Ah, the sauna. That little pine-clad room where you shed your clothes and your cares, steam up and let the sweat cleanse your pores. There is no better place in the world to experience a sauna than in Finland, the country that invented it.
For Finns, a sauna is not a luxury, but an essential
daily experience and an integral part of their culture. Traditionally, the
sauna has been a place to cure ills, talk business and even give birth – an
offer to join a Finn in their sauna is an honour not to be missed.
For the uninitiated, there is a certain amount of
custom and etiquette associated with the sauna, but follow these tips and you will
not go wrong.
- The sauna is taken in the nude,
though Finns are strict about the non-sexual nature of bathing – in public
saunas there are separate sections for men and women, or towels are provided.
- Shower first – you should be clean
before entering the sauna
- The person seated in the hottest
part of the sauna – the upper bench – decides when the time is right to pour
more water over the stove (kiuas),
producing steam (löyly) and further
raising the temperature.
- The sauna is usually a place for
silent reflection, but you can take the cue from your host about chatting. It is
not unusual for business meetings to take place in the sauna.
- If you are offered a bunch of
birch leaves, called a vihta, use
them to lightly whip yourself over the shoulders – it improves circulation and
enhances the effect of heat on your skin.
- Do not stay in too long – it is
not a test of endurance. In 2010, a Russian competitor in the World Sauna
Championships in Heinola died from overheating. The event has since been
- Finally, the classic sauna
experience is to take a dip in the lake or pool afterwards, return to the sauna,
then repeat the process. In winter, this means ice-swimming, where you plunge
into a hole cut into the ice. The sudden effect of icy water on warm skin will
literally take your breath away, but it is incredibly invigorating!
Ask any Finn where to find the best sauna, and they will
wistfully say it is at their kesämökki
(summer cottage) – most Finnish families own or rent a cottage -- usually by a
lake and always with a sauna -- for their summer holidays. For the rest of us,
here are five of the best public saunas in Finland.
Smoke Sauna, Kuopio
Finland’s best-known savusauna (smoke sauna) (www.rauhalahti.fi), in a log cabin
in a heart of Finland’s lakes district, is said to be the world’s largest,
though it can seem pretty cosy when filled to capacity with more than 60
people! The huge wood stove is heated 24 hours in advance (it is only open two
days a week) and the smoky löyly
(steam) and blackened walls give it an authentic feel. It is mixed, so bring a
towel, and in winter you can walk the short distance to the icehole in Lake
Kallevesi for the true sauna experience.
For a beachside sauna experience, head to this classic
public sauna on the shores of Tampere’s Lake Näsijärvi (www.rauhaniemi.net). The two original sauna buildings date
from 1929. Don a swimsuit and take a dip in the lake; in winter, take the “walk
of pain” along the green matting to the ice hole and plunge in!
Tampere is a real sauna town and this is the oldest
operating public sauna in Finland (www.pispala.fi/rajaportinsauna). It has been warming locals since 1906. The
traditionally-heated sauna with separate areas for men and women exudes a soft
and sultry steam.
Kotiharju, in the edgy
Kallio district of Helsinki, is an institution and the city’s sole wood-burning
public sauna. It is heated daily with room for up to 30 people. It is easy to
find – you will often see groups of half-naked men on the footpath out front
cooling off with a beer.
Saunasaari is not one sauna, but an
island-resort of saunas just 15 minutes by boat from Helsinki’s market square.
On Vasikkasaari Island are three purpose-built wood-fired saunas (there is no
power on the island), which can be privately rented by groups. It is a great
little summer escape from the city – after steaming it up you can relax in a
heated outdoor pool with views back to Helsinki and Suomenlinna.
The article 'The Finnish sauna experience' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.