Getting naked in Germany's bathhouses: Why Germans are the champions of public nudity

Which of the world's many nationalities are the most casual about going nude? Could it be the Koreans or Japanese with their traditions of public bathhouses? Or the Finns with their famous saunas?

These are strong contenders. But for Olympic levels of nuding up in public, the laurel wreath – or maybe fig leaf – must be presented to the Germans.

Germany has long had a relaxed attitude to nakedness. In the 19th century it was associated with health, assisted by the spread of Scandinavian-style steam baths.

Germany - View from Above

Take a peek at some German gems from the legendary Neuschwanstein Castle, to the Bastei Bridge and the serpentine Rhein.

From the late 20th century nudity became widely accepted on beaches, in city parks and on walking trails; so much so that relatively prudish Switzerland passed a law banning Germans from hiking in the buff.

Though there have been reports in recent years about the decline of nudity in the open air, there's one place that the sun will never set on naked Germany – its public baths.

Unlike its Japanese equivalent, where each gender has its own section, a German bathhouse is a completely mixed-gender clothing-free environment. This may be challenging the first time you try it; but like nearly all public nudity it seems perfectly natural within 10 minutes.

As a bonus, German baths are often situated within beautiful architecture dating back a century or more. Here are three of the most memorable I've visited.

Hamburg

In the port city I catch the U-Bahn to the 1895 Kaifu-Bad, the oldest of Hamburg's baths, with a graceful neoclassical facade.

What was once the men's side of the baths has been turned into a large flotation pool, surrounded by pillars supported by decorative iron cross-beams. There's lots of natural light from Gothic windows and skylights, as I float on my back and listen to soothing music played under the water.

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This is a clothed section of the complex, however. Beyond a central section with a more conventional swimming pool is the all-nude sauna area, entered via a special wristband.

There's a variety of options here, including a eucalyptus room, a sauna with mysterious coloured lights, and a capacious Finnish sauna.

Just before 7pm I follow an influx of people into the big sauna. We array ourselves quietly around its long benches, seated on towels. It's a calm, meditative atmosphere.

Then an attendant enters, says a few words in German and proceeds with a fascinating ritual. In stages, he pours water over the hot stones in the centre of the sauna, then twirls a towel in the air. As he twirls, we feel a passing blast of heat.

After a few rounds of this, he ups the ante by taking out a set of wooden handles connected by a band of cloth – like a flag with a pole at each end. These he flaps decisively towards each section of the room after each dousing, sending ever-hotter volcanic gusts our way.

In the final pass, there's a searing hot blast across my face that feels like it might melt my eyelids. I take it heroically, then quietly slip out the door to cool off.

See also: Hamburg - Germany's party city

Munich

Across the Isar River from Munich's Old Town, Müller'sches​ Volksbad is an attractive building that I'm drawn to on a rainy cold Sunday.

It's even more impressive on the inside. The 1901 interior features the sinuous lines of art nouveau, which took its inspiration from the curves of nature. Even the small cabins in which patrons leave their gear are decorative, with curving timber and frosted glass panes.

The procedure here is to strip off then wander around with a sheet that you can either wear or just carry.

We shuttle between the various rooms, which vary from cold pools to a sauna with an extremely hot tiled floor, a challenge to cross without footwear.

The most interesting option is a large, dimly-lit room with stone benches and jets of steam shooting out horizontally. It's like something Indiana Jones might have to deal with on a quest. If that wasn't enough, my fellow patrons regularly direct a water hose across the jets to create extra steam.

At one point I notice a naked couple step outside and make their way down an outdoor staircase to a room – presumably another sauna – set in an open-air courtyard. This, on a day when there's still snow on the ground. These Germans are made of sturdy stuff.

See also: Beyond Oktoberfest - Munich's other claim to fame

Cologne

Aptly, I find the most beautiful set of baths in a city that was once part of the Roman Empire. Cologne's Neptunbad opened in 1912, just as the First World War was about to sweep away Germany's imperial era.

It's suitably grand, decorated with tiles and mosaics. One side of the structure houses a gym, with people lifting weights below beautiful large arched windows.

For the sauna experience I head to the other half of the building, where I find historic Roman-inspired steam rooms and plunge pools.

The most relaxing is the circular Kaiserbad (Emperor's bath), a dimly-lit warm circular pool in which one floats supported by pool noodles while classical music plays beneath the surface. Bliss.

To my surprise, a door then leads me outdoors to a garden dotted with hot pools. It's surrounded by a low building with saunas of different temperatures and styles.

Two factors stand out here. Firstly, this section is inspired by the baths of Japan, and is situated within a Zen garden. Secondly, that garden is overlooked by residential neighbours.

One admires such a relaxed national attitude to public nudity. And, after a return to the Kaiserbad and a prolonged repeat float, I am the most relaxed naked man in Germany.

See also: Where Germany's most-visited attract collides with pop art

Tim Richards travelled with the assistance of the German National Tourist Office.

TRIP NOTES

Getting there

Qantas (qantas.com.au) and partners fly to German cities from $1600 return.

Staying there

Ameron Hotel Speicherstadt, Am Sandtorkai 4, Hamburg. From €139 a night. See ameronhotels.com

GHotel, Landwehrstrasse 77, Munich. From €85 a night. See ghotel.de

Hotel Mondial Am Dom, Kurt Hackenberg Platz 1, Cologne. From €140 a night. See sofitel.com

Soaking there

Kaifu-Bad, Hohe Weide 15, Hamburg. Entry €26.

Müller'sches Volksbad, Rosenheimer Strasse 1, Munich. Entry €18.

Neptunbad, Neptunplatz 1, Cologne. Entry €25.50.

See also: UK's nude nightclub's opening postponed, but not for the reason you'd expect

See also: Why I love getting naked overseas

 

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