"S lyogkim parom!" Happy steaming!
Some like it hot. Especially Russian banya-goers, for whom a sweat session in a traditional steam bath is sheer bliss – as well as a great way to socialise and promote good health. Of course, for tourists, few Russian experiences are likely to be as memorable as a visit to a banya – especially in winter, when it's an unbeatable way to chase the chill out of your bones.
More than being just a Russian-style sauna, the banya is an entire ritual with many facets besides just sweating in the steam room. It comes with an array of fun accoutrements, such as felt hats to protect your hair and “venik” bunches of leaves for a beating-massage during steamings. You're supposed to alternate hot and cold, for example, by dunking in a cold pool or even rolling in the snow (if at a dacha banya) after each steam session. The hot-cold contrasts are also interspersed with periods spent sitting in good company, drinking beer or tea and socialising while draped in sheets like ancient Romans (who, incidentally, had a similar steam bath culture of their own).
The banya is believed to break down barriers and bring people closer – getting naked together has that effect – so a trip to a banya is often proposed for macho bonding or team building between a boss and his male employees.
Of course, for some foreigners, the collective nudity aspect can be a bit daunting. That's right, you have to leave your bathing suit at the door. Russians take it all in their stride as if it comes completely naturally, but more prudish tourists might feel a bit awkward. Public banyas are strictly gender-segregated and there's something reassuring in the anonymity of being just one nude person in a mass of other nude strangers nonchalantly having a wash. If you can't handle that, you can always book a private banya room and indulge in the steam bath experience alone with your partner or with a mixed-gender group of friends. – and in these situations bathing suits are acceptable.
Good banyas provide extra services, such as a whole range of different kinds of massages as well as hair and beauty treatments. They also might even do your laundry or clean your shoes, and offer a complete menu of food and drinks.
One of the best places to try the Russian steam bath tradition is at the city's oldest banya, Sandunovskiye Bani, founded in the early 19th century on Neglinnaya Ulitsa in the city centre. Sanduny's well-preserved historical interiors are lavishly decorated and luxuriously appointed for the ultimate banya experience. The full range of services is on offer, and there are various classes of steam rooms and private room sizes to suit any situation. For novices, Sanduny's web site has helpful, detailed instructions in English explaining how to correctly steam yourself.
Adventurous travelers might like to take a trip outside the city centre to a more modern banya, such as the recently renovated Varshavskiye Bani on Varshavskoye Shosse – also with an impressive assortment of services as well as steam rooms from different cultures in its Baths of the World complex.
As they say in Russia, “S lyogkim parom!” Happy steaming!