When I moved to Berlin in the cold, gray winter some years back, one of the first things my German boyfriend suggested we do was go to a sauna. What he failed to mention, however, was how, in the Vaterland, it’s normal to sauna buck naked.
Donning a bathing suit -- or even a towel -- is not only a major faux pas; in some local spas, it’s even verboten. And although it was awkward and uncomfortable at first, I now think that going into a public sauna naked is a relaxing, culturally interesting experience that everyone in Berlin should try at least once. Here’s what you need to know:
The (bare) nuts and bolts
First off, being naked in public in Germany is no big deal. It was definitely a culture shock for me at first, but since then, I’ve seen enough nudists sunbathing in parks, and guys in Berghain wearing only sneakers and tube socks, that I must say -- in Berlin, you can’t survive as a prude for very long. In Germany, Freikörperkultur (FKK), or as we know it, nudism, is a national treasure, kind of like beer and lederhosen. Letting it all hang out isn’t sexual, and it certainly is nothing to be ashamed of. And when it comes to saunas, the German logic is that being naked is healthier. Clothes or towels can block toxins and bacteria from leaving the body, not to mention make you overheat.
Don't forget to bring a towel!
At some spas, it’s typical to lounge around in a robe and just get naked before stepping into the sauna. But there are also lots that have unisex change rooms, and you’ll even see people merrily exposed in pools and Jacuzzis. But if I’ve learned anything from my experience, it’s that the people you end up seeing naked aren’t usually the people you want to see naked, if you catch my drift. Seriously, the ratio is like 20:1. There’s no need to worry about being self-conscious or even aroused -- there’ll be enough saggy bits, bushes, and beer bellies to take care of that.
Never violate the unspoken etiquette laws
The sauna is a sacred space with a few unstated rules (and if there’s anything ze Germans are passionate about, it’s following conduct). Before getting in, you should always take a shower. Otherwise, you might get a scolding by the Saunameister (the spa employee who’s in charge of making sure everybody gets a good sweat). It’s also super-important to bring two towels, one for sitting on inside and another for drying up afterwards. Your dripping sweat will not be appreciated anywhere but on said towel; otherwise, brace yourself for angry looks. Last but not least, the sauna is traditionally a quiet zone -- talking is allowed, but usually nobody does it (and in such a space, it can also get pretty annoying anyway). So be a dear and save the tale of your last Tinder date for later, OK?
Know when to go to avoid the masses
If you hate crowds, you’ll want to hit the sauna outside of peak hours like evenings and weekends. Otherwise, you could find yourself closely surrounded by more German sausage than you may feel comfortable with. Throughout the day, saunas also get especially packed during Aufguss, which is when the Saunameister brings out scented oils that are released into the hot air. It can be very refreshing -- but understandably less so when everybody’s all sweaty and shoulder-to-shoulder.
Where to do it
Berlin’s got plenty of options for quality sauna time. Liquidrom is a trendy and popular spa in Kreuzberg, where staff are always on hand to explain the health benefits of saunas, and perform rituals like water casting (swinging a towel to move the steam around inside). Throughout the day, employees also give out free goodies like salt and honey to rub on your body. Check the schedule here. Another Berliner institution for sweating is the Stadtbad Neukölln, a Neo-Classical bathhouse built in 1912. It offers a traditional sauna experience, but also lower-temperature options that are perfect for newbies. If you go on a Saturday or Sunday evening, you can even go for a candlelit, FKK-approved naked swim. But if all that didn’t leave you blushing anywhere, then you’re ready to go to the next level -- the all-day, naked spa getaway. The Kristall-Saunatherme in Ludwigsfelde, around a half-hour train ride from the city, is about as close as a spa can get to a naturist colony. People eat, swim, and sauna all day long in the nude. Don’t forget your flip-flops. And your towels.