If you go to Moscow (and/or Russia) and do not go to the banya, then you have missed out! Going to the banya has been a quintessential Russian experience for over 900 years, since it first appeared in the Primary Chronicle in 1113. While Russian peasants traditionally went to the banya on Fridays to clean themselves after a long week of work, you can now go to a banya any day of the week. It’s a great way to socialize with friends and relax for a few hours. There are two types of banyas – public and private. Public banyas are open to all – you arrive and reserve a space for you and your friends. For private banyas (also sometimes located in public ones and called individualnoe nomer) you call ahead of time and reserve a space. The more popular and central public banyas are usually more ornate and expensive (of course). Probably the most iconic banya in Moscow is the famous Sandunovskii banya located on Kuznetskii Most.
What should you bring to the banya? Plastic sandals is probably the most important thing. If you want to wash up you can bring shampoo and/or soap. If you happen to own a cool banya hat (shapka) – bring that. You can also buy one at the banya. If you’re going to a private one, perhaps best to bring a towel. The public ones will have large sheets which act as towels for you. Make sure to bring your own snacks/drinks if you rent a private banya.
Now, how does this banya thing work? Once you get your reserved spot (or in a private banya go to the main room) in the entrance room (predbannik), you can undress and wrap yourself in the sheet/towel. Next head over to the parilka (hot room) for some heat! The steam room usually has two or three levels of seating and the temp will run somewhere around 200 degrees fahrenheit or 110 celsius. Find yourself a seat and let the heat do the work. If you’ve brought a hat, now is the time to wear it. You can stay in the room anywhere from 2-7 minutes. If you feel ill or light-headed, it’s probably a good idea to leave. While in the hot room you can also use some veniki to clean those pores out. Veniki are leaves/branches from oak, birch, or eucalyptus. Have a friend hit you with them (seriously). Next is the fun part – to cool off you get to jump into cold water in the washroom. The washroom will either have large wooden barrel (bassein), pool(s), or showers. Depending on which banya you attend, you might have to go jump into a lake or snow to cool off (likely not in Moscow). Now go sit back down and enjoy food and drink and repeat the process over and over for two hours.
Despite what others may tell you, the banya is actually very healthy. It helps clean out your blood, kidneys, and skin. Best to make sure you stay hydrated and monitor what you drink while you are there. If you’re pregnant though, best to skip the banya.
The Moscow Times has a guide to banyas, as does the Rough Guide. If you happen to be visiting Suzdal for a few days, I recommed staying at the Goriache Kliuchi resort where they have amazing private banyas at a very affordable rate.