As Americans, when we hear the word “sauna” we generally think of those small, wooden rooms attached to the locker room of our local gym, with barely enough space to fit three of your closest friends, and where a swimsuit and a towel are required. I don’t know about anyone else, but saunas in the States generally cultivate feelings of claustrophobia and are reminiscent of fish markets and fraternity bathrooms. I tend to avoid them at all costs.
German saunas, on the other hand, are an entirely different experience. If you are planning on visiting Germany or studying in Germany for an extended period of time, I suggest spending an afternoon at a German sauna. Saunas in Germany (at least the different saunas I visited) were amazing, elaborate, sweat-inducing luxury palaces. Most will include a variety of sauna-related experiences, ranging from rooms upwards of 90 degrees Celsius, where you sit around sweating so much you can barely breathe while a giant mammoth of a man waves a steaming wet, hot towel at you, to mineral pools where you can relax naked, to rooms that are a comfortable 45 degrees Celsius playing trance music with different lighting themes. Saunas are not difficult to find, and in fact, most major cities have an abundance of them. If you are ambitious enough to throw your inhibitions to the wind and let loose your inner-German, there are a few things you should know before you go:
- BRING YOUR OWN TOWEL AND ROBE. Just trust me on this. In fact, maybe bring 2 or 3 towels.
- BE PREPARED TO SEE NAKED PEOPLE. All you will see, the entire time you are in a sauna, are naked people. Sweaty, naked people. If your sauna happens to have a bar and a food station, you’ll probably see naked people drinking beer and eating bratwurst. If you decide to partake in food, watch out for foods that tend to leave crumbs. You don’t want to know where those crumbs could end up. Once, I sat down to enjoy a beer at a table (mostly for liquid courage) and was joined by two naked men in their 40’s and a naked older woman in her 70’s. They enjoyed beers with me, and we had a lovely conversation about language barriers. I wish there had been some form of barrier between us. Which brings me to my next point–
- DON’T STARE. I can’t emphasize this point enough. Germans are, how would we say, more developed when it comes to things like being naked in a group of people. And saunas are the one place where you can bare all—literally. You are going to see different people of all shapes, sizes, and ages, and you are going to want to stare. No, really. You’ll try to look at things like the ceiling or the fountain or the strange pattern on the wall, but inevitably, your eyes are going to wander down and you’ll be greeted by the lack of German modesty. My first few visits to the sauna, I was a gawker. A hard-core gawker. And I was called out. More aptly put, I was called “pervers.” I think the Germans thought I was going simply to stare at naked people. I promise, though, I wasn’t! 28 years of American prudish upbringing is hard to conceal when you’re surrounded by a lot of men sweating in the buff. Try blinking excessively.
- JOIN IN ON THE FUN. If you’re not used to parading around your home naked all the time, being in a German sauna is going to be difficult…at first. You will awkwardly adjust your towel or robe to cover your most intimate parts, and you’ll walk out of the locker room feeling exposed and vulnerable. And then you’ll look around and notice you are the ONLY person with any clothes on (with the exception of any other tourist that may be visiting the sauna). Which makes you stand out like a sore thumb. I had some guy come up to me and ask me if I was American because I refused to take my towel off. If the humiliation of being the only one too modest to drop your robe and experience the freedom of being naked is not enough, sitting in one of the sauna rooms creeping upwards of 180 degrees F. will do the trick. Just try sitting in a robe in one of those rooms; I can personally guarantee it is not possible. If the sweat blinding your eyeballs is not enough, the hallucinations from heat stroke will be.
- MEET NEW PEOPLE. You know what’s going to make that next job interview a snap? The fact that you get to wear clothes. If you can strike up a conversation with someone while you’re both completely naked, you can strike up a conversation with anyone anywhere anytime. But don’t be the creeper who hits on people in the sauna. There’s a fine line between a friendly conversation and being THAT person.
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