After sauna-ing ourselves silly in Germany, one of the pressing questions we had when we arrived in Finland was the existence of the mystical sauna next to a frozen lake, with a hole cut into the ice. Here’s what we learned about Finnish sauna culture during our two-month stay.
The first question we had about saunas when we arrived in Finland was whether the sauna-plus-icy-hole-cut-into-a-lake thing really existed. And if it did, was it for locals only? Or part of an ovepriced tour? I mean, they wouldn’t just let tourists wander into these ridiculous 100°C > sub-zero temperature situations by themselves, right?
Well, it turns out they do. I’m writing this blog having survived numerous eyeball-melting saunas followed by icy lake dips – without having a heart attack or being dragged into the inky depths by a lake monster (a very real concern for me when it’s dark and I’m naked and helpless in a huge lake, in a foreign country).
Finnish sauna tradition
Every week more than five million Finns visit saunas in Finland to cleanse their bodies and souls with the help of the heat.
Did you know that there are more than three million saunas in Finland? In addition to all the public saunas, there are also thousands of saunas in office buildings, in private homes, and of course, just about every holiday home has one. The warmth of the sauna feels wonderful after an active day outside in nature. It also seems to be very good for your digestion and sleep.
In Finland, a sauna isn’t something you treat yourself to once or twice a year, as it may be for other countries. Finnish sauna culture is a way of life. It means cleansing and boosting yourself physically and mentally, and letting go of everything for a while (including your clothes).
Although the Finns are generally known for being quiet, they do talk in the sauna. Businessmen and politicians go to the sauna together, and you can even think of the Finnish sauna as the ultimate place to make business deals, because you literally get closer to each other. It’s often said that all the best decisions are made in the sauna.
I asked one of my friends in Helsinki, Pinja Virtanen, to weigh in on the sauna lifestyle (and fact check this article – thanks Pinja!). Although saunas are still as popular as ever, she feels sauna culture has changed, and continues to change for the younger generations. Younger people tend to use their private saunas for relaxing and even meditating, rather than socializing:-
“My late grandpa was a career politician and the old wooden sauna at my family’s summer cottage apparently served as a backdrop to many significant political agreements. These days, though, we warm up the same sauna to relax and sweat there quietly without much political debate.”
The origin of Finnish sauna culture
It’s a popular belief that sauna tradition originated in Finland. But the history of saunas crosses many continents and dates back centuries – so we’ll never know for sure who discovered this nirvana of relaxing heat and steam.
In winters that can see temperatures plummet below -30°C, the Finnish sauna culture was also an important part of surviving winters. Finnish women back in the “olden days” always gave birth in saunas due to it being a warm and sterile environment.
What to do (and what not to do!) when you’re at the sauna
For Finns, a sauna is almost a sacred place – a place where you should behave reverently. It’s a bit like being in church. Only everyone is naked.
Saunas have numerous rules of etiquette surrounding them. Clothed, unclothed, who gets to pour the water on the coals, talking or no talking, etc. So the following should generally be observed during a sauna visit.
In most saunas, clothing and swimwear is not allowed. This is mainly for hygiene reasons. A towel is sometimes okay. When entering the sauna, you need to cleanse and shower. This is usually done with a thorough wash using water, soap, and shampoo in showers that are provided.
After your shower, you can take a seat in the sauna room.
Remember not to stare! If you’ve never been in a small, sweaty space with a bunch of naked strangers of varying shapes, sizes, and ages, your first sauna can be a bit unnerving. Just be chill, and remember why you came to the sauna in the first place.
Expect the average temperature in the sauna to be about 80°C to 100°C. The Finns don’t mess around with the heat here.
After about 10-20 minutes, your heart will start beating noticeably faster as your body tries to keep you alive, your skin will start to feel like it’s purging 20 years of coffee and pizza from your system, and you’ll notice that you (and everyone else) is sweating like crazy. Are you about to die? Who knows! Stay with me here, we haven’t got to the good part.
When you feel you’ve had all the heat you can handle, and your eyeballs can’t take it anymore – it’s time to go outside and cool down.
True Finns cool off by taking a refreshing dip in an ice hole (“avanto” in Finnish) or by rolling around in the snow, but most public saunas offer a cold shower or a slightly less cold pool. In the summer, the lakes aren’t as cold – but swimming after your sauna is a good combo at any time of the year.
Cooling down properly is an important of the sauna process. It not only provides the fresh, invigorating feeling that your body will be craving right about now, but it’s also beneficial for your blood circulation and your body’s resistance and recovery process.
Many Finns take a beer or two with them to refresh and hydrate after a sauna – or in between sauna sessions. At one local sauna they even had a BBQ outside where you could pay a couple of Euros and stand around in the snow eating piping hot sausages with bread and ketchup. Genius! Be prepared and stash a cold beer in your bag when you go. You can thank me later.
If you don’t feel fully relaxed after your sauna session, start from scratch and repeat the process of cleaning, heating, and cooling. A sauna session usually ends with a thorough wash, followed by a soothing scrub to clean and moisturize your skin.
What to expect in the sauna – tips for beginners
- Friendly locals will try to talk to you in the sauna while your eyes and lips are on the brink of catching fire.
- Friendly locals will laugh at you while you scream and hurl obscenities at the gods as you descend into the icy lake
- If you were paying attention in school, you’ll know that higher you go inside a sauna, the hotter it gets. If you’re nervous about the heat, always sit on the lowest seat in the sauna, closest to the door.
- Sauna boards – this a butt-sized piece of thin board used as a barrier between you and the very sweaty sauna bench. You rinse it after use and hang it up for the next person to use.
- Sauna shoes – bring your own to make the sub-zero walk to the lake more pleasant on your feet. Some saunas have loan shoes you can use.This is the only time I have ever had to wear Crocs. I will carry this shame with me forever.
- Sauna beer – we kept forgetting to bring any, but it’s common to have an icy cold beer with your sauna session.
- Oddly shaped hats – yes, even at boiling point inside the sauna, there are people wearing wool hats. These are used to protect the scalp and ears from heat, and they also help to regulate body temperature.
Health benefits of Finnish saunas
Fancy sitting in the sauna after working out? Bliss! Ten minutes in a sauna cabin is enough to repair all those small muscle tears. So it’s ideal after your daily run or strength training. It’s also great all-over body therapy for better resistance, deeper sleep, and healthier skin.
The intense sauna heat raises your body temperature to about 39°C, and raises your heart rate. This makes you super sweaty, which ensures waste products are eliminated from your body.
The heat also causes your blood vessels to open further. This means that more blood flows through your organs, and also through the skin. Your skin is better nourished this way. And because you sweat so much, your skin receives a thorough maintenance and cleansing session.
Regular use of the sauna also improves your resistance. Due to the large temperature differences between the sauna and the outside air (or the cold shower, or the insanely frozen lake), your body becomes less susceptible to temperature change. This means your body can develop better resistance against seasonal illnesses such as the flu. It’s sometimes claimed that sauna use also accelerates the healing process for colds and flu symptoms.
I saw a tiny, ancient, raisin of a lady going happily back and forward from the lake to the sauna. She was outswimming and outsweating everybody. She looked healthy, strong, and had a contagious, beaming grin the whole time. I compared my pathetic moaning about the cold to her fearlessness, and admired her ability to stay in the water and sauna longer than people half her age. She was immediately my hero. Sauna power, yo!
While ‘saunas are for everyone!’ is my personal battle cry, the sauna is not an endurance test like some people seem to think. Ten minutes for one person might only be 30 seconds for you, and that’s okay. Leave the room when you feel that the heat is getting too much for you.
And always check with your doctor first if you have medical conditions that may make you sensitive to extreme heat and cold.
6 unique types of sauna experiences to try in Finland
A sauna on the edge of a lake
Finland has a lot of lakes, so most Finnish saunas have a large or small lake nearby. After a while in the hot sauna, a dip in the cool water is a great boost.
A floating sauna
This sauna is located on a wooden raft that floats on the Gulf of Bothnia, which separates Finland and Sweden. It’s a unique location, and a sauna where live bands occasionally play while you’re relaxing.
In the blissful warmth of a sauna, you perform guided yoga exercises that are specially adapted for the sauna environment. A bit like Bikram, but not as creepy.
A sauna in a restaurant or on a Ferris wheel
Sweating in an absurd place is possible! In the capital Helsinki, among other places, you will find both a Burger King restaurant and a ferris wheel where you can rent a sauna cabin. (The ferris wheel is totally on my list for next time.)
A sauna bus
Yep – you read that right. A sauna on a bus. With the sauna bus, you can cross Finland while enjoying a toasty warm sauna. Ideal for long journeys!
A sauna where you can experience an infusion ritual
In some saunas, water is poured onto hot stones with natural oils, causing the sauna to fill with fragrant steam.
Amazing Finnish sauna culture experiences
- A Finnish smoke sauna in Helsinki
- A sauna in Nuukso National Park
- A traditional Finnish firewood sauna
- A local sauna plus expert training in the Tummo breathing technique
- Finnish sauna and swimming in Rovaniemi
- Sauna, swimming, and Northern Lights experience
Finland’s sauna festival
If you like festivals, the mobile sauna festival in Finland is definitely something you want to experience. It started in 2006 with 18 crazy mobile saunas.
You can now visit this festival and see about 50 unique saunas. It’s held in Teuva in western Finland. Two rules apply during the festival – the sauna must be mobile, and have space for at least one person. Other than that, the sauna builders are left to their own wild creative imaginations to see what they can build.
Useful Finnish sauna terms
Löyly – the steam produced from tipping water onto the hot sauna rocks. This is a Finnish word that used to also mean ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’ but these days is exclusively used to mean ‘sauna steam‘.
Kiuas – the sauna stove
Vihta – a bunch of fragrant, dried birch leaves. You can often see these for sale at the markets. They are used to gently whip the body in the sauna to improve circulation and move the heat around.
Avanto – the swimming hole cut into lake ice
Saunatonttu – the elf-like spirit believed to inhabit the sauna
Recommended saunas to visit in Finland
Arlan public sauna – Helsinki
The Arlan Public Sauna is one of the oldest public saunas in Helsinki. It was built in 1929 and is still hugely popular. The sauna offers traditional birch twigs for visitors to (gently) beat themselves with in order to improve circulation. As a public sauna, it has a casual and laid-back atmosphere – unlike most of the private spas. It’s a good place to relax and experience an authentic Finnish sauna.
Rauhalahti smoke sauna – Kuopio
We went to Kuopio to see Finnish merry-metal band Reckless Love playing live (twice. Don’t judge me!) If you come here for whatever reason, make sure you check out this sauna in the central city. The Rauhalahti Smoke Sauna is the world’s largest smoke sauna. It also has a restaurant and spa in the complex. If you’re wandering around central Finland and looking for a more traditional sauna experience, the countryside location gives you a much more natural, rustic setting than saunas in Helsinki.
Kesän floating sauna – Oulu
In Oulu (our third time seeing a Reckless Love gig…) we checked out the famous floating Kesän sauna – a small wooden raft with a sauna on it that takes visitors for an ocean voyage in the Gulf of Bothnia off the coast between Finland and Sweden. It’s a unisex sauna, and it’s only open during summer.
Rauhaniemi sauna – Tampere
Our last stop in Finland was Tampere, and we were excited to find out that there were several public saunas. Two of these saunas are close together on the shores of Lake Näsijärvi, a 20 minute bus ride from the city centre, and these are our pick to visit.
Rauhaniemi is a public sauna, with two sauna rooms of varying sizes. It is an old complex dating back to 1929, so it feels like you’re getting the real deal when you come here to sauna.
Kaupinojan sauna – Tampere
When we arrived at this sauna, one of the locals took us aside – he couldn’t help but notice that we were:
a) foreigners; and
b) standing by the very large, frozen lake looking terrified
His instructions were to shower, sauna, stand around outside for a minute or so, take a dip in the lake, shower, and then go back to the sauna. Repeat until you’re suitably invigorated. This method helps to ease the body into the extremes of hot and cold that are about to happen to it.
If you take into account that the sauna temperature is around 100°C and the outside temperature can easily be -20°C or below, your body will appreciate any slight adjustments in your sauna routine to make things easier.
Kaupinojan was my pick of the Tampere saunas. It was clean, it has loan shoes so you can walk from the sauna to the lake in relative comfort, and it has an outside sausage grill. You can bring your own sausages or buy them at the door. It was one of those weird and wonderful life experiences to stand around in -25°C wearing a bikini and enjoying a toasty warm snack.
My final thoughts on sauna culture in Finland
I initially wanted to experience Finnish sauna culture to tell everyone I did the thing. You know, the part where you horrify your New Zealand family, gain other sauna-loving friends, and get a bunch of weird looks at social gatherings by sharing your death-defying and nude icy escapades.
But saunas helped me gain a new appreciation of my body and its capabilities. When you sauna and swim you’ll have many moments where you’ll be marvelling at your own mysterious inner human workings for being able to survive such massive extremes of temperature in a short space of time, while still managing to feel glowing and magnificent afterwards.
It’s also a very body-positive activity. If you’re a bit low in the self-esteem department, and the thought of sweating away in a tiny room among tightly-packed strangers makes you anxious, then honestly, this could be just the thing for you. All ages, shapes, and sizes will be sweating away alongside you. Nobody cares about your cellulite, saggy boobs, or poochy belly. Nobody. It’s very levelling, and very human. And I guarantee you’ll feel a lot more comfortable about your own size and shape afterwards.
A Finnish sauna is a cultural experience at its finest, and when you visit, you’ll find the locals are very happy to talk to you about their rich sauna traditions.
Rachael is a full-time digital nomad and freelance copywriter for B2B and SaaS companies. She’s worked with brands like Unbounce, Biteable, Datacom, Viddyoze, and Owler.
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