Saunas are a popular winter pasttime in northern Europe. The steam and heat are the perfect antidote to the darkness and the cold, which sap your energy and leave you tense and shivering all the time. Though many of my friends spoke fondly of their sauna experiences, I had somehow never been invited to one, and I was too nervous to go on my own. But when a dear friend from the U.S., Kel, came to visit me in Hamburg in November, it was the perfect opportunity to try.
A visit from a friend
Kel is one of my closest friends from my undergraduate years. We worked on the student newspaper together, drank lots of wine on her living room floor, and talked incessantly about politics and boys. She’s one of the few friends from the States that I still keep in close contact with, so when she was able to take a week off work in order to visit me, I was absolutely delighted.
November is one of the dreariest times of year in Hamburg. The last chances for a sunny fall day have slipped away, and the Christmas markets aren’t open yet. The harbor is gray and dreary, and between the cold, the wet, and the wind, it’s overall a pretty miserable time to be outside. So when Kel’s visit landed in late November, I was hard-pressed to think of good indoor activities to share during her time here. The sauna was a natural choice.
Overall, it turned into a relaxing stay-cation, with lots of sleeping in late, cooking together, and of course, my first sauna experience.
German sauna culture
German saunas are mixed-gender, and notoriously textile-free. Kel wasn’t comfortable with mixed-gender nudity, and I’d heard stories from my friends of sauna visits soured by the sight of naked, elderly guests, to whom gravity had not been kind, so we chose to go on a women-only day.
Art Deco architecture and a historical swimming pool
I chose the sauna at Holthusenbad, an enormous turn-of-the-century swimming hall and sauna designed in a beautiful Art Deco style. Located in the posh neighborhood of Eppendorf right next to the U-Bahn station Kellinghusenstraße, I’d seen it from the outside many times, but never been in. We wanted to get the full wellness experience, so we booked massages as well.
Arriving at the sauna
When we arrived, I was nervous. I had never been to a sauna before, never gotten a massage before, and I wasn’t familiar with the location. I kindly explained to the receptionist that it was our first time there and we didn’t know our way around or how it worked. I was hoping for some sort of tour, or at least detailed instructions on where we needed to go. Instead, he just handed us our wristbands and pointed us in the direction of the massage area.
We wound up in a balcony area overlooking the swimming pool, with a long row of changing rooms. It didn’t look like a sauna to me. We couldn’t figure out how to get the doorto the changing room closed, so I had to dash back down and ask the receptionist how it worked – it turns out our wristbands were the key. We stripped down and wrapped ourselves in our towels.
My first massage
Faux pas #1: Showing up to the massages naked
When we got to the massage parlor, it had only just opened for the day. A friendly, older German woman with a kind demeanor greeted us. She didn’t speak any English. She directed Kel to the waiting room and brought me into the massage room. She left the room for a minute to allow me to undress, which didn’t take long as I was only wearing a towel. That’s when I realized I should have been wearing clothes when I arrived.
I lay flat on my stomach on a cushy massage table, which was covered in towels. The masseuse asked what we were going to do today, and I explained that it was my first professional massage and didn’t know what to expect. She suggested she start out gently, and I could tell her if it was too hard or too soft.
She oiled up her hands and began the massage, starting on my calves and legs and working her way up to my thighs, my arms, and lastly, my back and shoulders. There was a little towel laid over my backside, which she moved around as she massaged my thighs and my glutes. I was a bit surprised how thorough the massage was, as she really dug into my glutes – read: my buttcheeks – but she stayed clear of more sensitive areas, so I never felt uncomfortable.
When it was over, I thanked her kindly and went out to switch places with Kel in the waiting room. There was a dimly-lit area with lounge chairs and blankets, and magazines for light reading. I skimmed some German fitness magazines while Kel got her massage, and wrapped the blanket over my towel, feeling very uncomfortable and stupid for being naked in the waiting room, and also from the massage oil, which had made my back all greasy.
Trying to find the sauna in the Holthusenbad
When Kel returned, we went looking for the sauna, and found a not-very-welcoming door in the hallway with a sign marked “Sauna.” A swipe of our wristbands got the door to unlock, and we found ourselves in another balcony-pool area, but this time there were different thermal suites hidden behind the rows of little doors instead of changing areas. We had found the sauna at last.
Below us, swimming pool guests splashed around and children played, which was not very relaxing as 1) they were loud 2) they were mixed-gender and 3) we were clothed only in short towels. It seemed like an odd design choice.
Shower shoes recommended
Faux pas #2: Not bringing appropriate footwear
Everyone else in the sauna seemed to have brought their own sandals, but we had none and had to go barefoot. Many women had also brought bathrobes, and would wear them when walking between saunas. Good to know for the next time!
So many saunas
Each sauna had a sign on it explaining the temperature and the humidity level. Most were pleasantly warm without being too hot. Each was designed a different way, with colorful tiles and rustic decorations giving everything a luxurious feel.
We wandered into one steam sauna with 100% humidity and stayed for about 15 seconds, as the sheer amount of water in the air made it difficult to breathe.
We also found a eucalyptis sauna with a pleasant smell and a mysterious, color-changing orb at the far end of the room.
There were showers next to each sauna, and you could control whether you wanted the water to be cold or hot. I took advantage of the opportunity to rinse the massage oil off my body.
The best way to spend a Monday
As we were both on holiday, we had the luxury of going on a weekday – a Monday around noon, to be exact. This was not only slightly cheaper than going on a weekend (€19 instead of €20.50), it was also less busy. We never had to wait to go into a sauna, and we had several saunas to ourselves. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of the other guests were senior citizens – retirees who had the time to go to a sauna on a Monday afternoon, elderly women with health ailments that were soothed by the temperature therapy, and people with extremely good health insurance that partially subsidized their sauna visits. If you have the opportunity to go on a weekday, I would recommend it!
We wandered into another area and found an ice fountain, more showers, and a wall of cubbyholes. Here we found more saunas, including a 100-degree-Celsius “Glasshütte” (glass house), which was so hot it burned your nostrils and your feet as you walked in.
Faux pas #3: using a pillow as a footrest
This particular sauna had small wooden palettes of uncertain purpose laying around it.
“I wonder what these are for,” Kel said, before promptly appropriating one to use as a footrest. “Haha, wouldn’t it be funny if these are actually for your head or something, and I’m putting my grimy feet on it?”
As it turns out, she was right – in another sauna later, we saw another woman lay down on the bench and place the wooden palette under her head, like a pillow. Oops.
Feeling the breeze
Across from the “glass house” was a small outdoor area with wooden lounge chairs and a shallow plunge pool. The area was high-walled and hidden from street view, so we had no qualms about privacy, and it felt good to expose our skin to the cold winter air. Unfortunately, a skyscraper was under construction nearby, so once that building is complete, this outdoor area will no longer be so private.
Taking the plunge
We both tried going into the plunge pool, but it was so icy that after a few seconds, our limbs started to ache. I felt uncomfortably warm from the sauna, and now the fact that my lower body was cold and my upper body was warm wasn’t very comfortable. We cooled off in the cold air and went back inside to warm up.
After the second time we visited the ultra-hot sauna and came back outside, I really wanted to try the plunge pool. I told Kel: “I’m going to do it. I’m going to jump in.”
Leaving my towel on the lounger behind, I scampered up the steps and, without thinking too much, walked quickly down into the little pool. It wasn’t very deep, so I plugged my nose, closed my eyes, and dunked my head underwater for just one moment, before quickly climbing back out. It felt amazing! Though the cold was a shock to my skin, my core temperature was so warm from the sauna, after the quick plunge I didn’t feel chilled at all. The water evaporated from my skin as my body temperature returned to normal. Kel followed suit and did the same.
The hunt for the hidden bistro
Both of us were getting hungry, and we’d seen a sign for a bistro pointing towards a glass door with a staircase descending behind it – well into the textile-free part of the sauna. We debated what we were supposed to do. It seemed incomprehensible to us that there could be an establishment that served food that one was allowed to visit naked, so we decided the best course of action was to put our clothes back on and try to go in. But to cross the textile-free sauna area in order to get to the clothing-mandatory food area?
We decided to just do it quickly and avoid looking at anyone. Feeling more uncomfortable than ever fully-clothed, we quickly walked back into the sauna and made a beeline for the bistro.
Almost immediately, an older German woman shouted at us. I, who had been half-expecting this to happen, was mortified and stopped immediately. Kel, not understanding German, kept walking, and was halfway around the corner and I had to shout at her to come back. Humiliated, I quickly explained to the German woman that we were there for the first time, and didn’t know how things worked, and tried to get her to explain to us what we WERE supposed to do, instead of shouting at us for what we WEREN’T supposed to do. It turns out that, besides being a textile-free area, street shoes were also not allowed in the sauna.
Faux pas #4: going into the sauna area with shoes (and clothes) on
No shoes, no shirt, no problem
The woman quickly lead us to the door and explained that the bistro was outside the sauna, that you had to go back down to the lobby, past the reception, and there it was on your way out. So we tried to do this, but the turnstile was locked, and we couldn’t get out. A very stern-looking receptionist said, “Where do you think you’re going with those wristbands?”
Faux pas #5: trying to leave the sauna with our wristbands still on
I was absolutely excruciatingly embarrassed and just wanted to understand how things worked. After a lengthy, if impatient, conversation with the receptionist, I learned that there were two bistros: one outside the lobby, which you were to only visit once you had paid and returned your wristband and were on your way out, and one for the sauna guests, which – amazingly – was to be visited naked.
We decided that we weren’t done sauna-ing for the day yet, and went back upstairs to disrobe again. This time we took the other entrance and, amazingly, walked through an entire changing area with wristband-activated lockers that we had completely missed before. I couldn’t believe that the first receptionist had sent us in the other direction – had we gone through the correct entrance from the get-go, it would have been obvious where we were supposed to change our clothes and put our things, and we wouldn’t have been faffing about in the pool area. There was even an area with mirrors and hair dryers where you could remove your makeup and fix your hair on your way back out.
This time we put our belongings in the correct, sauna-guest-only lockers and didn’t have to walk through the pool area. Newly naked again, we went through the glass door and down the stairs – and discovered a whole other area of the sauna.
A whole new world: the downstairs of the Holthusenbad sauna
There were more saunas, relaxation rooms, and another outdoor area with a plunge pool. I couldn’t believe we’d missed it before. There were also cubbyholes where people were putting their bathrobes, paperbacks, and other small items they brought with them.
We found the bistro, where a sour-looking young woman took our order, and had the most strange experience of trying to look halfway-dignified while eating naked, our towels constantly threatening to slip down. We paid using our wristbands.
Can’t we order something from the spa menu?
The menu was decidedly non-sauna-like, with sausages, French fries, baked potatoes, and schnitzel occuppying prominent places on the menu, and salad added rather as an afterthought. It wasn’t the greatest food, but we were very hungry, and it was convenient.
After our meal, we took one last visit to our favorite eucalyptus room to dry our hair and warm back up, then put our clothes back on and said goodbye. We paid our balance and head out.
Despite the stressful and embarrassing situations we had run into, I found myself feeling very calm, relaxed, and somehow at peace for the rest of the day. I carried this inner calm with me into the evening and slept very well that night. The only thing missing from my wellness experience, I thought, was some sort of exercise – it would have felt good to do yoga, for example, in one of the relaxation rooms afterwards, though I’m not sure that’s allowed. Overall, I learned a lot, and I think my next sauna visit will be even more relaxing now that I know more of what to do.
Advice for first-time sauna-goers
So what did I learn? Here’s my advice for first-time German sauna-goers, based on my experience at Holthusenbad in Hamburg. If you don’t have the luxury of going with someone who’s been to that particular sauna before, I recommend you:
- Check the schedule online to see if it’s a women’s day or a mixed-gender day
- Bring your own towel
- Bring your own bathrobe
- Bring a pair of flip-flops or sandals that you’ve never worn outdoors
- If you’re going alone, bring a cheap paperback to read in the relaxation areas
- If you’re going together with a friend, be mindful of how loud you talk, so as not to disturb the other sauna guests
- Demand that the receptionist give you a full tour or at least a detailed explanation of the layout of the place. Ask about the entrance, exit, changing areas, bathrooms, gastronomical offerings (if any), and which areas are clothing-required and which areas are textile-free. Don’t leave the lobby until you’re satisfied with the answers you’ve got.
- Ask the other sauna guests questions if there’s something you don’t understand
- Don’t put your feet on the wooden pillows
I hope you can learn from my mistakes, and enjoy… happy sauna-ing!