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Whoa! It’s time to strip off and sweat. Here’s what to expect at a German sauna, with essential tips on what – and what not – to do.
German Sauna Culture
An Aufguss Experience in the Buff
Bursting out of the sauna through a cloud of lemon grass, I was in a foggy haze, my face as flushed as a German red cabbage. A sheen of sweat coated my body as my white towel fluttered behind me like a broken angel wing.
Vaguely I was aware of disapproving faces following me through the gloom. I’d disrupted the Aufguss, a German sauna ritual involving essential oils, steam and hot rocks. This themed sauna experience is orchestrated by a Saunameister – a sauna master – who whips and whirls a towel over scented air created by pouring water infused with essential oils, disbursing the fragrant scent in all directions.
It’s mesmerizing to watch and heady to smell – but the hot air had been hitting my face like an herbal tornado.
Normally I love the Aufguss, a ceremonial yet theatrical form of sauna entertainment. One of the hottest trends (literally) in the spa industry, this sauna ritual is taken seriously in Germany, as well as in a number of other European countries such as Switzerland and Austria.
What is an Aufguss?
Generally running on an hourly basis at the larger sauna houses, the Aufguss lasts for about 15 minutes and different scents are scheduled for different times. If you keep an eye on the schedule posted outside the door, you can find yourself awash in everything from mint to lavender to rose.
Did I mention it’s clothing free? But that, my friends, was the least of my worries.
Here’s the drill. Before the Aufguss starts, everyone settles their naked bodies on towels carefully spread out on the benches (and, in my experience, hogging as much space as they can for themselves).
Then the sauna master begins a dramatic performance of towel wizardry, with snaps, twirls and waves, spreading the searing scented air around the dimly-lit sauna. For many spa fanatics, the Aufguss is the highlight of a European sauna experience. Generally, it is for me, too.
This time, however, at the Baderhaus in the European spa town of Bad Kreuznach, I’d made some critical mistakes. I hadn’t cooled down properly beforehand. I’d just left a different sauna cabin and had been padding by as the sauna master was closing the door and asked if I wanted to come in.
I didn’t want to miss the fun, so even though I knew I was overheated, I stripped off and slipped through the door.
My second mistake was being the last one in. The prime spots were taken, and I’d had to squeeze into an uncomfortable spot on a lower bench too near the stove.
No Skin on Wood
The woman on the bench above me was lying flat, so I couldn’t lean back on the bench without hitting her arm. Avoiding flesh to flesh contact in a room full of sweating naked bodies is definitely a must. So, following her lead, I lay down flat, too.
The Saunameister, a friendly fit-looking blond woman, began to prepare us by speaking in a meditative voice. I had no idea what she was saying but took a deep breath and willed myself to enter a state of blissful calm. Then she stopped her lovely intoning to tell me to get my bare feet off the wood.
A key rule of a German sauna? No skin on wood.
I drew up my knees, but couldn’t seem to keep my entire body on the towel. And what about my hair? It was spreading out around my head like a drowning Ophelia. Was hair on wood against the rules, too? I sat up, leaning forward to avoid the woman above me, my feet on the floor.
Was it my imagination, or were accusing glances flying my way? What was I doing wrong now? Squinting through the dark, I searched for a clue. Directly opposite me, a naked woman was sitting in a cross legged position, showing me a view I really didn’t want to see.
Apparently that was okay, but something I was doing wasn’t.
Breaking the Rules
The answer appeared like a puff of steam in my sweat-addled brain. No one’s feet were actually touching the floor. Only mine. The other seated patrons had arranged their towels to hang down over the the bench onto the floor and their feet were resting on that. What happened to ‘no skin on wood’? The floor wasn’t wood. How had these people gotten in here? Had they floated in?
I lifted my feet to my tippy toes, thinking levitating might be the answer. The more I wriggled around trying to get my towel sorted, the more I was spoiling the mood for everyone else, and the more the sauna master’s towel whirled towards me the hotter I became.
When the sauna master said something in German, and a woman moved down from the highest bench to the cooler one below, I took her words to mean, “Now it gets really hot.”
I leapt up and fled.
Staggering down the hallway in search of a cold shower, I felt like a sauna pariah. How could I have screwed up again?
It wasn’t as if this sauna complex in Bad Kreuznach, a spa town an hour southwest of Frankfurt, was my first Aufguss rodeo. My husband and I had spent much of our honeymoon steaming in coffee and rose scented saunas and thermal baths throughout Switzerland and Germany.
I thought I knew the rules. I was aware that in Germany, saunas mean getting naked. I’d come to accept there would always be some new kind of German sauna to confuse me, from a Spectaculum (a sauna with changing lights and music) to a Sanarium (not as hot as a regular sauna).
I’d even grown to appreciate the shock of a cold water plunge after heating myself up like a microwaved piece of schnitzel.
Clearly, there was more to learn.
Becoming an Expert on German Sauna Rules
That does it, I thought, pushing through a door to an outside terrace and gulping cool air. I was going to learn every German sauna rule there was, not just the basics like ‘yes, German coed saunas are nude’ but also the nuances and intricacies the average North American couldn’t be expected to know.
I was going to become a sauna ninja.
Now that I’ve studied as much as I can about this unique aspect of wellness culture in Germany, let me pass this knowledge on to you. Because as confusing as a sauna in Germany can be, it’s totally worth it, especially when you understand the do’s and don’t’s.
Why You Should Visit a Sauna in Germany
Here’s the thing. Saunas can be a relaxing way to indulge in some wellness, as long as you follow these important sauna safety rules.
Saunas are said to help the body rid itself of toxins (though there is endless debate about this), and the heat helps relieve sore muscles. Studies have also shown that saunas help boost immunity.
Saunas are Part of German Wellness Culture
Immersing yourself in a German sauna experience is a terrific way to experience a slice of German culture many people don’t see (and possibly, considering everyone is nude, and it’s no Victoria Secret runway show, you will probably see more of the culture than you ever hoped to witness in your life.)
Another benefit of visiting a German sauna is that it involves a lot of sitting and lying around, and you can hardly go wrong with that.
You Feel Good Afterwards
Above all, saunas help you relax, as if the stress has been cooked right out of you.
Are German Saunas Nude?
Well, yup. Pretty much. No clothing whatsoever. Nope. Nothing.
The exception: International hotel spas, and then only sometimes. The last German spa my husband and I went to was at the 5-star Charles Hotel, a Rocco Forte Hotel in Munich with a luxury spa and an attractive wellness area.
The pool section, where bathing suits are required, was straightforward. An indoor pool, deck chairs and towels. The separate sauna section, however, was a free for all and no one knew the rules. That’s what happens when you let foreigners like us loose in a German spa.
My husband and I walked into the sauna area, saw a couple of women showering in the open stalls naked, and backed out fast, crashing into each other as we went, thinking we’d just walked into the women’s change room.
After hemming and hawing and generally bumbling around, staring at the signs on the door, we went in again. This time we saw a man, who, due to his accent and towering height, I immediately stereotyped as an American basketball player. He had bathing trunks on.
Okay, I thought. That’s two votes for the naked German sauna, one for clothed. I stripped off. Mark kept his trunks on. So did the basketball player. We all trooped into the sauna. A young couple was inside already. They were nude. Mark took his trunks off. The basketball player, looking completely confused, left, came back in with his trunks off and then, looking even more out of depth, ran out the door.
Last I saw of him, he was back to safety in the pool area, swim trunks on, ordering a smoothie and talking on his cell phone.
It was sauna entertainment at its best, and especially enjoyable because the embarrassment, unlike at Bad Kreuznach, didn’t belong to me.
Why are German Saunas Nude?
Let’s get this whole nudity question out of the way before we continue, because it’s the number one issue for North Americans who are nervous about going to a sauna in Germany.
Every spa expert I talk to has a different answer as to the whole Germany sauna naked thing and they all make sense to me. In fact, I’m starting to wonder why we ever wear clothes at all (other than to protect ourselves from sleet and snow).
Why You Can’t Wear a Bathing Suit in a German Sauna
- Bathing suits hamper circulation, and saunas are supposed to stimulate circulation.
- Bathing suits are filthy germ-ridden things, and you don’t want bacteria in a sauna. (I don’t actually understand why they’re more germ-ridden than the naked private bits held within them, but who am I to make the rules?)
- As you sweat, the water evaporates off your body. This cools you down and helps control your body temperature so that you don’t overheat and shrivel up into a crisp. Sweat can’t evaporate under a bathing suit.
- If you are wearing a swim suit in a sauna it makes all the nude sauna goers around you uncomfortable.
Once you come to terms with the fact that you’re going to be at a mixed German sauna nude, and will have to bare every mole and freckle, it’s not so bad. (Yes, it is.) I can’t say it’s easy, because it’s simply not our culture to strip it all off in front of strangers, and cultural norms are hard to break. Germans are no doubt as confused by our prudishness as we are by their willingness to drop their clothes at the first wisp of a steam bath.
However, it’s their country and their culture so when in Rome … or at least in Germany … do as the Germans do.
5 ways to deal with being naked in a German sauna
- Keep your towel wrapped around you to the very last minute, then unwrap yourself and scoot inside as fast as you can. The light is dim inside and no one will see your cellulite.
- Lie down on a bench so that your stomach rolls don’t drape down winsomely around your waist. Note: Lying down in a sauna takes up a lot of space so you can’t manage this in a crowded sauna. Also, it’s quite embarrassing if you’re facing someone feet first.
- Go to the swimming pool instead.
- Act like you own the place. Tell yourself you have the body of a supermodel and strut your stuff. It’s quite empowering.
- Go to a sauna on single sex day. Saunas in Germany often have one women’s-only day a week. Men, you’re on your own. Sorry.
Now let’s get to some German sauna basics.
German Sauna Culture Explained
What is a German Sauna?
It seems like a simple question, but it’s not so basic in Germany, where saunas can range from a simple wood-lined heated room to vast sauna complexes as elaborate as steamy theme parks.
When I say steamy, I mean it in a temperature sense, NOT in a naughty sense. Saunas are practically like temples in Germany – at least the ones I’ve been to. (Like anywhere, there may be less savoury types I don’t know about, but I can’t be expected to research everything.)
Whether it’s called a sauna complex, sauna world or sauna area, German saunas are often separate areas of a larger bathhouse or a thermal spa, and usually require an extra fee. At these types of spa complexes, swimsuits are required in the regular pool area. If there is a separate pool in the sauna section, it’s nude.
My advice? glance at the others in the pool before leaping in with your private bits flying.
In other German spas known as Roman Irish Bathhouses, such as Friedrichsbad in Baden-Baden or the Kaiser-Friedrich-Therme, one of the best spas in Wiesbaden, the entire spa experience is in the buff, and the sauna is not a separate part of it.
How Do You Visit One?
At the front desk, you’ll likely be given an electronic bracelet that will lock your locker and let you charge food and drink if there’s a cafe. Remember to take note of your locker number – I’ve made that mistake more than once.
Once you are in the sauna section, there should be change rooms. This gives you a sense of (false) security, and you can stroll out confidently in your robe (if you’ve brought one or rented one. You can also wrap up in your towel.)
Different Types of Sauna Cabins
The best European saunas have every type of sauna imaginable, and some have unique types of saunas you couldn’t have imagined if your life depended on it. To confuse you further, they’re given catchy names that make no sense to the average tourist. Try a Broncharium (an inhalation room with brine mist), a Samarium (a gentle sauna) or Infrared Sphere on for size.
The only hope you have, if there are no explanations in English, is to ask an attendant and hope they speak English or go in and see for yourself. You can’t take your clothes to a German sauna, but you can take your spirit of adventure, so get out there, Christopher Columbus, and explore new worlds.
You’ll often also find more recognizable sauna types such as eucalyptus steam rooms, outdoor log cabins and sleek cedar saunas. There may be an outdoor space with deck chairs, as well as a cafe, where most people will wrap up in a towel or robe, before ordering.
The Cool Down
After a sauna it’s essential to cool down (especially if you don’t want to run out of an Aufguss in a heat-induced panic like I did).
Different Ways to Cool Down After a Sauna
- Showers. These range from simple spouts to rainforest showers that drop down like a soft gentle rain. Beware, you may also find showers with a multitude of jets that poke out of the wall and attack you from all angles.
- Cold plunges. These are small pools of cold water, which you are meant to dip into. You may need to climb down a ladder to get into it. Resist the urge to shriek.
- Ice rooms and snow caves. These faux cave-like rooms usually have an ice machine. Scoop up a handful and rub it on your limbs. Resist the urge to shriek.
- Another thing you might find is a cold bucket of water suspended in the air. Feel free to pull the rope and have frigid water tumble down onto your head. Resist the urge to shriek.
What the heck is the warm foot bath at a sauna for?
You may spot what look like ‘foot sinks’ and benches outside the sauna cabins. Try a warm foot bath after your sauna. First you may want to do a quick cold foot bath to cool down the surface temperature of your feet, but it’s the warm bath that follows that has the most effect.
A warm foot bath helps boost circulation by expanding blood vessels. This helps cool you down by luring the heat from within your body to the surface of your skin, where it can be released like a caged dove. Now you know.
German Sauna Rules
Here are some basic rules of German sauna etiquette, which should help you maneuver your way through a nude German sauna like a pro.
- Always shower before going into a sauna or pool.
- Bring flip flops or shower shoes.
- Saunas are clothing free but you can wrap up in a robe or a towel when moving from room to room. If you don’t have your own towel, rent one at the desk. Sometimes you might be required to buy one.
- You should have two good-sized towels, one for the sauna and one to dry off with. (I’ve seen people make do with one, but you didn’t hear it from me.)
- Do not wear your flip flops into the sauna. Leave them outside the door.
- Never put bare body parts onto the sauna benches. Always sit on a towel.
- The exception is the steam bath. Your towel would be a soggy mess in a second so leave it outside.
- Never stare at other naked people, no matter how grimly mesmerizing or tempting.
- Suggested time is to stay in the sauna 15 minutes or less. If you feel faint, leave.
- Don’t talk. Quiet is valued at a German sauna.
- Shower after the sauna. No one wants to share your sweat.
- Cool down. Give the cold plunge a try (unless you have health issues), but only after you have showered.
- Find a comfortable rest area and relax until your body temperature comes back to normal.
- Do it again.
- Feel wonderful and limp as a wet towel afterwards.
What to Bring to a Sauna in Germany
- Flip flops
- Two towels (if you don’t want to buy or rent).
- Optional: a robe, hair tie and a book or magazine to read during your downtime
- I usually stick a plastic shower cap from the hotel in my bag in case there are weird rules about needing a bathing cap
The Proper Way to Visit a German Sauna – Conclusion
Knowing German sauna etiquette should give you a head start on achieving a nude sauna experience that relaxes and renews rather than fills you with fright.
As for the ‘no feet on the floor thing’, personally I’m floored (pun intended), especially as I’ve rarely seen it, but I’m also resigned to the fact that I’ll always be stumped by some aspect of German sauna culture.
On the other hand, keeping the ‘no skin on wood’ rule is an important one to remember (and now that I’ve been publicly humiliated by touching my feet to the bench, it’s a rule that will be forever seared in my brain).
Lesson learned: If you’re sitting on a high bench of a sauna, keep in mind you shouldn’t have your bare feet on the wooden bench below or straying off your towel.
Another sauna lesson learned: A lot of people don’t follow this rule. Break it at your own risk.
As for the Aufguss, the themed infused-sauna led by a Saunameister, it may have as many rights and rituals as an initiation into a secret club, but it’s a fascinating wellness extravaganza and a private club worth joining.
Just make sure to be prepared: Go early. Give yourself time to warm up and relax – at least five minutes early. Bring your towel, leave your flip flops and modesty outside the door, take a big hot breath and enjoy.
What are the Best Saunas in Germany?
This list could go on forever but here are some top contenders:
The Sauna Area of the Caracalla Therme in Baden-Baden
Baden-Baden spas are world class, the hot springs are legendary, and the extensive Sauna Area at Caracalla Therme is a step into a different world. From the artsy vibe at the Blue Space Relaxation Room to the rustic log cabin constructed from kelo pine wood, it’s a fantasyland of all things spa.
Where is Baden-Baden? Baden-Baden is a famous spa town at the edge of the Black Forest, about 90 minutes south of Frankfurt.
Where to stay in Baden-Baden: For true glamour try Brenners Park Hotel & Spa
The Sauna Area of the Thermalbad Aukammtal in Wiesbaden, Germany
The Thermalbad Aukammtal is a thermal water spa with a large separate sauna complex. With both indoor and outdoor saunas, you’ll find plenty of variety, and the central (nude) pool is a good way to relax after a trip to the ice fountain. Highlights include a Crystal Sanarium, Adventure Showers with both tropical and polar settings, and an outdoor Fireplace Sauna.
Where is Wiesbaden?
Wiesbaden is a famous spa city in Hesse with 26 thermal springs just 40 minutes west of Frankfurt by S-Bahn. You can catch a train directly from the Frankfurt Airport.
Where to stay in Wiesbaden: For a top luxury experience try the Nassauer Hof Hotel.
The Baderhaus in Bad Kreuznach
The elegant Baderhaus in Bad Kreuznach is a complex entirely devoted to sauna. Here you’ll find two levels of saunas, with 11 different types of dry saunas and steam baths. There is also a rooftop pool, a central indoor pool and a smaller brine pool. Don’t miss the brine pool (like I did). It’s filled with the curative salty spring water Bad Kreuznach is famous for.
Where is the Bad Kreuznach?
Bad Kreuznach is an hour’s drive west of Frankfurt but about 2 hours by train, requiring a change. It’s directly south of Wiesbaden, about a half hour away.
Where to stay in Bad Kreuznach: The PK Parkhotel Kurhaus is a slightly faded once grand hotel that has a fabulous location and offers free entrance to the Crucenia-Therme Thermal Baths complex (but not to the Baderhaus Sauna).
The Sauna World at Toskana Therme Bad Sulza
The Toskana World Bad Sulza is a hip thermal water spa and was a pioneer of Liquid Sound, the trend of underwater music spas. The separate sauna area has four types of saunas including a Finnish ‘infusion’ sauna with hourly themed events); a samarium with fragrance, light and sound; an inhalation room; and a sauna reading room called the Lektarium (a new sauna term for all of us!).
Where is Bad Sulza?
Bad Sulza is a spa and wine town in Thuringia, about 3 hours northeast of Frankfurt.
Where to stay in Bad Sulza: The attached Hotel an der Therme Haus offers free entrance to the Toskana Therme
Note: Toskana Therme has since expanded to include thermal baths in Bad Orb and Bad Schandau.
Berlin Sauna – the Liquidrom
In Berlin you can try the Liquidrom, a spa with four nude saunas: a Finnish Sauna, Steam Bath, Kelo Herbal Sauna and Himalayan Salt Sauna. You’ll also find a varied list of scheduled infusions.
Where is the Liquidrom Berlin?
This urban spa is on the west side of the historic Potsdamer Platz.
Where to stay in Berlin: The 5-star Rocco Forte Hotel de Rome on Bebelplatz Square has a luxury spa and gets good reviews.
Read more: While I love German saunas, I have to hand it to the alpine town of Leukerbad Switzerland for giving me the most memorable Aufguss experience ever.