Have you ever spent time relaxing in the relaxing steam of an Austrian sauna? If not, you’re definitely missing out. Austrians have taken the sauna experience to a new level and Austrian spas are renowned for being amongst the best in the world. If that wasn’t enough, many of these spas also benefit from the stunning scenery and unsullied air of the Austrian alps. If you’re looking for a spa-break, Austria is a great place to start.
As a British visitor visiting an Austrian spa for the first time, I got slightly more than I’d bargained for. There are so many rules and rituals inside the spa, plus what’s a British person supposed to do with all this nudity? For a first timer, an Austrian sauna can be a scary place. But help is at hand. Having visited a few Austrian spa’s now, I know a lot more about sauna etiquette and I know what to expected from other sauna goers. Here’s some of what I’ve learned so far as well as my top tips for booking your very own Austrian spa break.
Austrian Sauna Survival Guide
A Brief History Lesson
Sauna culture, as we know it today, originated in Finland and designed as winter dwellings. They were dug into the earth and heated using fire creating a home for the winter months. Eventually as society developed, Sauna’s became a cornerstone of Finnish culture, having a sauna in your home is very common practice in Finland.
But it wasn’t until the Second World War that sauna culture began to spread. Many Germany and Austrian soldiers returned home from countries such as Finland and Russia. Having experienced the Finnish love for sauna’s the trend began to spread throughout central Europe, particularly in the mountainous German-Austrian Alps. However, it was during the 1990’s that the trend for spa hotels began and spa tourism began to grow. Today spa breaks are a thriving industry in Austria and escaping to the alps for a sauna escape is a great way to release stress and unwind.
Austrian Sauna Culture
Austrian’s take their spas and their saunas very seriously and they visit them regularly if they can. Visiting the spa is not a treat or an activity for times of stress, it’s something that should be done proactively, part and parcel of having a healthy lifestyle. Visiting a sauna in Austria can be like having lunch with a friend; Austrians use them so socialise to and bond with friends and family. It’s wouldn’t be uncommon to visit a sauna and being sat cheek to cheek with your boss or your mother in law.
Austrian’s tend to visit the sauna for a couple of hours towards the end of the week. It’s not uncommon for them to spend a full day in the spa when they are resting, jumping in and out of the sauna to improve health.
Austrian Sauna Etiquette
When it comes to spending time in an Austrian sauna, I’ve picked up a few of the rules along the way. If there’s something you don’t understand though, don’t worry. Just try to go with the flow and copy what others are doing. Everyone is here to relax and there’s zero judgement inside the sauna.
Make sure you have a shower so you are completely clean before heading into the sauna. Hygiene is very important to Austrians which is one of the reasons why they insist on nudity in the sauna area. It sounds self-explanatory but it’s really important as you will be sweating alot when you get inside.
Make sure you have a towel and robe before you head down to the sauna. Most saunas and spas will provide them for you. You will also need footwear that can be quickly and easily removed. Again, many spas will provide this but not always. In many spa hotels in Austria, it’s common to see guests walking around the hotel in spa robes. I’ve even seen guest wearing their spar robes for lunch and dinner. It’s the perfect place to forget about fashion and to relax in your bathrobe. It’s practically encouraged.
What to do in an Austrian Sauna
Nudity inside the sauna is NOT optional. This means there will be naked people in the sauna and they will expect that you will be naked too. In most saunas this will be clearly communicated, especially if the spa gets a lot of international visitors (Austrians won’t need to be told to follow this rule). On my first trip to Austria, I thought I’d be able to sneak into the sauna wearing swimming trunks. Surely they’ll understand that us brits aren’t great with nudity? Much to my dismay a woman rushed up to me and pointed to a sign forbidding swimming costumes.
There are a couple of reasons why nudity is compulsory.
- Nudity allows the heat and steam rom the sauna to circulate, producing sweat and ensuring you get the maximum benefit from your sauna experience.
- Swimwear in saunas can be very unhygienic and bacteria thrives in the warm, moist environment. It’s much cleaner and healthy to do without.
So why was I so afraid of the nudity in the sauna? I guess I was afraid of what people would think and feeling very conscious about my body. What if people stare at me? The thing is that nudity is so common in an Austrian sauna, that nobody bats an eyelid. Spending time in the nude while at the sauna is completely normal. You’ll probably attract more attention if you try to wear swimwear. It’s like ripping off a bandaid. The first couple of minutes can feel quite intense but eventually you realise there’s nothing to fear. It’s just skin and no one’s here to judge.
Although it’s common to be naked in the sauna, this doesn’t mean that people spend their entire time at the spa naked. Towels and robes are worn between sauna sessions and removed immediately before entering the sauna. Look out for the coat hooks next to the sauna’s glass door. Note also that swimwear is mandatory in swimming areas especially if the spa is family friendly.
Check to see if there are any Aufguss or infusions taking place in the sauna. An Aufguss is an in-sauna event, where water mixed with botanicals, is thrown onto the sauna stones creating intense heat and filling the steam with herbal infusions. A staff member will usually attend to do this and make sure the steam is circulated by dramatically swinging a towel.
These are really worth attending. The botanicals in the steam create a completely different sauna experience and can increase their health benefits depending on which herbs are used. Infusions with Eucalyptus are particularly reviving. The Eucalyptus steam completely clears your airways making it feel as though are breathing cool mountain air. It’s hard to describe but definitely worth experiencing if they are available.
Aufguss is a popular event and larger saunas in Austria may even have an itinerary of infusion events taking place throughout the day. Expect the sauna to get quite busy during these sessions and make sure you’re in the right sauna (if there are more than one).
Other Sauna Tips
- Taking a towel into the sauna with you is acceptable in Austria and most european countries. Place the towel on the bench before you sit down. This stops you from burning your bottom and keeps the sauna nice and clean.
- Feel free to spread out if there is space in the sauna, but if it’s busy you may need to make room for other sauna users. Although saunas can get cosy, skin-to-skin contact with others is usually avoided.
- Make sure you’re drinking plenty of water during your time in the saunas. If the sauna is hot enough you will sweat A LOT so it’s important that you replace the fluid you lose. Most saunas in Austria will have a refreshment area where you can grab a cup of water or herbal tea.
- Be sure to enter and exit the sauna quickly. Opening the door lets out precious heat and Austrians can get antsy if their sauna isn’t hot enough.
- Try not to leave during an Aufguss as the infusions will escape. If you aren’t sure you can last a full 15 minutes inside the sauna, it may be better to avoid the Aufguss session.
After The Sauna
Reducing Your Temperature
After the sauna it’s time to cool off. Austrians, like all Europeans, like to do this quickly. Most spas in Austria will have an option for this, whether it’s rolling in alpine snow, a cold plunge in an icy pool or even an ice bucket wall fixture (think of a bucket on hinge with a rope – basic but surprisingly effective).
Quickly reducing body heat after the warmth of the sauna can improve blood flow, reduce inflammation and help your muscles to recover. Austrians head to the sauna for the health benefits so it’s not uncommon to see them heading for a cold plunge immediately afterwards. In fact many Austrians could spend a whole day alternating between the heat of the sauna and the chilled waters of an icy bath. Give it a go. The cold isn’t for everyone but it’s certainly an exhilarating experience.
After finishing in the sauna for the day, most Austrians will take some time in the spa to relax. There’s a usually a room or two available for doing exactly this. Think comfortable deck chairs and perhaps some aromatherapy. It’s common to spend 30-40 minutes in these areas after the sauna to just relax and allow your body’s temperature to normalise. Note that this is usually done inside the spa and not in their hotel rooms (if it’s a spa hotel that is). It’s also an opportunity to rehydrate and refresh after the harsh heat of the sauna.
Visiting an Austrian Sauna
Heading to the sauna is a cornerstone of Austrian culture, so you’ll find saunas and spas in most of the towns and cities in Austria. You’ll also find many spa hotels which focus specficially upon health and wellbeing. You will find most of these in the Austrian alps where the spa environment is given further health benefits by the fresh alpine air and stunning mountain views.
Tirol in the Austrian Alps
I’d particularly recommend the Tyrol area in the Austrian alps. Wedged between Germany and Italy, Tirol sits in the very heart of the Austrian alps. Innsbruck is the best known and largest city in the area. Tirol is great for winter sports and Innsbruck has hosted the Winter Olympics twice. Tirol is also a hub for hiking, mountain biking, climbing and cycling, particularly during the summer months when temperatures are warm.
By Air – Innsbruck airport provides quick and easy access to Tirol and the Austrian alps. Alternatively, travelers can fly into Munich, Salzberg or Zurich and travel onwards to Tirol via car or rail. These airports are 200-300km from Innsbruck.
By Rail – Innsbruck has railway connections with both Austria and Germany. The journey promises views of the dramatic landscapes from the unique perspective of railway travel. See the Visit Tirol website for more information.
From Innsbruck – expect a short journey into the mountains to reach many of the resorts. You can reach these by hiring a car or by booking a taxi. Most hotels in the area will be happy to book this on your behalf if required. Remember to agree the cost up front.
Where To Stay
We’re regular sauna visitors now and low spending time in the Austrian alps. If you’re looking for a spa-break yourself, I’d particularly recommend the hotels below.
Stock Resort in Zillertal – If you’re looking for a splash of 5 star luxury with a focus on wellbeing, then this is the resoirt for you. This was the hotel where I fell in love with Austrian sauna culture. Stock has over 11 different sauna types as well as year-round access to ski slopes on the Hintertux glacier. The staff were extremely friendly here and the food was superb. The Stock resort is a short car journey to Mayrhofn, a small local town which is as particularly pretty and very popular with skiing visitors.
Alpen Love in Seefeld – Catering exclusively to couples, this hotel offers a sauna experience in the very centre of Seefeld, a beautiful Austrian town know for it’s cross-country skiing. There are 4 different types of sauna here as well as various additional relaxation areas. The Diamond Suites here are sbsolutely stunning and extremely cosy. It’s a perfect place to relax and unwind.
What to bring back?
Stollen – This is a traditional fruit bread with spices, covered in powdered sugar, often eaten at Christmas. You can pick this up at a low cost from most food markets. Like most food, it tastes so much better when it has come from the country of origin so make sure you grab some stollen while you’re in Austria.
Mozartkugel – These traditional Austrian sweets are somewhat of an acquired taste but I love them. They are made of pistacio marzipan, wrapped in nougat and dipped in dark chocolate. Great to bring home as a gift as the packaging looks very Austrian, there’s a picture of Mozart on the front. You can’t get more austrian than that!
Nutcrackers – Most commonly associated with christmas markets, nutcrackers make an excellent addition to your festive decorations and are great to bring back as a gift. As this is the corner of the world where nutcracker dolls originated, expect to find them in every size and colour. There really is no excuse not to bring one home as a festive reminder of your trip to Austria.
Learning to relax!
Visiting an Austrian sauna has a learning curve, especially if you come from a country that is less comfortable with nudity. At first, being naked felt slightly alien and all my movements into or out of the sauna were swift ones. But eventually it began to feel normal. I began to feel less self-conscious despite being more exposed.
At the end of our final day, we watched the sun setting upon the Zillertal valley from the comfort of an outdoor jacuzzi in the Stock hotel. I wasn’t giving a second thought to anyone else or the to the spa’s dress code. The lights of the houses on the valley floor twinkled on as the light disappeared behind the mountains. It made me wonder how I could have let something so trivial cause such and issue. It had almost stopped me from enjoying my time in this beautiful hotel.
An important part of travel is to experience other cultures, even if it makes you uncomfortable by doing so. It’s amazing how quickly your perspective can change once you’ve stepped out of your comfort zone and embraced something new.
Thanks For Reading
Thank you for reading this blog. I hope you are now feeling equipped to make the most of Austrian spa culture. It really is a great way to relax!
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