Getting steamy: the Finnish sauna experience

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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's 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 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.

How?

For the uninitiated, there's a certain amount of custom and etiquette associated with the sauna, but follow these tips and you won't 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's not unusual for business meetings to take place in the sauna.
  • If you're 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.
  • Don't stay in too long – it's 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 cancelled.
  • 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's incredibly invigorating!

Where?

Ask any Finn where to find the best sauna, and they'll 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 the Finland:

Jätkänkämppä Smoke Sauna, Kuopio

Finland's best-known savusauna (smoke sauna), 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's only open two days a week) and the smoky löyly (steam) and blackened walls give it an authentic feel. It's 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.

Rauhaniemi Kansankylpylä, Tampere

For a beachside sauna experience, head to this classic public sauna on the shores of Tampere's Lake Näsijärvi. 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!

Rajaportin, Tampere

Tampere is a real sauna town and this is the oldest operating public sauna in Finland – it's been warming locals since 1906. The traditionally-heated sauna with separate areas for men and women exudes a soft and sultry steam.

Kotiharju, Helsinki

Kotiharju, in the edgy Kallio district of Helsinki, is an institution and the city's sole wood-burning public sauna. It's heated daily with room for up to 30 people. It's easy to find – you'll often see groups of half-naked men on the footpath out front cooling off with a beer.

Saunasaari, Helsinki

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's no power on the island), which can be privately rented by groups. It's 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.