stressful week at work? In Germany, a few hours at the saunas is an easy and affordable way to get away from the busyness of everyday life, sweat out some toxins and pamper our bodies after a solid week of training. It’s what the locals do, and it’s definitely an authentic cultural experience not to be missed when visiting Germany, especially if you’re here for the cycling.
While I encourage guests on our trips to try new experiences, when discussing saunas and thermal baths, it always brings up the question, “Are you naked in German saunas?”, “And they’re co-ed?!?” Yep, they sure are, and if the very idea of sweating naked in a sauna with complete strangers of both genders (or even worse, people you know) makes you feel uncomfortable, let me assure you that even as a foreign woman who didn’t grow up in the land of saunas, there is nothing gross, embarrassing or scandalous feeling about the experience.
Contrary to what many foreigners from all over the world might think, German saunas are not just for naturalists, nudists or hippies. They are not a place where people go to stare at one another naked. They are not just for old men. They are not just for families with kids. They are not just for people lacking in modesty. They are for everyone, and while it may initially seem strange for us outsiders to plop down on our towel in a sauna among people of both sexes, every generation and every body type from spunky kids to fit 30-somethings to homely grandparents, I can assure that no one else in the sauna is paying any attention to your nakedness. I don’t know if it’s the sweating, the matter-of-fact atmosphere or just the cultural upbringing here, but Germans don’t seem to link sex and nudity, especially in places like saunas, beaches or parks, the way that many others do.
So,if you’re okay with letting go of some of your own cultural boundaries and are interested in exploring this unique side of German culture, then read on for some tips on finding, navigating and enjoying saunas or thermal baths anywhere in Germany.
- Location. Saunas are everywhere: cities, towns, resorts, gyms, hotels, etc., but if you really want to enjoy the full experience, look for a town that starts with the word “Bad,” meaning “bath.” Some of our favorite towns include Baden Baden or Badenweiler, but there are hundreds of options scattered around the country. Many of these “bath” towns have large, sauna / swimming pool complexes that can make for an all day sauna experience.
- What to bring. You’ll be sweating up a storm and Germans are very strict about cleanliness so make sure you pack several large beach towels. When in the sauna, your skin must not touch the wood (notice the “Keine Haut auf dem Holz” signs), so you’ll want towels that are big enough to sit on and put under your feet on the step below. If needed, you can also rent towels from the reception. Bring a bathing suit if you’d like to enjoy some of the swimming pools, but remember: no bathing suits are allowed in the saunas themselves. Robes and shower shoes (flip flops for example) are nice to have, but not required, as is a book or magazine for your between-sauna-sessions. There will be a little bar or café where you can buy food and drink, but you may want to bring lots of your own water and a healthy snack.
- How to pay. Germany is known for its efficiency, and saunas are no different. When you first arrive, you’ll generally receive a small plastic coin that can fit into a bracelet. This coin, or a combination of a coin and card, will mark your entrance into the sauna, lock your locker and will record all purchases made at the bar or special treatment facilities, so lock your wallet away in your locker and swipe away during your stay. In general, a four hour session can run anywhere from 10-25 euros depending on the facilities. Massages and facial treatments are in addition, but you will generally notice very fair spa prices.
- Navigation. The hardest part about German saunas isn’t about being naked, but about finding your way around and knowing when you’re supposed to be naked and when you’re not. Some of these places are huge! Every sauna is different, but here’s the general flow: You’ll swipe your chip, card or bracelet to enter the complex. On your way to the locker rooms (also co-ed), you’ll see rows of small changing booths. You enter a booth from one side, take off your clothes, put your towel on (or bathing suit if you’re going to the swimming pool first), and exit the booth from the other side of the changing booth. You’re now in the locker room area where you’ll use your chip, card or bracelet to lock your belongings in a locker. You can pack a small bag with water, book and extra towel for the sauna for easy access as you probably won’t be coming back to the locker rooms until you’re done. From here, you need to shower before entering the sauna or swimming pool. These showers & bathrooms are typically not co-ed. After cleaning off, you’ll see a door that leads to the pool area. This area is NOT naked, so either have your suit on or keep your towel around you. If you want to head straight to the saunas, you should see an entrance from somewhere within the pool area. You’ll have to swipe your chip again. At this point, you will see signs saying no swimsuits or clothing, and you can congratulate yourself on successfully navigating to the naked part. In no way does this mean that you need to whip your towel off and strut your stuff. You’ll notice that while everyone is technically naked at this stage, many people choose to modestly walk around wrapped in a towel. Do whatever make you comfortable- as long as you’re not wearing clothes or a swimsuit into the sauna and you don’t put your skin on the wood benches, you’re fine.
- The Aufguss. On some saunas, you may notice a clock or time schedule for the “Aufguss.” This is a German sauna favorite and a must-do! A staff person or “saunameister” will alternately pour scented water on the hot sauna rocks and whip the extremely hot air around in the sauna using a towel. Sessions usually last about 10 minutes and could have many different variations including a scent, salt scrub, ice scrubs or juices to drink in the middle or at the end of the session. If you’d like to try an Aufguss, they usually run on the hour in one of the hotter saunas in the complex. You’ll need to be a few minutes early as they often fill up quickly. If this is your first time, sit on the bottom steps as they are slightly cooler. If you start to feel ill from the heat, you can leave, but be aware that opening the door will affect the experience for your fellow sauna-goers. Finally, if you arrive and the door has been shut with the Aufguss already in session, DO NOT open the door, even if the clock says you’re on time. You’re better off waiting until the next session than to disturb the perfect equilibrium of sauna-land.
Overall, saunas are a great way to spend a relaxing afternoon or evening while visiting Germany. They are a place of healing and are generally a quiet space, but even if you don’t speak the language, you’ll notice Germans enjoying some humor and light conversation. Most of all, remind yourself that everyone else in the sauna doesn’t care about your naked body, so you shouldn’t either. Just relax, enjoy and feel the natural freedom that this unique cultural experience has to offer.