A beginner’s guide to saunas in Austria, Switzerland, Germany and German-speaking Italy


If you’re planning a walking holiday in Austria, Switzerland, Germany or the Dolomites then chances are that you will come across at least one sauna - probably several! But what exactly do you do in a continental sauna and what not? Read on to find out more...

Saunas have been an integral part of life in these parts of Europe for many years and are widely regarded as a holistic treatment with benefits for body and mind alike. They are also the perfect way to unwind after a day of hiking and exploring.

To the locals, saunas are as much a part of daily life as taking a shower or drinking a coffee.  However, if you’re from a country which doesn’t embrace ‘sauna culture’ to quite the same degree, the idea of de-robing and stepping into a hot cabin (possibly with a bunch of strangers) might seem a little daunting. The information below has been compiled to help you understand why saunas are so beneficial – and to ensure you feel fully comfortable with using them.

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How do saunas work?

To use a sauna, you simply disrobe and sit or recline, in temperatures ranging between 70 °C (158 °F) and 100 °C (212 °F).  The dry heat of the sauna promotes sweating, which has great health benefits for the immune system and skin, and it induces feelings of relaxation and wellbeing.

You will usually find a poster or information board up in sauna areas explaining precisely what you need to do – although it is all very straightforward.

In larger saunas, you may find a certain time displayed outside the sauna. This is the time for the ‘Aufguss’. During Aufguss, water is mixed with essential oils and poured onto the glowing coals of the sauna by a sauna attendant – and as a result, the heat shoots up drastically for a few minutes. Try not to go in or out of the sauna during these moments and keep the door closed (obviously if you can’t stand the heat any longer, then you are free to leave!).

People generally take up to three sauna sessions in one visit, lasting anything from 5 to 20 minutes each. The timing really depends on your personal preference. The ‘rest periods’ in between should  last at least as long as the previous sauna session; 20 to 30 minutes is recommended. A complete sauna visit takes two to three hours.

Newcomers: Initially eight to ten minute sessions on the middle bench, at 60 to 70 degrees, will be sufficient.

Most of the public saunas which you will encounter in Germany, Austria and Switzerland will be mixed gender.

What to wear/bring

The one golden rule, which may surprise some, is that you do not wear swimwear in a sauna. You must remove all of your clothing; in fact this is compulsory in most parts of Europe. If you don’t, then the locals may ask you to leave, as it is viewed as unhygienic to wear clothing. For many, this is the biggest hurdle to overcome, culturally – but remember that saunas are second nature for the locals and you will only draw attention to yourself if you attempt to wear your swimwear!

  • You must also remember to remove any metal jewellery before entering the sauna, as it gets very hot and could burn your skin.

  • Bring a couple of towels along, at least one for drying yourself after showers and a large one for sitting on.

  • Do also bring a bathrobe; there are plenty of hooks about to hang them on. The larger public saunas normally have some type of café or snack bar serving light meals and drinks after sauna rounds – and this is where a robe will come in very handy.

  • Suitable footwear (such as flip flops) will also come in useful for wearing in between sauna sessions (just make sure you leave them outside the sauna door before you enter!).

Sauna Etiquette

Aside from the most important rule of de-robing before entering, there are a few other things you need to be aware of.

  • When you go into the sauna room itself, you must open and close the door quickly. If you are too hesitant, you may hear a cry of ‘Tür zu’ (close the door). It is important that the heat is retained within the sauna.

  • Saunas are havens for relaxation, so loud conversation is a no-no.

  • You must always shower before each sauna session. Towel dry your body thoroughly before entering the sauna.

  • You must always sit on a towel.

Other Top Tips

Drink Intake – If you drink during and between sauna sessions, you disturb the secretion process, as your perspiration will be extracted directly from the gastro-intestinal tract instead of the body tissues. However, after your final sauna session of the day, you should drink plenty of water, isotonic drink or fruit juice. Alcohol is a no-no.

Fresh Air – Your body will require plenty of oxygen between each sauna session. A short walk in fresh air will revitalise your respiratory system. All large, public saunas will have outside areas where you can take a break. 

Footbath – A warm footbath in between your sauna sessions can help with the perspiration process.

Don’t go to the sauna if….you have a full stomach or cold feet. Or if you are overly tired. This all puts too much strain on the body.

Who can use saunas?

Adults of all ages use public saunas. Children under 16 are usually not permitted to use one – if in doubt, do check the age limit before entering.

Pregnancy: The advice with regard to pregnant women and saunas varies from country to country. While women who are in an established pregnancy in Austria, Switzerland, Germany and Italy can use saunas if they are used to them, in the UK and Ireland, for example, the government does not sanction the use of saunas, steam rooms or jacuzzis during any stage of pregnancy.

Medical Conditions: People with severe cardiac problems must seek medical advice before using a sauna. Anyone with acute fevers, inflammations, lung diseases or phlebitis should not use saunas. However, there are a number of medical conditions which can benefit from sauna use, including asthma, rheumatism, arthritis and back/spinal complaints. If in doubt talk to your doctor!

Benefits

Saunas have numerous benefits for both mind and body. Here is a summary of some of the main reasons why they are so popular in parts of continental Europe.

Physical benefits

Raising your body’s temperature in the sauna increases the production of white blood cells and cytokine, substances that assists the body’s immune system. Cold and flu viruses therefore don’t stand much of a chance with sauna enthusiasts.

Saunas stimulate the heart and circulatory system (in much the way that exercise does – but without the effort!).

The switching between heat and cold in sauna use helps make your body more efficient at regulating itself against changes in weather and other temperature fluctuations.

Sweating is also great for your health. If an adult takes in three sessions in the sauna, he produces up to 1.5 litres of sweat and therefore excretes a number of toxins, including caffeine, alcohol and metabolic deposits. Naturally, this does mean that some other important minerals are also lost. Drinking fruit juice or mineral water, however, directly after the sauna, will quickly restore the imbalance.

The chill factor

Heat helps the body to produce more endorphins, the so-called “feel-good hormone”. Particularly during the winter, when a lot of people fight against depression and inertia, a visit to the sauna can give your soul a real boost.

Your skin will thank you

Saunas can also be a fantastic natural cosmetic. The dry heat opens the pores of the skin and helps to shed impurities and dead skin cells. Sauna users often comment that their skin has a ‘glow’ about it – and dermatologists believe that regular visits to the sauna can even slow down the skin’s ageing process.

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