In Malmo at the Ribersborgs Kallbadhus, I immerse in Sweden—literally. I walk down a long rickety pier on the Oresund strait, which separates Sweden from Denmark, throw off all my clothes, and leap into the icy Baltic Sea.
There’s a bit more to it, actually. First, at this more-than-a- century-old bathing house, a wooden building that hovers above tempestuous waters, I follow a Nordic tradition that some say dates back to the 13th century. Called cold-plunge swimming, winter bathing or hot cold hydrotherapy, this ancient wellness habit con- sists of raising the body’s temperature in a hot sauna session, then lowering it dramatically with a dip into a freezing lake or ocean— even a roll in the snow. Known to raise endorphins, the activity results in an immediate sense of well-being, a rush that lasts for several hours. But it also has other purported benefits over time, from lowering blood pressure to boosting the immune system to detoxifying to improving muscle tone.
At Kallis, as some locals call the nostalgic-style, open-year- round swim center for short, I enter the U-shaped building with trepidation. It’s windy and wintery on Sweden’s southern coast, and I’m already cold, though protected by manifold layers. The very thought of disrobing makes me shiver, but I persevere. With a cozy cafe, piers aplenty, a Swedish flag and side-by-side changing rooms, the rustic complex encompasses indoor/outdoor separate sections for men and women, with one shared sauna connecting the two parts. In each same-sex area, two additional saunas beck- on—one wood-fired, in the Swedish tradition.
I wander into the women’s area without instructions, eyeing the other participants, an eclectic crowd, ranging in age from 12 to 90. One woman points to my shoes and clothes, mimics undressing, then shows me a locker. She’s faster than I am at getting naked, but I catch up, and follow her to the saunas. That’s the first step. Inside, entranced by a picture window that frames the sea, I relax to my task. Surrounded on the warm, wooden benches by a perspiring throng of nudes in every shape and size, I feel a comforting sense of community—though nobody says a word. Nakedness becomes a metaphor for Swedish simplicity, for keeping things real. We’re all here for the same purpose—relaxation and well-being. When I’m so hot I can’t stand it any longer, I know it’s time. I gather my courage for the next step. Resolutely, I depart the sauna into bitter air, walk briskly along the pier, lower myself down a rusty ladder, and plunge into decidedly frigid waves. I may or may not have screamed.
Whether it’s during winter’s short days or summer’s endless light, the Swedes tend to define wellness in relation to the landscape— water or woods. Bathhouses, like Ribersborgs Kallbadhus, offer a way to connect to nature. In the late 19th century, a slew of spa hotels and bathhouses sprung up along Sweden’s coasts and by its lakes, inviting more affluent citizens to cold plunge in style. These retreats also often incorporated therapies and exercise programs inspired by Per Henrik Ling, considered the father of Swedish massage. He pioneered something called the Swedish Movement Cure, theories which evolved into today’s classic massage, but also into organized exercise programs in public schools in Sweden. Today, many Swedes simply head to cabins or cabanas by the water, equipped with hand- built saunas, and do the time-honored ritual themselves. Heat and dip. Rinse and repeat.
Ready to take the plunge? Dive into good health (and salute nature) at some of Sweden’s best bathhouses and spa hotels.
Overlooking Norra Lake in Central Sweden, west of Stockholm, this fami- ly-owned spa dates back centuries. First made famous for its legendary cures in the 18th century, including ridding a king of his migraines, the destination contin- ues to attract health-conscious pilgrims. Occupying a group of historic, restored structures, the tony country house hotel features a Water Salon on the lake’s shore with aquatherapy elements, treatments and saunas. A centuries old, still flour- ishing herb garden yields produce for the kitchen, while its Health Resort Museum presents the history of Swedish wellness trends.
The spa menu at Mossbylund, a re- imagined, family-owned former farm in the Skane region, offers a free treatment: a dip in the sea. “There’s no need to book in advance,” says the spa director. “Simply walk across the road to the sea, rub your body with the sand, and take a cleansing swim in the cold water—all best done af- ter a sauna.” For just a few kroner, they’ll have a hot toddy prepared for your return. With stylish rural appeal, the inn centers around its farm-to-table restaurant and clever spa, which has pools set amid golden fields and bucolic countryside.
Occupying one of the south coast’s most eye-catching beaches, on the verge of the medieval village of Ystad, a location made famous by the Kurt Wallander novels, this spa hotel opened in 1897 as a bathhouse retreat. With views of the Baltic Sea, small dunes, white sand and colorful Lilliputian Skane-style changing houses flanking it all in a row, the hotel gets accolades for its Salt Creek Spa, a hydrotherapy haven. Recently refurbished, incorporating the gravitas of its history with a contemporary twist, Saltsjöbad delivers a stellar, upscale spa weekend experience.