Americans may have mastered the art of the five-minute shower, but across the globe, centuries-old bathing rituals offer a chance to rejuvenate the mind, body and spirit. These are five of the most popular bathing cultures around the world to inspire your next trip. I want to try all of them!
01 Japanese Onsen
Japanese onsen, or hot springs, are a popular pastime for locals and visitors from around the world, and can be indoor or outdoor baths with an average temperature of 99 degrees Fahrenheit. “They originated from heated groundwater, so the mineral content and quality of the water will be different in each one, depending on the nature of the land,” explains Takeshi Nobuhara, CEO and president of Shikohin, a Japanese inspired body-care brand. “For example, there are hot springs that warm you up well because they contain a lot of salt, and some with beauty benefits that make your skin smoother due to the cleansing effect of hydrogencarbonate. Each onsen also offers different ‘curing’ effects, such as relief from joint pain and menstrual disorders, as well as recovery from illness, so you can enjoy each onsen according to your needs at that time.”
Japanese love to go to onsen whenever possible, and those who live in a region with one usually visit every week (some are free to the public; others are private and charge a fee). “Some people even plumb onsen to their homes or vacation homes—they are the lucky ones. And most people who live in cities, such as Tokyo, like to visit onsen occasionally outside the city as a short relaxing trip.” There is proper onsen etiquette to follow, so do your due diligence before arrival (tattoos are still banned in many locations), and note that while bathing, Nobuhara says it is customary to go nude. “We carry a small towel to cover parts of our body when we move around, but we do not dip the towel in the water when bathing.”
02 Hungarian Thermal Baths
“Hungary has more natural thermal springs than anywhere else in the world, and a spa and bathing culture that dates back to ancient Roman times,” says Boldijarre Koronczay, president of Éminence Organic Skin Care, which has Hungarian roots. “Hungary’s thermal springs are rich in minerals and vitamins, and travelers from all over the world visit its baths to soak and treat numerous conditions from arthritis to cardiovascular ailments. Many baths have pools with varying temperatures, and the best approach is to alternate from hot to cold baths to increase circulation and boost your immune system.”
Trips to spas and bath houses are a part of everyday life for many Hungarians, with many opting for baths before work, during their lunch hour or after work. “You can expect popular bath houses to be very busy, with tourists and locals alike—many of them are co-ed with people of all ages,” adds Koronczay. “Bring your bathing suit and towel, and be prepared for a very social experience.”
03 Finnish Saunas
“Bathing and sauna culture is very important to us Finns,” says Johanna Paavilainen, general manager of North America for Finnish skin-care brand Lumene. “The natural materials and peaceful atmosphere guarantee a restful break from the bustle of everyday life—saunas flush toxins from the body, reduce stress and enhance quality of sleep. They are places where the mind and body find harmony. When in a sauna, you live in an instant. It feeds all the senses, from the scent of birch to the feel of wooden benches and the hiss of boiling water. Many people appreciate the silence, while others enjoy conversations in the steam.”
Most locals have saunas at their homes—Finland is a nation of 5.3 million people and 3.3 million saunas—and use it several times a week, though there are also several communal saunas. “Nowadays, public saunas typically have shifts for different genders—Finns often go in nude—but in a mixed sauna, they tend to wear a towel or swimwear,” Paavilainen says.
While inside, Paavilainen says women pamper themselves with all sorts of beauty treatments, such as masks for their face, hair and body that are activated in the high heat—up to 200 degrees Fahrenheit—and steam. Some Finns use a sauna hat to protect their heads in very high temperatures. “Listen to your body and feel all the senses. Take cooling breaks, shower, dip in a nearby lake or sea, or during winter, roll in the snow. Only stay in the sauna as long as you feel good. Remember to drink a lot of water, too, and moisturize your skin afterward.”
04 Russian Banyas
According to Maria Karr, founder of Russian beauty e-tailer Rumore Beauty, a Russian bath house, aka banya, is a small wooden house containing a steam room that has been traditionally used by both men and women as a part of their overall hygiene routine and as a wellness ritual. “Locals who don’t have a private banya at their house can visit a public one for a fee—it’s common to go weekly on Saturdays, and it’s usually a full family affair,” she explains. “In a traditional experience, you lay on a wooden bench inside the steam room and a professional slaps your body in a massage-like fashion with a whisk made of wet birch or oak branches with leaves. This improves circulation, reduces pain in muscles and joints, and provides an overall cleanse and detox for the body.”
Some insider tips, according to Karr: 1.) Remove your metal jewelry, as it will get too hot and can burn your skin. 2.) It’s common to wear a felt hat to protect your hair from the heat during the treatment. 3.) Remove all your makeup, as wearing makeup is not recommended—your skin is supposed to breathe in the banya. 4.) Usually, you are completely nude—aside from the felt hat—inside the steam room. However, if you’re with a group of friends, it’s fine to wrap yourself in a towel or wear a bathing suit. 5.) You may bring in your beauty treatments, such as scrubs, soaps and rinses for your hair and body. Natural body scrubs are really popular, as they are helpful with exfoliating dead skin cells, which are much easier to come off in a banya setting.”
Karr notes that public banyas may also feature an ice-cold pool that you can dip into after a steam session to cool down; as well as a lounge where you can eat, drink and relax with friends. “While in the past going to a banya was mostly for hygiene reasons, as many people didn’t have hot water in their homes, modern banyas are designed to be spa-like experiences.”
05 Moroccan Hammams
“A necessary part of Moroccan culture, as well as a beauty ritual, hammams are bathhouses with multiple rooms— dry and steamed—for cleansing the body,” says Christina Funke Tegbe, founder of African skin-care brand 54 Thrones, noting that hammams are also ingrained in parts of North Africa. “After undressing—most women are nude; men and women are separated— you enter one of the rooms and lay on a big, flat slab of smooth limestone.
An attendant will apply a thin layer of black Beldi soap—made from olive and eucalyptus oils—all over your body, every nook and cranny. After resting for about 15 minutes, she will aggressively exfoliate your entire body with a kessa mitt and you will see all the dead skin she sloughs off. Then buckets of water are splashed on your skin until all the Beldi is rinsed away. Next, a purifying rhassoul clay paste is applied from the neck down. In some hammams, they will end the session by slathering your skin with pure argan oil and a head massage. Many locals go to a hammam every week, and I see why—your skin is so baby-soft, glowy and dewy afterward.”
06 German Bathhouses
Often housed inside beautiful, historic architecture dating back centuries, German bathhouses are a way of life for locals and can be found in big cities like Munich, as well as rural towns. “One example would be Bad Wörishofen, where the founder of Kneipp, Sebastian Kneipp, lived and worked—he was known as the ‘water doctor,’” says Anna Schulz, global product manager for the German bath and body-care brand. “There are usually two different areas in a bathhouse: one with several thermal pools and hot springs with varying temperatures where you would wear your swimwear, and another with detoxifying saunas, which is a nude section.” Visitors can also expect a mixed-gender environment and a very relaxed approach to nudity, which can take some getting used to for American tourists, but is a great way to be fully immersed in one of the country’s oldest wellness traditions.
Some bathhouses also offer basic spa services like massages and other body treatments, but be sure to research this ahead of time if it’s of interest. Schulz adds, “People often go for a whole day to relax and unwind—it’s like a one-day vacation for most.”