Come snow or shine, the Finns know the best way to relax is by stripping down and sweating it out in a little pine-clad room heated to 80°C (176°F), before taking a joyous leap into an icy lake just for the hell of it. Finland invented the sauna, and frankly, nobody does it better.
Finland's sauna scene goes strong year-round
There’s no right or wrong time of year for getting your kit off and hitting the sauna in Finland. Even in bleakest midwinter, the Finns don’t let the darkness and cold get them down. When temperatures plummet below zero and the sun barely pops its head above the horizon, you’ll find them sitting in communal silence in a roasting-hot sauna. There it’s quiet but for the crackle of burning wood and the hiss of water being tossed onto stones to emit waves of fragrant vapor, or löyly. And it’s never too cold for a post-steam dip in a frozen lake, where the numbingly cold water jump-starts the nervous system.
In summer, many Finns embrace the long days by heading to holiday cottages in the back of beyond – wood-built retreats with nothing but wide-open forest, swarms of bloodthirsty mosquitos and, of course, a sauna. Here the all-important ritual of sweating is done with friends and family. Between steams, there’s time for walking, wild swimming, cracking open a cold beer and a vigorous beating with a birch-branch whisk – the vasta or vihta – said to boost the circulation and soften the skin.
Saunas have been part of Finnish culture for centuries
Though the Finnish sauna’s origins can’t be pinned to an exact moment in time, some say it dates to the Neolithic period around 7000 BCE, when the first shivering settlers dug holes in the ground and filled them with hot stones.
While many people might think of saunas as a luxury, in Finland they're an everyday necessity, and an integral part of the culture. In this sparsely populated, densely forested country of 5.4 million people, there are three million saunas and counting.
Dubbed "the poor man’s pharmacy," the sauna is said to keep the Finns fighting fit with wondrous health benefits, from encouraging weight loss and reducing stress to improving circulation and strengthening the immune system. At pretty much any important life event you care to mention, you can bet a sauna is involved somewhere along the line. Besides purifying mind and body, this is where Finns socialize and do business, and traditionally prepare for births, deaths and marriages.
Be on your best behavior in a Finnish sauna
If you’re planning on sneaking into a sauna in your bathing suit or having a boisterous chat with your mates while you’re there, think again. The traditional Finnish sauna is treated with reverence, and lore has it that anyone who behaves improperly will have to face the wrath of the resident saunatonttu, or sauna elf, who might burn it down in fury.
Here are the seven golden rules of Finnish sauna etiquette:
- While the Finns won’t berate you for covering up, to truly fit in it’s nude or nothing – leave modesty in the changing room or master the art of the cunningly placed towel.
- Men and women generally visit the Finnish sauna separately unless they are members of the same family.
- Shower first and enter the sauna clean.
- Shhh… quiet! Saunas are no place for noise.
- Take a towel to sit on so you don’t drip sweat onto the wooden benches.
- Ladle on the löyly as you see fit. Finnish sauna tolerance varies, but you should work up a good sweat in around 15 minutes.
- Take breaks and drink plenty of water – sauna-going is not a competition to see who can last longest before passing out. And you’ll never beat a Finn at their own game anyway.
Where to find Finland's best traditional saunas
Sauna purists sing the praises of the traditional Finnish sauna, fired by the natural, pore-opening warmth of a wood-burning stove. High on any wish list should be Herrankukkaro (Mama’s Pocket) on an island just south of Turku at Finland’s southwestern tip. On a gorgeous stretch of coastline, the world’s biggest underground smoke sauna has space for 124 sweat-drenched folk, as well as hot tubs and pools playing up the views out across the Baltic Sea, where you can go for a swim if you have the nerve.
A couple of hours north, Finland’s oldest working sauna, Rajaportin in Tampere, has been letting off steam since 1906. It’s a down-to-earth number, with a wood stove emitting soft steam, a convivial cafe and massages available.
In Kuopio in the lake district of Northern Savonia, Jätkänkämppä is a huge smoke sauna, with blackened walls and clouds of gentle, perfumed löyly. It has a lovely position right on the lake should you fancy a swim – in summer (for the brave) or winter (for the downright bonkers). It’s mixed, so wear your towel.
Helsinki's hottest saunas are cutting-edge cool
If you’re seeking Finnish saunas that are more cutting-edge cool than trad, Helsinki is where it’s at. The Zen-style seafront Kulttuurisauna is the vision of architect-and-designer duo Nene Tsuboi and Tuomas Toivonen. Sleek and understated, it's heated ecologically by wooden pellets and inspired by Japanese and Roman bathing cultures. It has expansive views of the bay, and post-steam you can splash around in the Baltic or rest on the deck overlooking the harbor.
Also on the capital’s sauna scene is the aesthetically striking Löyly, entirely powered by wind and water, with a slatted pine exterior made from 4000 custom-cut planks. When the sea freezes, there’s an avanto (ice hole) for a heart-stopping, post-sauna dip.
For greater insight into the cultural nitty-gritty of Finnish saunas, consider signing up to a bespoke guided tour with Helsinki sauna expert and guide Ulla Maija, whose tours reveal everything from the traditional Finnish sauna’s origins and health benefits to their role in Finnish hospitality.
Finland's most unique saunas are sky high and cold as ice
North of the Arctic Circle, when the winter dump of snow arrives in the fells and forests of Lapland, the sauna really comes into its own. In eastern Finland, just south of Lapland, Rukan Salonki has put its own quirky riff on tradition with a visually stunning igloo sauna, made from giant blocks of ice carved from Lake Salonkijärvi. Defying all logic, the igloo heats up to a pleasantly warm 60°C (140°F). Afterwards, jump into an ice hole for a teeth-chattering cool-off if you dare.
Should you want to splurge on the wackiest – and arguably most wonderful – Finnish sauna experience, make your way to the sauna gondola in Ylläs, Finland’s highest skiable fell at 718m (2356ft) above sea level. Here you can disrobe, soak in an open-air Jacuzzi and grab a drink before taking a sweaty ride in the world’s only cable-car sauna. The far-reaching views over a snowy landscape are just like a Christmas card come to life.
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