An Easy Guide to Russian Banya Steam Bath

Banya, or Russian bath, or Russian sauna is one of the most popular hangout places in Russia and former Soviet Union. Just like how friends meet over beer or coffee in café, it is not uncommon to see friends hanging out in Banyas in Russia. If you have been to Saunas before then you have a little bit of idea what to expect in Banyas in Russia. If you have not been to any saunas or public baths, let me tell you, it is not the usual bath.

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What is Russian Banya

Banya in Russian means steam bath. Banya term itself has old Slavic roots. Most Rusisan Banyas I have been to usually have three rooms.

Changing Room or Predbannik

Sunduny banya predbannik
Source: http://eng.sanduny.ru

This is the first room from the entrance. This is where you will be changing your clothes. In some Banyas this room may also have a dining table and a TV. Russian Banya is an experience and people spend at least 2 hours if not more when they are hanging out with their friends. This is where people drink tea or beer and wine and eat snacks while having a good conversation.

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Washing Room

This room has shower with hot and cold water. You can use the shower to wash yourself. This room may also have a small pool of cold water. Where you will dive right after coming out of steam room.

Steam Room or Parilka

Russian banya steam room parilka

This is the most interesting of all! It is a small room or cabin made with birch wood. It has different levels of wooden slabs where you can sit. Higher levels are usually hotter than the lower ones. There is a stove in a corner that also has a chamber containing stones. If you have been to Finnish Saunas or Turkish Hamams, you probably know what I am talking about. However, Russian banyas have extreme hot temperatures! It can even exceed 100 degrees Celsius or 212 F! This is the boiling water temperature.

Preparations Before Bathing in Russian Banya

You must be thinking can you just show up in a public bath in your swimsuit? Here you are partially right. You should definitely bring your swimsuit and towel with you. Below is the complete list of most essential things you should bring along with you on your first Russian Banya experience

  1. Swim Suit
  2. Towel
  3. Soap and shampoo
  4. A branch of dried Birch leaves (can be purchased at a public banya)
  5. A banya hat to protect your head from getting very warm (can be purchased at a public banya)
  6. A bath mat to sit on something because you do not want to sit on something really hot
  7. Bathroom slippers
  8. Extra pair of clothes, just in case something goes wrong
  9. Plastic bags to keep your wet clothes after bathing
  10. Snacks, tea, wine or beer, you can also purchase these at the cafes inside Russian banya.

Luckily on my first time, my friends got me everything. I was visiting Russia for a short period of time and I had none of the above except towel and slippers from my hotel. Consult with your Russian friend or anyone at Banya if you are having difficulties finding any of the items listed above. Often you can find Banya specific things such as birch leaves, bath mat, banya hat in the banya itself, if you are going to a private banya at a friend’s home then you should shop for all these items with your friend.

Bathing Process in a Russian Banya

There is a whole bathing ritual that you should follow for best experience. If you follow it properly you will feel like a different person at the end; a happier, stronger and younger self!

Inside Changing Room

As soon as you enter Banya, changing room will be the first room that you will see. Get yourself comfortable. Wear your swimsuit. Take the banya hat with you along with the bath mat and bathroom slippers and proceed to the steam room.

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Inside Steam Room

Steam room, as the name suggests is really hot. Its temperature may even exceed 100 degrees Celsius or 212 F. When I entered the steam room, at first, it was uncomfortable. I could not breathe as I could feel the burning air in my nostrils. It was difficult to even keep my eyes open in such hot temperature. However, in few minutes I adjusted myself.

The small steam room has a stove with hot stones on top of it. There are wooden slabs where you can sit. These slabs are like stairs, the higher you go the hotter it is. I stayed on the bottom level to keep myself comfortable.

As soon as we started feeling more comfortable, we poured cold water with essential oils on the hot stones next to the stove. This process forms a lot of steam, which makes the room very humid and aromatic. A hot and humid room is the best combination you need to start sweating. I started sweating so much that in a matter of a few minutes, my whole body was soaked in sweat. Sweat combined with condensed steam was dripping down my body as if I am standing under a running shower.

You can’t really stay very long in the steam room. In about 5 minutes or less, I gave up. I told my friends I must go out. My friends came along with me to show me the next step!

Inside Washing Room

The next step was to dive in the pool of icy cold water. Basically, I was going from boiling temperature to freezing temperature. My friends jumped in the water like professionals whereas I took all my time! Believe me, it was very relieving. This sudden change in temperature kicks start blood circulation in the body, increases metabolism and tones your body. I did not do any medical research, but it certainly made me happier.

After this, we went to the shower area. This is where you take a quick shower, wash yourself with soap and you will feel fresh.

Back to Changing Room

Once you are done, you can go back to the changing room. The banya which I visited had all three rooms private to us. The changing room had a dining table. My friends brought some tea and snacks from home and we ordered some additional vegan Soviet-style snacks, potato fries with garlic sauce along with Soviet era beer – Zhiguli.

Russian Banya Changing Room predbannik
Soviet era beer – Zhiguli. You can see I am wearing the banya hat

This is not the end of the Banya experience. This is just one cycle. You can repeat this as many times with few changes.

Next Cycle

Next time when I came out of the steam room, we did not jump in the icy water, but went outside Banya in the open air where the temperature was -20C (-4F) and windy. We threw snow on each other and got back to the changing room, drank some more beer and snacked on vegan Soviet potato fries.

The third time when we went to the steam room, we took the branches of dried birch trees with us. This is used to hit or massage oneself or each other. The dried birch leaves are moistened over the steam. Hitting oneself or each other with birch leaves improves blood circulation. Birch leaves also have medical properties that nourishes your skin. It is a fact that some of the traditional Russian massages include rubbing or hitting with birch leaves

birch leaf banya

You can repeat this cycle as many times as you like. General idea is that first time when you are in the steam room you should not spend more than 5 to 7 minutes. Do not go to the top shelves which tends to be hotter than the bottom ones. Your last entry in the steam room should last about 15 minutes. Of course, listen to your body, if you are feeling uncomfortable, it is time to move out of the room.

I felt really good after the entire experience of hot Russian banya. I felt so relaxed and happy and my body was warm. Even though I was walking in -20C at night outside the banya, I did not feel as cold as earlier. This was simply my best experience in Russia, and I am not even exaggerating.

Types of Banyas

You may find there are two types of Banyas, Black and White. They do not have much difference except how the smoke escapes the chamber. Usually, low maintenance banyas and banyas in villages and homes are black banyas whereas high maintenance banyas are white banyas.

Black Banyas (Black Way)

Russian black way banya
By Janelop – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

As the name suggests, the interior of these banyas appear black. This is because the smoke in these types of banyas escape from a hole in the ceiling. This smoke over time blackens the birch wood with the formation of tar. People believe birch tar has anti-bacterial properties. This type of banya is heated with birch firewood.

White Banyas (White Way)

Russian white way banya

These banyas may not be exactly white in colour. The major difference here is that the smoke escapes the chamber through exhaust pipes or chimneys. White banyas have masonry heater as the source of heating.

Best Banyas in Russia

There are many banyas in every city and village of Russia. You can even find them in the centre of the city. While you are bar hopping on a cold Friday night, you might see some people standing in towels or bathrobe on the street. Do not get surprise with such sight. They are just embracing the cold after a hot steam bath!

If you have friends in Russia who invite you to join in a private Banya with them, you should definitely accept the offer! This was the tip given by my Russian friend! Usually, Banyas in the villages or at homes have a wonderful atmosphere and you can spend as much time as you wish.

However, do not get me wrong. Public Banyas are really interesting and they do have private sections as well so you can have all three rooms (changing room, washing room and steam room) for your group only.

As I said before, you can find Banyas everywhere in Russia. Just use google maps and search for Russian Banya near me. You will get many suggestions along with their reviews and ratings. Below are some of my favourite.

Best Banyas in Moscow, Russia

There are a lot of banyas in Moscow. Some of the most iconic ones are located in the centre of Moscow close to all the landmarks and points of interests.

Sanduny Banya

Sunduny Bath Russian Banya
Jaimrsilva [CC BY-SA 4.0

If you are researching on things to do in Moscow, you must have come across Sanduny Banya. It is one of the most iconic Banya in Russia. Its luxurious interiors range from Soviet to Indian style and include many other regional styles of Russia that gives an impression of a fairy tale. Opened in 1808, It is a cultural and architectural landmark in Moscow

An hour in Sanduny banya can cost anywhere between $60 to $120 depending on what kind of bathroom you are looking for and the time of the day. You will have to book in advance to secure a place in this extremely popular banya that is also considered as the best Banya in Russia.

Rzhevskie Bani

Another famous and historical Banya is Rzhevskie Bani. It was opened in 1888. Since then it has been known by different names. Today it is known as Rzhevskie Bani because of its proximity to Rizhskiy Railway Station. An hour in this Banya can cost anywhere from $25 to $100 depending on how much privacy do you need and time of the day and week.

My suggestion is to always book a private room if you are going with a group of friends and you are planning to spend more than 2 hours.

Best Banya in St Petersburg Russia

Yamskie Banya

Yamskie Banya is one of the most popular banyas in St. Petersburg. This place was often frequented by Lenin and Dostoevsky. Both have left a deep impact on Russian history and culture. An hour in this historical banya can cost anywhere from $1 (not a typo) to $25 depending on the time of the day and privacy.

Russian Massage in Banya

Almost all major public Russian banyas offer massage, beauty salon and Russian spa services. You can expect the massage specialist to use birch leaves during the massage as part of Russian massage traditions.  

Difference between Russian Banya, Finnish Sauna and Turkish Hamam

Finnish Saunas are the closest brother of Russian Banya. In fact, traditional Finnish sauna and Russian banya are almost similar. However, their modern version differs a bit. One major difference is that Russian banyas have very dry air compared to Finnish Sauna.

Turkish Hamams are significantly less hot than Russian banya and Finnish Sauna. You can expect a Russian Banya to easily achieve temperature up to 100 degree Celsius (212 F). Whereas Turkish Hamam achieves a temperature between +30 to +55 degree Celsius (86F to 131F). Turkish Hamams are much more humid than both Russian Banya and Finnish Sauna.

Conclusion

Russian banya is deeply rooted in Russian culture, just like the Finnish Sauna in Finnish culture. No trip to Russia is complete without experiencing a bath in a banya. Banyas are active all year round. However, in my opinion, a bath in winter is much more fun. Try to gather as many friends as you can for your visit to banya. Did you like my article? I hope you learnt something new today. If I missed anything feel free to add it in the comment section. If you have any questions or suggestions, please write in the comment box and do not forget to share it with your friends!

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