Russian banya was first mentioned in the chronicles in the 10th century, and since then it has always played a significant role in the life of Russian people. Banya was always visited on Saturdays and before religious holidays. It was very important to clean up before going to the church. Banya was used for many purposes - washing, giving birth to children, fortune-telling during Christmas-tide, etc. Of course, the main purpose was to relax and to wash oneself.
Even Emperors of Russia liked to go to banya. And it is known that when Peter the Great was in Paris, at his command a big banya was built on the banks of the Seine, and the citizens of Paris were shocked to see Russian people running out of banya into the river.
Banya was usually built on the banks of either the lake or the river. It was a one-storeyed building consisting of three rooms - steam room, washing room and dressing room. In the middle centuries black banya was widely spread in Russia. It didn't have a chimney and a proper stove, that's why all the walls and the ceiling were always black because of the smoke. Today it is difficult to find a real black banya, so it is a unique experience not only for foreigners but also for Russians themselves.
Later people started to build stoves with big chimneys in banyas, and "white" banya appeared in Russia. Nowadays people build banyas in the villages and near their summer houses outside of the city, try to find a good place for banyas closer to the lake or river or another water reservoir. In some regions in northern Russia Finnish sauna is also popular. There is a tradition of jumping into the water in summer or even into an ice-hole in winter after getting steamed thorouhgly in the steam-room.
Banya is believed to cure some diseases. Some people when they catch cold go to banya to get some warmth and to get rid of the infection.
Russians take besoms made of birch leaves, juniper or oak leaves. They beat themselves or each other with besoms and blood starts to circulate faster.
Today Russian banya is more like an entertainment activity rather than a part of life for most Russians. There is a special ceremony of going to banya for several hours, relaxing with a cup of tea (couple of beers) afterwards. Visiting Russian banya is a unique opportunity to feel the old Russian tradition which survived till our days.
There are two main ways to experience banya.
The first way is to visit banya in a city. In Moscow there are several historical banyas, including famous Sanduny banya extablished in early XIX Century. Public banyas can be found in most of Russian cities.
The second option is to go to the countryside and visit a small wooden banya. Russians built banyas by their summer houses ("datcha"). Countryside hotels and guesthouses may also have small banyas available for small companies and individuals. For example, guesthouse of Elupov near Kizhi has a good banya.