If you’ve been here a few days and started to think of St Petersburg as just another Eastern European city waiting to be discovered by low cost airlines (shame on you!), then we recommend a trip to the banya to shake you out of your complacency. What better way to shake you out of your complacency than to sit around stark naked with a large number of hairy, sweaty naked guys hitting themselves and each other with birch twigs?? This is where you’ll come face-to-face (and other body parts) with centuries of Russian culture and tradition. Of course the Romans had their bath houses, Finns have their saunas, and there is a long tradition of Turkish baths, but the Russian banya is a combination of certain elements of all these traditions combined with unique features of its very own. The idea is that the intense temperature differences between the heat of the steam room and the icy cold of the pool helps improve the blood circulation by giving the veins a good workout (expanding and constricting helps to avoid blockages and keep them in good working order). In the cities they are commonly a place for the guys to meet to catch up for a couple of hours and chat about sport and women over a beer and some snacks. Groups of friends, fathers and sons, grandfathers introducing their grandchildren to the banya, work colleagues, business associates, the banya is a place for all to come to enjoy a couple of hours of good company and a really great wash up that will leave you feeling glowing, aside from the various health benefits that are ascribed to it.
If you venture there without someone who knows the ropes it can be quite confusing at first, so here is a beginner’s guide. There are various 'classes', such as luxury, 1st, 2nd which provide private facilities for groups and sometimes a more elegant environment, but obschestvenny, or general class, is probably most interesting. When you arrive you will pay your entrance fee, and can pay extra to hire some necessary kit – tapochki for your feet, a prostynya to sit on in the steam room itself and, if so inclined, to wrap around yourself to protect your modesty, a shlyapa to enhance the heat effect (in case a temperature of 120 degrees plus 100% humidity is not enough for you), a birch branch or venik to beat yourself with (or for a small fee to be beaten with by a banschik, one of the guys working in the banya), and in some a safety box to place your valuables while you are bathing. Note that although you will see a large number of veniki lying around drying out or being remoistened, these all belong to someone and are not for common use! You’ll be shown to a locker or peg with a number to which any further purchases will be billed. There you undress, don your tapochki, shlyapa and prostynya, and venture into the steam room (you should take a quick shower before entering the steam room itself). You can stay there for a few minutes, but do not overdo it the first couple of times as the strain on the heart can be significant! When you exit there will usually be buckets of ice cold water to douse yourself with, or a large vat of the same to climb into. Some even have cold water swimming pools. (In the countryside the tradition is to dive into the nearest river, or roll around in the snow, but we wouldn’t recommend that in the city…). Then go back to your locker or peg, have a drink and a bite to eat while you dry off before repeating as many times as your body can endure. Entrance is usually for a couple of hours, and this is long enough for most people. Upon leaving it’s traditional to wish your neighbours ‘S lyokhkim parom’, which roughly translates as "May the steam be light" – basically have a good banya!
Most banyas now offer other services, such as professional sports massages, haircuts, and even manicures or pedicures. Some also offer private rooms for hire. Enjoy a beer, or try a Nazran sparkling water with lemon and honey. Dry fish and prawns are common snacks too, but bear in mind that a lot of food and drink – especially alcohol – in combination with the heat can be harmful. In fact if you have any health concerns at all, better check with a medical professional before going.
In case it sounds like this is an exclusively male activity, many banyas have female sections too, or special days of the week when the banya is open for women only. The ubiquitous western spa is starting to replace these so you may have to look harder to find a public banya for women. There are also small private banyas where you can book the rooms for your exclusive use if you are in a mixed group. Some of these may be frequented by professional sex workers though, so check carefully before booking.
Here is a list of some of the more established banyas in the city. If you're a complete beginner, a good place to start would probably be the Dyegtyarniye banya, which is a little more expensive but is used to foreign visitors and even has an English-language website. All of these have the necessary accoutrements for hire and/or sale. S lyegkim parom!
Dyegtyarniye ulitsa 1A, St Petersburg
tel: + 7 812 969 5315, + 7 812 717 7670
ulitsa Dostoevskogo 9, St Petersburg
tel: +7 812 312 5836, + 7 812 710 8112
pereulok Bolshoy Kazachiy 11, St Petersburg
tel: + 7 8 812 315 0734, + 7 8 981 828 4045
ulitsa Mytninskaya 17-19, St Petersburg
tel: + 7 812 271 7119