Sauna Traditions Around the Globe: A Look at German Spa Culture
Travelers from around the world flock to Germany for its rich culture, food, architecture, and long history. But one of its lesser known experiences — and a unique one at that — is its bathhouse tradition. Often housed in some of Germany’s oldest and most beautiful buildings, sauna tradition is enjoyed by all who seek to soak up some steam (locals and visitors alike) and enjoy a relaxing respite from the day.
History of the German Bathhouse
Today, saunas are widely revered as wellness staples, but their rise to cultural popularity has only soared over the past 70 years or so.
Sauna popularity grew in the Scandinavian and German speaking regions of Europe after World War II. German soldiers experienced Finnish saunas during their fight alongside the Finnish against the Soviet Union on the Soviet-Finnish front. Saunas are an integral part of Finnish culture, and they were so important to Finnish soldiers at the time that they built saunas not only in mobile tents but in bunkers too.
After the war, German soldiers brought the tradition back to Germany and Austria, where it became widely popular in the second half of the 20th century.
German Bathhouse Practices are Healthcare Practices
Now, in the 21st century, Germany has one of the most comprehensive spa cultures among all European nations, thanks to the German federal health care system. The German words for spa are Heilbad or 'healing bath' or Kurort which means 'cure place'. Any town in Germany can qualify and opt to use the prefix 'Bad' or bath before its town’s name. Towns that make the cut have to comply with strict air and water quality standards and have the necessary medical staff and infrastructure to accommodate individuals seeking treatment.
If citizens have medical insurance coverage through a German provider or Krankenkasse, they may be eligible to request a prescribed medical "cure." This option is available every three years for usually three weeks and must be prescribed by a physician. It covers two conditions. The first being to minimize or delay development of a potential condition (caused by stress, headaches, shift work, insomnia, etc.) The second reason is to treat a chronic condition.
German Sauna Culture Today
Bathhouses are an integral part of German culture and highly prioritized by its people. In fact, when the Berlin Wall fell, Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, famously chose to attend her weekly spa appointment before heading westward to attend the celebrations.
An important part of understanding Germany’s love of bathhouse culture, and the experience, is understanding the country’s casual attitude towards nudity, especially when it comes to health practices.
This open-minded and culturally-accepted approach to nudity began in the 19th century, when Scandinavian-style steam baths became popular. Then, in the late 20th century, nudity became an accepted practice on beaches and even in city parks. While there’s been a decline in willingly showing your birthday suit in outdoor public settings, the bare body is still the widespread standard in bathhouse culture today.
If you visit Germany and enter a bathhouse, you’ll find a clothed area centered around a swimming pool, similar to any fitness center you may be familiar with in the western world. In a separate area, and for an additional fee, you’ll find a spa facility which includes German saunas and heated pools. This area is open to both men and women and is clothing-free. These body-positive safe spaces are commonly viewed by Germans as a part of a healthy, wellness lifestyle.
The German Sauna Experience
When you enter a German sauna, there are a few etiquette practices that are unique to the country.
Sauna-goers are required to shower before and after the sauna to ensure personal hygiene practices are in place and to also keep facilities clean. You can wear shower shoes around the facility, in fact most people do, but they must be left at the door to the sauna room as these are considered “textile-free” zones.
You’ll find that Germans always have a towel with them, which must be large enough to fit the bum, hands, and feet, because skin touching the benches is not tolerated. And they’re pretty strict about it.
Then there’s what Germans call the “ruhezone” or the quiet zone. During a sauna session, you’re not supposed to speak. If you have something to say to a friend, you whisper, but you’ll still probably end up getting a sideways look of disdain from someone sitting in the sauna.
The Aufguss German Spa Ritual
The Aufguss is a special spa-like ritual, originating in Germany, that sauna-goers often choose to explore as part of their experience. While a traditional sauna experience primarily focuses on the body and its reaction to high temperatures, an Aufguss caters to the senses as it is both a visual and scented practice.
The Aufguss is conducted by a saunameister or “Sauna Master” who incorporates things like essential oils, music, and lighting for a unique and dazzling sauna show. Essential oils and water are poured over hot rocks in the sauna and evaporate into the air while the saunameister uses towels to move the steam around the room through dance-like movements. This ritual typically lasts for 15 minutes, and in larger saunas it's often scheduled to take place once every hour.
German Spa & Massage
Along with sauna, some German spas (or Therme) also have a beauty section where visitors can book extra services like massage or manicures. Not all spas have these offerings, but the larger ones or ones in hotels will have massage and other services available.
Best Saunas to Visit in Germany
If you’re thinking of taking a trip to Germany in the near future, here are a few to put on your list.
Therme Erding, located in Munich, is known as the world’s largest thermal spa. The spa covers 45.71 acres and sees about 4,000 visitors daily.
The enormous layout has something for the whole family: outdoor swimming, bathing in thermal pools, racing down water slides, or relaxing in one of its 25 luxurious, thermal saunas.
The building where the Liquidrom is housed will immediately grab your attention with its unique architectural features. The complex, located in Berlin, is built to look like an abstract tent with a pointed roof-line that arguably looks like something out of a sci-fi movie.
The Liquidrom contains a variety of saunas and baths as well as changing facilities. Its main attraction is a stunning saltwater floating pool, surrounded by large archways. The pool features multicolored lights and music that is able to be heard underwater. When it comes to saunas in particular, a few of its attractions are the Finnish sauna, Himalayan salt sauna, and Kelo herbal sauna.
Kaifu-Bad, in Hamburg, is arguably the most impressive bathhouse in the port city. Like the Liquidrom, this bathhouse also contains a large flotation pool where you can enjoy music underwater as you calmly float around.
The spa area features a variety of facilities including a eucalyptus room, a sauna with colorful lighting, and a large Finnish-style sauna.
If you’re able to travel to Germany, we hope you’ll take an opportunity to experience one of these three places to enjoy the richness of its bathhouse culture. But for now, we hope you enjoyed learning more about sauna culture in another part of the world!
If you’re new to sauna and bathhouse practices, we hope you’ll come for a visit at Sauna House to try it out for yourself.