Some say a sauna or bath is the healthiest thing you can do sitting still.
Whether in a Finnish sauna or a Moroccan hammam, these bathing rituals are reason enough to book your ticket abroad.
There’s no equivalent to the Finnish sauna in American life: Our once-a-year après-ski hot-tub doesn’t begin to compare to the cultural significance of the Finnish sauna—or for that matter, the Moroccan hammam, the Russian “banya,” or the Japanese “onsen.” These bathing and steaming rituals are cornerstones of daily life and crucial ways to connect with community. For visitors, they can offer fascinating windows into other cultures.
Each practice differs (and within each practice are infinite tweaks on tradition), but certain elements remain consistent, often with alternating periods of extreme heat and extreme cold. And all these rituals are believed to confer health benefits. One Finnish study suggested a relationship between frequent sauna usage and improved cardiovascular health; other experts dispute this, but most agree that these bathing rituals lead to stress reduction—no small benefit given new research on the harmful effects of stress. Saunas, for example, have been shown to raise the stress hormone cortisol during sessions but later lower it. And an important note for travelers: If there’s a better way to relax after a long flight, we have yet to find it.
Below, check out four favorite bathing rituals—and where to find them at home and abroad.
THE FINNISH SAUNA
WHAT IT IS: The dry-heat Finnish sauna should rank as one of the world’s wonders. It’s a bedrock of Finnish life, not an indulgence but as much a part of the leisure experience as swimming pools in America. (Until the 1940s, many Finnish babies were born in unheated saunas.) They’re an all-season treat, too: Hop in the sauna, hop in the lake (or the snow), hop back in the sauna. Even tiny Finnish cabins will have a sauna—ideally crafted from birch wood and a chimneyless “smoke stove,” which allows for a durable fragrance of wood smoke. And they’re reportedly so good for stress reduction that alternative health expert Andrew Weil recommends two to three short sessions (10 to 20 minutes) per week.
WHERE TO TRY IT: A sauna is best appreciated in Finland—not only because Finns invented it but because of the huge culture surrounding it; this is no simple sit in a hot room but an experience best shared with friends (and beers). Helsinki’s Kulttuuri Sauna is perfection, a modern oasis on the water’s edge, cofounded by a Japanese-Finnish married couple who draw on their unique traditions for a sleek, modern experience. For the brave, steps lead directly from a grassy, outdoor relaxation area into the sea. Closer to home, the Löyly spa in Portland, Oregon, offers a serious and successful study of the Finnish original, as suggested by its name: “Loyly” is the Finnish word for the steam that appears when water is poured over hot rocks.
HOW IT WORKS: It’s worth going to Morocco for the hammams alone—they’re as crucial to the culture as saunas are to the Finns. Visit a hammam and you’ll first be dispatched to a steam room. Next, a therapist will scrub you down—and we mean scrub. Then it’s back to the steam room to soften up the next layer of skin. The method varies between spots; our most recent one included the novel experience of being doused in cold water between rounds with water out of a hose. Scrub, steam, scrub, steam—until your skin is the softest it’s been. Ever.
WHERE TO TRY IT: Hammams have come to the U.S. Ivanka Trump was reportedly such a fan that she integrated the treatment into the spa at the Trump SoHo hotel—but we sampled the treatment and found it lacked everything that made Moroccan hammams so special: community, low prices, and a refreshing lack of interest in our comfort level, whether in the blast-furnace temps of the steam room or the no-holds-barred exfoliation. (It didn’t kill us—it just made our skin amazing.) There’s no substitute for trying a hammam in Morocco or its close cousin in Turkey. For a high-end choice, there’s no spa more beautiful than the one at La Mamounia in Marrakech, Morocco; for a more relaxed option or one popular with locals, ask for recommendations at your guesthouse. Thanks to its lively North African community, Paris also has some great hammams; top among them is O’Kari.
WHAT IT IS: A Japanese rough equivalent of saunas, onsen baths are communal and often situated around the country’s many natural hot springs. If you like soaking in hot water while chatting to friends, you will enjoy onsen. Like saunas, onsen baths have their own idiosyncrasies in how they’re experienced, but generally you’ll strip down, shower and then enter the pool. The modest can use a small towel to cover up, but the expectation is that visitors will enter the water without any clothes. (Onsen regulars often wrap the towel around their heads.) Many Japanese believe that onsen baths offer health benefits, including improved skin condition, thanks to the rich mineral concentration of the spring water.
WHERE TO TRY IT: Fans of the practice recently opened Onsen in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood; it offers a communal bathing experience as well as a steam room, sauna and cold-plunge showers, plus a restaurant. Otherwise, head straight to Japan. Even inexpensive hotels will often offer onsen, but for a singular experience, make your way to one of the country’s traditional “ryokans,” or inns. Our favorite is the supremely secluded Otozure in the Yamaguchi Prefecture—it’s closer to South Korea than to Tokyo. While not a traditional version of onsen, the Park Hyatt Hotel’s bathing space in Tokyo is extensive—with views of Mount Fuji on the way into the complex. The quintessential (if highly popular) experience may be a trip to Shibu Onsen, a Japanese spa town with nine public bathhouses and nearly three dozen ryokans with onsen baths. It’s also the jumping-off point to the Snow Monkey Park, where it’s possible to view snow monkeys bathing in their own spring-fed baths.
WHAT IT IS: A banya is a centuries-old Russian bathing tradition: Get super-hot in a wood-paneled steam room, known as a “parnaya,” and then jump into the nearest body of cold water. Optimally, an attendant (or your friends) will occasionally beat you with oak twigs and branches gathered into a broom shape—officially known as a “venik.” It’s so crucial to daily life that it figures prominently in Russian proverbs including one that translates to, “The banya is a second mother.”
WHERE TO TRY IT: Russia, obviously, where banyas range from modest spaces in private homes to the opulent—like at the Sanduny banya, founded in 1808 and exquisitely done up like a 19th-century manor home. In St. Petersburg, Dostoyevsky and Lenin once bathed at the 150-year-old Coachmen’s Banya. Stateside, the Archimedes Banya in San Francisco has a terrific steam room and cold-plunge pool, while a more traditional option is the Russian and Turkish Baths in New York City’s East Village—though it has five steam and sauna spaces, the Russian banya is the highlight, with 20,000 pounds of rocks heated overnight and allowed to let off immense steam throughout opening hours. An on-site restaurant sells Russian favorites like blini, borscht, and Baltic herring.
Photo credit: 123RF, Piotr Wawrzyniuk