Stuart Forster bares all about the experience of going naked at a sauna in Germany and recommends some of his favourite German saunas.
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“You have to take your trunks off if you’re going to stay in here,” said the naked woman sitting next to me at the sauna in Munich’s Nordbad.
I was hesitant in my response. As an Englishman visiting Munich, I’d assumed – seemingly falsely – that the baring all aspect of a German sauna was optional. Secondly, she was speaking German and I was visiting the city to improve my language skills. I was learning the way that people speak in Bavaria is markedly different to Hochdeutsch, the type of German I was learning in night classes.
What if I was misinterpreting what she was saying? Whipping off my trunks would surely appear a tad bizarre, perhaps offensive.
An Aufguss in a German sauna
Like a super-heated mini-theatre with wooden benches, the Finnish sauna was packed with people waiting for the hourly Aufguss. The Saunameister was about to enter and waft around a towel after pouring pine-scented water over the heated stones at the front of the sauna.
As I’d learn, enduring the ritual of an Aufguss is the high point of any sauna visit. Facing the Saunameister and taking two or three blasts of expertly directed hot air from a swinging towel certainly gets the perspiration flowing.
I find them invigorating though they require tolerance to heat. Staying until after the Aufguss concludes is essential. Leaving during the Aufguss means opening the door and letting heat escape – it’s simply bad form and should be avoided.
Visiting a German naked sauna
People had mentioned that German sauna culture involved getting your kit off.
Naïvely, I’d imagined that there’d probably be a nude sauna, for those who were into that sort of thing, plus an area where people continued to wear their swimming costumes. The part with swimwear would be where I’d spent my time. I’d searched but that bit didn’t exist.
I was on a weeklong visit to Bavaria and immersing myself in as many authentic German experiences as possible. I’d had my breakfast of Weisswurst, Brezn und Weissbier (white sausage, pretzel and wheat beer); headed to the stadium to watch an FC Bayern football match and chatted with people in the Taxisgarten, one of Munich’s many beer gardens.
A naturist spa visit?
I’d read a tiny bit about Germany’s Freikörperkultur – the ‘free body culture’ widely known by its FKK acronym – by which people embrace the freedom of going without clothes.
Naturism – formerly referred to as nudism – is permitted in a section of the Englischer Garten, Munich’s answer to New York’s Central Park. Earlier in the week I almost crashed my hire bicycle after unexpectedly seeing a naked man deftly jumping while playing with a Frisbee as I cycled through the park.
In relevant contexts, mixed-gender nudity is embraced and natural. It was certainly being practised in the mixed sauna that I was sitting in. However, I didn’t feel ready to participate. Having been brought up in Britain, where a less liberal attitude towards nudity tends to prevail, it somehow felt wrong, shameful even, to participate.
Overcoming reluctance to strip off
“Are you going to stay or not?” asked the woman.
Others sauna participants were glancing uncomfortably in my direction, clearly disapproving of me wearing swimming trunks and the fact I wasn’t adhering to sauna etiquette.
“So, I need to undress if I want to stay?” I asked uncertainly. People nodded. “Yes,” answered the woman whose remarks were helping me learn about German sauna culture.
Reluctantly, I felt compelled to remove my trunks. I suppose I could have left the sauna but why? Ultimately, what was there to be uncomfortable about?
“We don’t normally do this in England,” I said to mask my embarrassment as I undressed.
The sauna-goers found that comment hilarious. They were still laughing as the Saunameister entered the sauna with his wooden bucket, wood ladle and a towel over his shoulder.
For me, it was an uncomfortable moment during my first visit to a German sauna. However, it ensured that I’d never again feel uncomfortable removing my trunks in a sauna where people expect others to go textile free.
Embracing sauna etiquette and German culture
I subsequently moved to Germany and became fluent in German. Sauna visits became part of my lifestyle and integrated into my relaxation rituals. It didn’t take long before I wondered why I ever felt self-conscious or associated being naked with feeling vulnerable or shame.
Yes, people of all shapes, sizes and ages are naked but there’s nothing voyeuristic about the experience. Over time I even came to regard being naked in the sauna much more natural than wearing swimming trunks; doing so results in me getting a heat rash on my thighs.
I recall feeling uncomfortable when a group of English-speaking tourists entered a sauna still wearing their bathing costumes. They were joking immaturely about being in a German naked sauna. They were there not to experience a sauna in Germany but to gawp at the nude sauna culture.
If you have the right mindset and are willing to embrace the experience of spending time in a textile-free zone, visiting a sauna in Germany is a tremendous experience. There’s nothing to be embarrassed about. It feels natural and is simultaneously invigorating and relaxing.
Why not head to a sauna the next time you visit Germany?
Tips for experiencing German sauna culture
Hopefully knowing some of the do’s and don’ts help you enjoy a visit to one of Germany’s saunas.
To make the most out of a sauna visit in Germany bear in mind the following:
- It’s an experience to enjoy and all about relaxation. Don’t hurry the sauna visit. Set aside at least four hours for the experience of visiting.
- Take a towel to sit or lie on plus a towel to dry yourself.
- Don’t sit directly on the wood in the sauna; sit or lie on your towel.
- Don’t sit on your towel in the steam room. Steam rooms tend to feature a hose for you to douse the bench before and after your stay.
- Having a bathrobe can be handy but isn’t essential. Wrapping yourself in a towel between visits to heated rooms is also an effective option.
- Despite everything that I’ve written previously, remember to pack your swimming costume as you’ll need it if you want a swim. Several municipal swimming pools in Germany feature wellness areas that are accessible for an additional fee. (Some are better than the saunas and steam rooms I’ve spent time in at British day spas.)
- Take a pair of sliders or slip-flops to wear on your feet between visits to the sauna or steam room. It’s common to leave footwear outside of those rooms.
- Spend up to 15 minutes in the sauna or steam room then shower to cool down. Taking a dip in a plunge pool or a cold shower is invigorating and worth doing if you can stand the chilly temperature of the water.
- Rehydrate by drinking plenty of water after sweating in the sauna.
- Check accessibility before visiting the sauna. Some saunas hold women-only or men-only sessions in addition to mixed days.
10 top saunas and spas in Germany
I was based in Munich, where the municipal swimming pools have quality saunas. I rate them among the best saunas in Germany.
As an experience, it’s well worth visiting Munich’s Art Nouveau Müller’sches Volksbad. The sauna area is influenced by Roman baths and is relaxing to spend time in.
The Dantebad features outdoor swimming pools. The sauna has in- and outdoor areas. If you’re visiting Munich you can combine it with visiting the nearby Olympiapark.
I also enjoyed spending time at the Nordbad and Westbad.
Like the idea of a spa day while in Germany? Head to Therme Erding, the world’s largest spa.
Stuttgart also has some outstanding municipal swimming baths and saunas, including Das Leuze. The multifaceted SchwabenQuellen has themed areas, including a Canadian-style blockhouse sauna and a Tibetan-inspired meditation sauna.
Spas and the social life around lengthy ‘cures’ were key to the development and the continuing popularity of Baden-Baden. The spacious modern Caracalla Therme and Roman-Irish style Friedrichsbad, built in the late-nineteenth century, offer contrasting insights into Germany’s spa culture.
Wiesbaden is another of Germany’s great spa towns. The historic Kaiser-Friedrich-Therme is well worth a visit.
Getting to Germany
The Google map below shows Germany. Zoom into the map for greater details:
Hotels in Germany
Looking for accommodation in Germany? Search for hotels via Booking.com:
Books about Germany
Planning a trip to Germany? You can buy the following books from Amazon by clicking on the links or cover photos:
Why the Germans Do it Better: Notes from a Grown-Up Country by John Kampfner:
Elsewhere on Go Eat Do you can find a post about things to do in Munich beyond the Oktoberfest.
Stuart Forster speaks fluent German and was shortlisted for the Germany Travel Writer of the Year award back in 2010. He is available for commissions by newspapers, magazines and online publications.
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A version of this post was initially published on Go Eat Do on 17 October 2020.