A handsome man in his thirties smiled at me cordially as I walked towards him down the long, brightly lit corridor. He was the official greeter at the Friedrichsbad, a famous bath house in the German spa city of Baden-Baden. What followed was a rather mundane exchange of salutations and administrative instruction.
Except that he was fully clothed, whereas I was completely naked.
An interjection: for those of you that would like to skip straight to the step-by-step bathing process, click here.
Ready? Let’s move on…
Baden-Baden (literally “Baths-Baths”) is both swanky and wholesome in a way that only German or Swiss wellness meccas can be, and I’ve written another post on the city of Baden-Baden here. But since most of my short visit was spent in the protracted bathing process of the Friedrichsbad “Roman-Irish Baths,” and since that (in)famous bathing house jumps front and center into the minds of so many at the mention of Bade-Baden, I’ll focus the rest of this post on that topic.
About the Friedrichsbad, optional co-ed bathing, and taking German precision with a grain of salt
This “temple to the art of wellbeing,” as its promotional literature describes, was built in 1877 as an R&R facility for German soldiers. It sits directly next to the ruins of Roman baths and the modern Caracalla Spa thermal baths, popular with the modestly inclined because of its bathing-suit-friendly policy. The Baden-Baden baths are driven by natural thermal streams that surface from 6,500 feet deep and contain minerals like sodium chloride, lithium, cesium, silica, boric acid, manganese, magnesium, and traces of cobalt, zinc and copper.
However, for the most authentic and beautiful spa experience there’s no spa in Baden-Baden – or perhaps Germany – other than this one, which is housed in a monumental, gorgeously decorated Neo Classical building. And, yes, it’s “traditionally garment-free.”
At the time of this writing, men and women bathe separately on Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Regardless of the day, both sexes share the central whirlpool and bath (Stages 10 and 11). You can skip these stages, but be forewarned that you’ll miss out on the most lavish and decadent part of the day (see photo below). I later described it to friends as “swimming in a pool of Evian.” But since you’re free to go at your own pace and skip or repeat stages as you wish, it’s your choice.
*Tip: Even on a mixed-sex day, the workers and masseurs are divided, usually with men on the “blue” side [turn left as you head up the central staircase] and women on the opposite “red” side. I tend to request male masseurs, but if you’re uncomfortable with the situation described in the opening paragraph of this post, confirm which side is which with the ticket attendant when you purchase your package.
And you are free to go at your pace, despite the precise, multilingual instructions at each station. TripAvisor members Andrew_and_Mary give a hilarious review of them:
The “guidelines” at Friedrichsbad are quite precise, as you would expect from the Germans. As you enter there is a plaque outside each room, explaining what to do, what the effect is and how long to stay. It appears that a German Scientist has invested a large part of his life researching the optimal time one must spend in each of these chambers. How else could they know that it takes 4 minutes to dry off? Not 3 minutes, not 5 minutes, no, you are given exactly 4 minutes! The same Scientist has also discovered that one should not drink more than 175ml of the thermal water freely available within the bath house each day. Not having a measuring cup with us and quite frightened of the consequences, we voted for dehydration rather than drink the water.
For my part, I can attest to no negative consequences from either the blatant disregard of timelines or from the imbibing of mineral water. However, I did follow the order of all steps as prescribed, including the five showers. Hygiene is near and dear to the hearts of our hosts, so the body is repeatedly cleaned throughout and towels or sheets are provided for all seating areas.
According to signage inside the spa, this is the last bath house in the world to offer a wet sauna heated entirely with thermal heat. The 17-stage bathing process gradually heats then cools your body, utilizing dry air, steam, baths, scrubbing and massage. So it goes without saying that this experience is one-of-a-kind, and therefore shouldn’t be missed.
*Tip: Solo female travelers might want to visit on a single-sex day, not so much for safety as for a pleasant, introspective experience. Although silence is requested throughout the spa, like so many other places, if you’re a woman travelling alone it seems there’s often at least one person bent on striking up a companionship.
The naked truth
Before we go any further, let’s talk about the whole naked thing.
I guarantee it’s not as bad as you might think (if you’ve tried it and agree or disagree, let me know what you think by leaving a comment!). Here are six reasons why:
- Once everyone in a room is nude, nobody stands out. It’s the act of artfully covering and revealing with clothing or bathing suits that increases the sexual quotient. Really – it’s like comparing one tree to another. You can’t. They’re just organic objects.
- People really aren’t that interested in you. They’re minding their own business, and hoping you’ll do the same.
- This is an egalitarian bath house, so you’ll find all ages, shapes and sizes.
- A little initial discomfort is natural – congratulations! You’re widening your horizons by pushing your comfort zone. But a couple minutes later, you’re over it. In a letter to a friend, Mark Twain wrote, “Here at the Friedrichsbad you lose track of time within 10 minutes and track of the world within 20….”
- German saunas and spas (and even some public parks!) are often garment-free, so most people with you will be behaving like it is “business as usual.” Their unfazed demeanor will rub off on you before you know it.
- Centuries of people on most continents have or had cultures of shared bathing. If they can do it, you can, too! Rip off your bras and boxers, take note of the tips below, and get ready for the time of your life…
Inside the Friederichsbad
At the ticket office, you’ll be able to choose from one of three steals: a basic bath (allowing you up to 3 hours at 23€), a bath with soap-and-brush scrub (3.5 hours at 33€), or the full package with cream massage (4 hours included at 43€). While the cream massage is quick and therefore discretionary, don’t miss the soap-and-brush scrub. Your selection will be encoded into your wristband.
Swipe your wristband at the turnstile to enter either the red or blue side of the baths. The changing rooms could be an homage to Lewis Carroll. There are rows of available cubicles (or rabbit holes), but little instruction. You open a door to one, disrobe, then leave through the opposite door into the “private” (nude) area, where you can deposit your clothes in a locker (your wristband will lock it). Hours later when you reverse the process, after making your way through a three-hour maze and its alternate reality, you’ve been transformed.
*Tip: If you want to avoid a long walk down the hallway, choose a changing cubicle that’s as far from the turnstile as possible.
Stages 1 – 3: Hot air
The greeter will give you a sheet and sandals and direct you to the shower to wash off your street grime. The showers could be described as a cross between rain showers and buckets of water falling from above. The natural hot springs are diluted with cold water and you can control the temperature, but the pressure is uniform: imagine opening the tap to a waterfall.
The hot and hotter saunas that follow are heated from below, so don’t forget those sandals. Lay back on a wooden lounge chair, and then let your mind float as you gaze up at high ceilings with whimsically painted tiles.
*Tip: The wooden lounges are hot! Double up your sheet before reclining.
Stages 4 – 6: Soap scrub
Since toxins have already begun to seep from your pores, it’s time to shower again before giving yourself over to the soap and brush massage (your wristband is removed and swiped to ensure you purchased the option). Your privates are kept private here, but other than that it’s a full-body scrub and massage, including those ticklish spots like your tummy and the bottoms of your feet, and it ends with a customary slap on the bum.
In Germany, you almost always begin a massage facing up, rather than down. Give yourself over to being fully coddled, because this truly is one of the day’s highlights.
*Tip: Choose the soft brush for your scrub, unless you have a high pain tolerance.
Stages 7 – 11: The aquatic life
Shower off the soap and head to the steam rooms, now free of your sheet but carrying a square seat pad. Heat rises, so the higher you sit in the two steam rooms, the more punch it will pack. Be sure to shower here before heading to the pools.
The whirlpools and pools offer a successive reduction of heat, and soaking in the mineral salts of the thermal water supposedly offers the greatest health benefits. Again, I was beguiled by high ceilings and decorative tiles, culminating in the domed central pool (the “Evian experience” mentioned earlier). As Igougo member Aardwhite describes:
This feels like how it must have been for the Romans. You half expect a eunuch to be waiting at the side to feed you grapes.
*Tip: In the public areas, it is customary to either avoid eye contact with fellow bathers or offer a brief, customary nod. Germans don’t typically do big smiles or verbal salutations with strangers.
Stages 12 – 15: Winding down
After the big pool, it’s time to head back for an optional cold-water plunge (18° C or 64°F) and – yet another – shower before drying off with a giant bath towel in a foyer-type room. If you’ve chosen a cream massage you’ll be directed upstairs; otherwise, you can choose one of the proprietary lotions to apply yourself in front of a large, semi-private mirror that’s rather unfortunately brightly lit. Liz Surbeck blogged about this moment of the Friedrichsbad experience:
Now it can be really tempting to try and be modest and not spend a lot of time with the cream station by just scantly rubbing yourself with lotion. Be sure that you make an effort to at least look like you mean to get all over your body as a guy next to me got “caught” by an attendant who said he needed to get all over to make it worth it…so she helped him. This is just a caution to lotion yourself or someone will do it for you. You decide what you’d prefer.
*Tip: Herbal tea is also available at this point, though you can wait to have some later in the reading room.
Stages 16 – 17: Relaxation
What reinvigoration process would be complete without a deep sleep?
The next step is the relaxation room, a dark, circular cave ringed with beds. You’ll lay your cleaner-than-ever self upon an equally clean, ironed sheet. Then comes the best part: they lift the underlying blankets up and around you, literally swaddling you in comfort from head to toe. Feeling as secure as a baby, you can slowly drift off to sleep.
Since it would be jarring to head out to the real world immediately upon waking, there is yet a final stage: the reading room, filled with tall windows emitting natural light, where you can lounge (in a towel) and enjoy a gradual return to focused thought. Those thoughts will likely fall somewhere between “This is so energizing! I could take on the world!” to “I’m so blissed out I could just float down the street right now,” depending upon how well you slept in the relaxation room and how big a leap it was for you to shed your inhibitions and get into your birthday suit. By the time you’ve returned to the changing rooms to slip into the (hopefully clean) garments you brought with you, depositing your wristband into the turnstile so it will allow you passage as you leave, chances are you’ll be wearing a big silly grin … and you might even be feeling a tad bit awkward in those scratchy clothes.
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If you enjoyed this, you might want to check out our posts on some other wellness areas Adelboden: A Swiss Alps Dream and Germany’s Rhine River: Cruise Your Way to Relaxation or testing your comfort zone Surviving Holi, the Festival of Colors.
Baden-Baden is located in the southwestern German state of Baden-Wurttemberg at the start of the Black Forest, a short drive from the French city of Strasbourg (home of the European Parliament) and the German city of Karlsruhe (whose airport is served by RyanAir).
- Posts can wait. I’m off to (in)famous all-nude Friedrichsbad baths for their 2.5hr, 16-step cleansing. Modesty be gone!
- Tonight I tried unpasteurized horseradish cheese (it’s green!). Yum!
- Best to remove a star when considering European hotels. 4* = Holiday Inn, 5* = Hyatt
- Near the border of France in Germany’s Black Forest, the landscape here is so lush. Perfect for a town based on wellness and pampering
- We’re in Baden-Baden, where Belle Epoque luxury surrounds “healing” thermal waters enjoyed by Mark Twain and most of 19c. high society