As is the case in much of Northern Europe, Germany takes wellness culture seriously – and saunas are a keystone of their wellness practices. For that reason it is absolutely worth paying a visit to a German sauna while you’re there. Basking in heat with the scent of essential oils rising around you, what could be better? However, as the traditional stereotype dictates, Germans can be rather meticulous in their etiquette, particularly when it comes to rituals as beloved as a sauna visit.
So how should you behave in a German sauna? What should you bring? What should you wear? Do Germans go nude into the sauna? If the thought of stripping down or taking the dive into a cold plunge pool is already making the stress rise in your chest, never fear. Once you have a hold on the etiquette, German saunas become the place of relaxation they were always designed to be.
- What to bring to the sauna
- What to know before you go to the sauna
- (Un)dressing for the occasion
- What to expect
- Why the sauna is worth a visit
What to bring to the sauna
First and foremost are the towels. Though they can usually be rented for a small fee, you might prefer to bring your own – one for lounging on and one to be a hand towel. You must also bring your flip-flops or slippers, as going barefoot in the sauna is a taboo you absolutely do not want to be guilty of breaching. Finally, you might want to bring a cozy robe to wrap yourself up in when you get out.
What to know before you go to the sauna
Be sure you have enough water to drink before and during your visit because with the heat of the sauna you can very easily become dehydrated and you don’t want any dizzy spells.
You must also take a shower before going to the sauna as hygiene is naturally a high priority, then towel off thoroughly afterwards.
(Un)dressing for the occasion
Generally speaking, German saunas tend to be ‘textile-free’, so you should be prepared to go in the nip. You should also keep in mind that many saunas are mixed-sex spaces, however no one bats an eyelid at naked men and women sharing a sauna. Depending where you are coming from, this kind of non-sexualized public nudity can be rather jarring, so if this does make you uncomfortable, you can always search for a single-sex sauna.
Confidence is key, though you may have to ‘fake it till you make it’. Just keep in mind that no one is fixating on you the way you fixate on yourself. Around other people in the sauna, don’t gawk, just keep your gaze level and blasé. You will get used to the experience quicker than you might imagine, and the etiquette will become second nature to you.
All that being said, many young Germans are not quite so confident with this kind of public nudity. Indeed, the average age of spa attendees is certainly skewed upwards, and many of the younger attendees will be prone to wrap themselves up in their towels.
What to expect
The number one thing to keep in mind is that hygiene is paramount. Be sure to have a towel between you and the wooden sauna benches while you are basking in the heat and keep your flip-flops when moving around if you don’t want to draw any disapproving looks from other sauna-goers. Keep in mind that the higher benches will be the hottest.
You should also be ready for the Aufguss (infusion), which is the process of pouring essential oil infused water onto the hot stones of the sauna, allowing fragrant aromas to infuse the hot steamy air. Popular choices include eucalyptus, clove, pine and citrus scents. The Saunameister (literally ‘sauna master’) may enter from time to time, pour on the Aufguss, and fan the hot fragrant air so that it will wrap itself deliciously around the shoulders and backs of those present like a snug blanket.
If you pay attention to your body you will know when it is time to get out of the heat, but as a rule of thumb you probably shouldn’t stay in longer than 15 minutes. It is best to start with five minutes and increase the length of time gradually as you get used to taking saunas.
When you emerge warm but not ‘overcooked’, from the sauna you should head straight for the cool plunge pool or rush to stand under a cold shower to cool off. If this seems somewhat masochistic, all I can say is, give it a go.
On emerging from the pool or shower, wrap yourself up in a blanket or robe and allow yourself a break of around 20 minutes, preferably lying on a lounger in the fresh air. Then you can repeat the whole process again a number of times until you feel wonderful and ready to take on the world.
Why the sauna is worth a visit
The sauna offers a singular experience of relaxation and personal meditation, where you can take time out of your hectic week to focus only on your own body. While the hot air and cold plunge is believed to have great benefits for your circulation and breathing, taking this time to be calm and peaceful may have the greatest benefit of all.
Beyond the health benefits of spending time at the sauna, a visit can provide an opportunity to be silent and alone with your thoughts. A visit with friends can also create a relaxed ambience for quiet and contemplative conversation.
Whether you are a busy Berlin dweller or on a visit to the Schwarzwald, a relaxing sauna experience is a part of the wide constellation of curious yet important features of German lifestyle that you really should explore. Now that you know what to expect, how to act and how to get the most out of the experience, there’s no need to be daunted at the door of any sauna, thermal bath or spa you find in Germany. Whether you hope to make it part of your weekly schedule or a highlight of your next German holiday, you will be well-equipped to lean into German sauna culture!
Leona has her roots in the South of Ireland, where she grew up on her family farm. She went on to study World Politics at Leiden University College, The Hague and then completed her MPhil in International History at Trinity College Dublin. Leona has now settled in Berlin, having fallen in love with the city. In her spare time she is working on perfecting her German in anticipation of her doctoral studies, during which she plans to study modern German social history. Her hobbies include bouldering, dancing and reading a healthy mix of history books and corny fantasy fiction. You can find more info about her on LinkedIn.