There are few more authentically Russian experiences than a trip to a banya, or Russian steam bath. It’s a tradition that reaches back hundreds of years, when every village would have a wooden bath house – as much a hub for the community as it was the only place to get a clean. That being said, the Russians take the ritual of bathing very seriously, from the use of the venik, a bundle of branches (usually birch or eucalyptus) that’s used to purify and stimulate the circulation, to the correct items of clothing – or lack of. But if the sauna etiquette seems daunting at first, don’t be deterred; a trip to a St Petersburg banya will not only do wonders for your health, it will also offer a sublime contrast to the freezing temperatures outside. Whether you want a taste of tradition at Coachmen’s Banya or the more modern spa experience of Degtyarniye Bani, these bracing banyas are guaranteed to keep the St Petersburg winter at bay.
Built around 1850, the Coachmen’s Banya (or the Yamskie, as it’s known) has seen the likes of Lenin and Dostoyevsky schwitz away their ailments in its steam room. Despite the historical significance of this St Petersburg banya, it also offers some modern touches in its health complex, including a cryosauna, infrared sauna, and a horizontal and vertical solarium. They even sell Oxygen cocktails. Like almost all banyas, the Yamskie is gender segregated.
There has been an upsurge in spa-style banyas in St Petersburg, and while many substitute the charm of the traditional Russian steam bath for a more conventional experience, Degtyarniye Bani gets the balance just right. Help yourself to herbal teas as you await your rejuvenating soap massage on a heated marble table, or indulge in a honey wrap or coffee scrub. The attentive staff will even help banya novices select the right venik, or bath broom – a few lashes of which will stimulate your circulation.
As traditional bath houses fall out of favour, it’s becoming increasingly rare for visitors to partake in an authentic St Petersburg banya experience. Lotsmanskie Bani is just that, however. Located close to the old shipyards in Kolomna, it has all the traditional elements: steam room, cold baths, comfortable chill out spaces, and, like the Mytninskie, the steam is wood-generated, giving a pleasant birch smell to the proceedings. Sure, the holistic experience may not be as slick as, say, the Degtyarniye, but there’s sure to be wealth of locals willing to clue you in on the correct bani etiquette.
Located in the historic centre of the city, this is another of St Petersburg’s oldest banyas, and one of the city’s last public banya to still be fuelled by the traditional means of burning wood. In addition to the public steam rooms and disarmingly inviting cold plunge water pools are six private suites accommodating groups from two to eight people. As you’ll have access your own steam room and pools, it’s a great opportunity to get a taste of the bunya experience without the pressure of the public bath.
Another traditional St Petersburg banya, albeit it with one differentiating factor: a large round, outdoor pool. As far as health-giving experiences goes, soaking under the stars must surely be up there. As well as the male and female public baths, you can opt for a range of private suites, some of which come with both Turkish and Russian steam rooms, Finnish sauna, heated pool and your own personal masseuse. A bar keeps things ticking over nicely, too. After all, the banya was traditionally known as the people’s first doctor. The second? You guessed it: vodka.