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CULTURE

The truth laid bare: What you need to know about Germany’s sauna culture

Germans love nothing more than enjoying a hot sauna during the colder months, but it can be a genuine culture shock for those who aren’t used to it. Here's how to embrace (and prepare) for it.

The truth laid bare: What you need to know about Germany’s sauna culture
Are you ready for the German sauna experience? Photo: DPA

Germans are very particular when it comes to spa etiquette. It can take some practice to adapt to all the rules and many of us learn the hard way, often being scolded by Germans for getting something wrong. 

Here are some of the written and unwritten rules, and background on wellness culture in Germany.

What is a spa in Germany?

There are lots of different kinds, but the leisure-focused day spas are known as thermal baths or Therme. They exist as a complex on their own, or are sometimes added on to public swimming pools. 

The spa areas are little zones of relaxation where guests can come to chill out and enjoy the soothing surroundings.

A spa usually has different saunas, steam rooms, plunge pools and seated areas. Usually there’s a separate section dedicated to spa treatments such as massages or facials.

When do I ditch my swimwear?

Let’s get this out the way quickly, much in the same way you’ll have ditch your trunks or swimsuit when you enter a German sauna for the first time: no clothes are allowed in the saunas and steam baths. 

At the spa you’ll find strictly enforced “textile free” zones and, if you don’t stick to the rules, you’ll have to leave.

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This can be a hard thing to accept for people who don’t come from a place where nudity is the norm. 

I'm from Scotland, and, like other parts of the UK, there isn't the same attitude towards stripping off. If you take your clothes off in public you'd probably be accused of being a pervert.

The British attitude to bare skin differs hugely from the continent. We're not used to seeing naked bodies unless they are highly sexualized in advertisements, music videos or porn.

So “normal” nudity in saunas can make some non-Germans giggle or feel embarrassed.

Photo: DPA

You won’t really find this kind of attitude in saunas in Germany. 

Naked bodies are seen as nothing special in the context of saunas or, for example, when bathing at a lake or in some parks (in the summer of course). 

Remember, Germany is the country of FKK – Freikörperkultur – a movement that translates to free body culture: so there is no shame in being naked.

Why can’t I wear my swimming stuff in a sauna?

Ask most Germans why they think nudity is a strict rule there and they’ll tell you that wearing a swimsuit or trunks is “unhygienic”, and full of bacteria.

A wet swimsuit, sweat and heat don’t mix and all this is, apparently, not good for yourself or the air.  Who knows if being naked is actually more hygienic, but these are the rules that the Germans swear by so we have to follow them if we live here. 

Note that swimsuits are usually worn in other areas of a spa, such as pools. Sometimes it’s optional and you can choose to bathe with nothing on or with a swimsuit/shorts.

Should I bring anything to the sauna?

Yes, it’s good to be prepared. You should bring a towel (or in some places you can borrow one for a small fee). 

Sometimes, when walking around the spa area, people wrap themselves in a towel. In some spas you can also rent a bathrobe for this purpose. 

When you get to the sauna, open the door and close it quickly without letting too much heat out.

Find your spot and then lay your towel onto the slats or bench which you can then sit or lie on.  

None of your skin should touch the bench of a sauna when you’re in it. 

If you are concerned about going naked, you can sit on the sauna wrapped in a towel as long as your skin isn’t touching the wooden slats. If you want to do that, you could also take another towel just to make sure no skin is touching the wood.

But try to keep in mind that no-one is looking at you in the sauna. There are all different kinds of bodies in the sauna. Also remember to be polite and don't stare at anyone else.

You can wear a towel if you're concerned. Photo: DPA

Anything else?

Yes, remember to take flip flops. 

When walking around the spa area it’s good to have a pair of indoor flip flops or pool sliders so your bare feet don’t have to touch the floor, although this isn’t compulsory.

You don’t wear your flip flops in the sauna but you can usually wear them in a steam bath.  

I’ve been swimming. Do I just whip off my swimwear and go to a sauna?

You should find hooks in the spa area which you can hang your swimwear on. You could also take a small bag with water and a book or magazine.

When you’ve finished swimming, you can slip your togs off and then, this is important, take a shower. Not showering before you enter the sauna would be seen as completely unhygienic. 

This also helps prepare your skin, opens pores and relaxes the muscles. 

READ ALSO: A guide to Berlin's secret swimming spots – from the woman who wrote a book on it

Can I hang out at the spa if I'm tired of the sauna?

Most spas have a relaxation area with sun loungers that you can happily spend some time in. Some spa facilities even have restaurants and cafes that you can order food and drinks in.

Many guests will lounge around, leisurely reading a book or magazine before entering the heat again.

Are there any single-sex saunas?

They do exist but on the whole, Germany opts for mixed-gender saunas. Often thermal baths will offer a 'women-only' day.

What else should I be prepared for?

Now and again, the Saunameister (sauna master) will prepare Aufguss or infusions. This is when gorgeous scented oils are added to saunas at specific times listed on a schedule. 

A bell will ring to announce the Aufguss, and the Saunameister will enter to explain what will happen. 

They spread the heat and infusion by flapping a towel. This can make the sauna super hot. Sometimes body scrubs will be handed round. Remember to shower at the end! 

These small ceremonies should not be interrupted so if you miss the start, you’ll need to wait for the next session.

Also be aware that cooling-off is part of the whole experience. 

Spas usually have cold showers, outdoor pools and some even have ice baths.

Wow, the Germans really take this seriously. 

They really do. And it is a lovely part of German relaxation culture when you get used to it. 

German “wellness” and spa culture is even part of the country’s health care system. 

The German equivalent for spa is Heilbad or 'healing bath' or Kurort which literally means 'cure place'. Any town in Germany can qualify and choose to use the prefix 'Bad' or bath before their town name, for example, Bad Sarrow in Brandenburg.

READ ALSO: Undressing at a Berlin sauna wasn't the moment of liberation I'd hoped for

The towns that qualify have met very strict water quality standards and have medical staff and the infrastructure to be able to provide treatment for people.

If your medical insurance covers it, you can request a medical “cure.” (Kur) This can be prescribed in some cases to help a condition (for example stress or insomnia) or to treat a chronic health condition where the patient would benefit from spending time in a healing environment.

This is different to the leisure spas of course, but it's all part of Germany's strong emphasis on wellness.

Great, so I should definitely go to a sauna then?

Yes, you should try it – but be careful which one you go because some saunas may not be what you are expecting. 

Certain places will advertise themselves as 'FKK saunas', but they’re actually more like brothels with prostitutes (which is legal) or sex clubs.

If that’s your thing then fine, but check out the website before going there just to make sure you know what you’re getting into.

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CULTURE

‘Sandals mean freedom’: Eight tips on how to dress like a German

Germans have an international reputation for enjoying functional clothing. A top German fashion expert told The Local whether the stereotypes of German fashion are really true - and what Angela Merkel has to do with modern style.

‘Sandals mean freedom’: Eight tips on how to dress like a German

‘Comfortable and practical’

“It’s pretty easy to define German style,” says Bernhard Roetzel, the author of books on men’s fashion such as ‘Gentleman: A Timeless Guide to Fashion’. “Nowadays the basic dress of a grown-up man is mainly blue jeans, some kind of sweatshirt and an anorak. The shoes are usually comfortable sneakers. This is the basic German fashion that everyone from workers to doctors wears, and it is suitable for 90 percent of occasions.”

The basic theme, he says, is comfort and practicality. “That is very important.”

According to Roetzel, this love for the practical stretches all the way back into the 19th century when most other Europeans still had strict public dress codes.

“It began with a movement called Lebensreform, which valued things like vegetarianism and woollen clothes, which were supposed to be healthy,” he says.

“Even if Germans at the time didn’t like political freedom, they loved the freedom to wear sandals. Freedom for Germans is to wear sandals in places where it is not appropriate!”

A woman lies on the shore of the Schwarzachtalsee in Baden-Württemberg still wearing her sandals. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Thomas Warnack

Dressing down became even more acceptable after the First World War, when Germany became a republic and the aristocracy, with its formal sense of dress, lost its importance. “The Nazis also propagated being active outdoors,” Roetzel notes. “Fashion was seen as something awful created by the French and the Jews to bring about the downfall of German culture.”

When the craze for casual wear crossed the pond from the US in the 1960s, Germans were slow to adopt it. But now jeans are even standard clothing for septuagenarians, he says. “Twenty years after jeans arrived people started to realise that they are great for all occasions – and now everyone wears them. This was the last blow to formal German clothing.”

Dress down for work

The German love for all-purpose clothes means that it is perfectly appropriate to wear jeans to work, according to Roetzel. 

“If you don’t work in a bank or law firm you can probably wear jeans in most offices. A non-iron, short sleeve shirt is also very important. German men love these shirts, despite the fact that you get hot in them.”

You can even wear sneakers in the office. Or, if you have to look a bit smarter “some very cheap, comfortable leather shoes” will make you fit right in.

“In business, it is very important that you don’t stand out,” Roetzel advises. “If you are smartly dressed people will ask if you have an important meeting or will think you are looking for a pay rise. For everyday business, you dress as casually as possible.”

A woman cycles to work in jeans and a simple jacket in Hamburg. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Christin Klose

Nothing too sexy

Meanwhile, women’s workplace style, perhaps even more than men’s, is based on the principle of ‘the more forgettable the better.’

“Women in German business must not look too sexy,” says the fashion writer. “If you wear a skirt, for example, it should not be too short and heels should not be too high.” A “boxy, mouse grey suit” including a jacket that doesn’t complement one’s figure completes the look.

“Whereas in Italy, businesswomen carry Chanel bags, in Germany they usually carry a laptop bag or something very practical. Makeup is also rather reduced, not too much lipstick, nothing that is too obvious,” he says.

No door policy

Ties are basically a redundant piece of apparel in modern Germany, meaning wearing one really is a matter of choice in most settings.

“There are very few places where you are not allowed in if you don’t wear a tie,” says Roetzel. “I don’t know a single restaurant that wouldn’t admit you if you don’t wear a tie. You might not be allowed into Cologne Cathedral if your shorts are too short, but basically, you can wear everything everywhere and Germans love this!”

Funerals and weddings

Even the most formal occasions, such as weddings, funerals and important birthdays are much more informal events than they once were.

“At funerals, people will wear black but they rarely wear a black suit, most people will wear a black sweatshirt and jeans,” says Roetzel.

Copy Merkel

Angela Merkel’s unpretentious style appealed to Germans. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Fabian Sommer

Anyone looking for inspiration need look no further than recently retired German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who famously wore variations on the same trouser suit for most of her career.

“She had different colours and fabrics but that was her uniform and she also found her hairstyle and that was it. I don’t think she had a stylist,” Roetzel says. “That’s what Germans love. It’s recognizable and it doesn’t look expensive.”

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“In Germany, one thing you should never admit to is wearing expensive, tailor-made clothes,” he explains. “As a politician, you can admit that you like drinking but you should never admit to having an expensive wardrobe.”

In fact, the cheaper the better. “Olaf Scholz has always earned a lot of money but his clothes are awful, his suits are awful – this is just perfect for Germany,” says Roetzel.

Splash the cash subtly (or on outdoor clothes)

This is not to say that all Germans wear cheap clothes, but they don’t make a big fuss about the brands that they do wear.

“People want to express status by wearing certain brands,” Roetzel points out. “But in Germany, this is done in a very subtle way. You will see small details in the clothes and glasses of a professor or doctor that will tell you a lot. Class exists but people hide their status because it is negative to show it off. This can be hard for foreigners to detect.”

There is one major exemption thought to the rule of not flaunting your wealth – outdoor apparel.

“Outdoor clothes are really a big thing here,” Roetzel says. “It gives people a sense of freedom and healthiness. Spending €800 on an outdoor jacket is perfectly okay. But it is a sin to spend the same amount on a tailor-made suit – you will destroy your image if you admit to doing this.”

Moreover, anyone who wants to impress Germans through their possessions would be better advised to buy a good car or modern kitchen, the fashion expert says. “It is perfectly normal to have a very expensive kitchen, but your clothes should still be cheap.”

Focus on inner beauty

The German (dis)interest in fashion can actually tell us a lot about deeper German values.

“There is an old Prussian saying of mehr sein als schein (content is better than appearance). Germans feel that if something is too beautiful there must be something fishy about it. Anyone who is too smartly dressed could be a conman,” says Roetzel.

“Germans are very honest, they like to be very direct. They say “what’s the point in not wearing sandals if it’s hot?’”

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