sau·na | ˈsônə,ˈsounə | noun | a small room used as a hot-air or steam bath for cleaning and refreshing the body.
One of the most important tenets of life in Finland is sauna. There is nothing more Finnish than sauna— they invented it after all! Getting steamy in a Finnish sauna is a must-do activity on any trip to Finland and I absolutely loved my experience at the public sauna in Helsinki. It was the most relaxing moment of my trip, and the post-sauna body high is unlike any other form of relaxation!
The Cultural Importance of Sauna
Nearly all Finns have a sauna in their home or apartment building and they also visit public saunas. In a country of approximately 5 million people, there are an estimated 2 million saunas. That’s a lot of hot rooms! It is customary for Finns to sauna at least once a week, but some do it several times a week. They think of it as part of their daily routine and a necessary part of self-care.
In a country full of introverts, the sauna is the most social space in Finland. If you’re looking to connect with locals, the best way to do so is at the sauna!
Although many saunas are quiet, it is not out of the ordinary to see Finns having extended conversations at the sauna. They may even conduct important business meetings or play a game of chess while sitting in the sauna.
Finns are very firm about the asexual nature of the sauna. Saunas are meant to be a space for cleansing, both mental and physical, which Finns take very seriously. If you make a sexual joke about saunas, you can expect some dirty looks from the locals. Families will sauna in the nude together, and it is customary to there to be gender separated areas in public saunas.
Types of Sauna
There are several different varieties of sauna that you might encounter while in Finland. Regardless of which type you experience, the customary temperature for traditional Finnish sauna is not less than 65.5 degrees C (150 degrees F).
- Wood Burning Sauna: The most traditional sauna in Finland is a wood burning sauna. This sauna is heated by, you guessed it, wood. There will be a wood burning stove inside that you feed with wood and steam to get the right temperature.
- Electric sauna: These are the most common saunas that you’ll see in private residences, hotel rooms or cabins. They tend to be small saunas intended for 2-4 people. While these are nice for locals who want quick access to the heat and steam, I would not recommend one of these for your first sauna experience. They don’t typically get as hot and aren’t a full representation of what the sauna is like for Finns.
- Infrared Sauna: I didn’t personally experience this type of sauna, but they do exist in Finland. Infrared saunas use infrared heat waves to heat the person rather than the room and no steam is used in the process. Similar to the electric sauna, I would not recommend this type of sauna for a cultural experience because it is best used for toning and relaxing the muscles after a workout.
- Steam (Wet) Sauna: Usually the most well-understood of sauna varieties, a steam sauna will have a high humidity level and temperatures will typically be a little bit cooler than a dry sauna. These are great for getting your sweat on! You can typically find this type of sauna in spas or athletic clubs in the US and Canada, but it is not quite as cultural in Finland.
- Smoke (Dry) Sauna: Increasingly rare in Finland, smoke saunas are similar to wood burning saunas except that there is no chimney to vent the fire’s smoke. Hence the name. This type of sauna has to be heated up for many hours prior to opening in order to heat up the massive rocks that are inside the stove. The room will fill with smoke and once the temperature is ready, the room will be ventilated. Be careful to always sit on your towel in these saunas — otherwise you’ll be cover in soot!
Etiquette and Customs at the Sauna
Given what an important custom the sauna is in Finland, there are a few norms you should be aware of prior to your first experience. As I mentioned above, saunas can be social places. But they can also be a space for silence and personal meditation. Each sauna will have a different vibe, so read the room before you strike up a conversation with your neighbor.
There is a good chance that you will be sharing your public sauna with someone else so it’s important to know that the person seated in the hottest part of the sauna (the upper bench closest to the heat source) is the one who decides when to increase the temperature. They will be the one to pour more water over the stove (kiuas), producing steam (löyly) and further raising the temperature of the sauna.
There is such a thing as a sauna hat. Yes, really.
I didn’t personally see this but my friends who live in Helsinki told me about the sauna hat tradition. They are typically felt hats that Finns will wear while in the sauna to help regulate the body’s temperature, which increases the amount of time someone can sit inside the hot room. You probably won’t need one on your first sauna, since you will likely be in and out faster than most Finns, but it certainly makes for an interesting souvenir!
In traditional saunas, you may be offered a bunch of birch leaves. Called a vihta, you might be wondering what to do with it. Well, you whip yourself with it! Finns will use the the branches to lightly hit themselves over the shoulders while in the sauna. This improves circulation, functions like an exfoliant to smooth your skin and will enhance the effect of heat on your skin.
Before Arriving at the Sauna
You’ll be sweating a lot— like A LOT— while in the sauna so make sure to drink lots of water before you arrive at the sauna. If you aren’t used to the heat, your first (or second) sauna experience will probably take a toll on your body. Dehydration and lightheadedness are common side effects that newbies can experience. Just prepare yourself!
While a majority of public saunas in Finland will be full nude saunas, there are some that require you to wear a swimsuit. Some saunas will provide you with a towel, while others may not. Make sure to check on the specific rules prior to arrival so that you have the necessary supplies.
Some public saunas are well known and quite popular, requiring you to make a reservation in advance.
On my visit to the design-minded Loyly sauna in Helsinki, we made a reservation a few weeks ahead of time. The visits are staggered to ensure that there are never too many people inside the sauna at once.
Typically you will be given a small locker to store your things while in the sauna, so it is best to pack lightly. I personally wear glasses, which get super fogged up in the sauna, and I wish I had worn contacts that day. Just a small piece of advice!
While at the Sauna
You’ve reached the best part of the experience; you’re finally at the sauna! Time for some heat and relaxation. You’ll start by stripping down, (maybe putting on a swimsuit) and then taking a quick shower to rinse off any lotions or products that might be on your skin.
Depending on the layout of the sauna, you may be able to try out a a few different types of sauna. The most traditional pairing you’ll see is a wet sauna and a wood-fired dry sauna. On my visit to Loyly in Helsinki, I got to try a smoke sauna and a traditional wood sauna.
Typically you will alternate between the sauna styles with a dip into cold water in between the two.In some parts of Lapland, Finns will carve out a hole in the ice to jump into. At Loyly, I actually jumped into the frigid Baltic Sea between my saunas. BRRRR! Think of it like a mini Polar Plunge.
There aren’t many rules you need to know for the sauna itself but one informal rule that Finns joke about is that you can’t heat and run. If you throw water onto the stove, you should stay in the sauna for at least a few minutes to enjoy the heat you just created.
I loved my experience with the sauna culture in Finland, and I can’t recommend it enough for anyone visiting this Scandinavian country. There are millions of saunas all across the country in Finland, so it’s not hard to find one— your hotel or AirBnb might even have one in your room! Public saunas will give you the full Finnish tradition and with my tips above, you will fully prepared for your first sauna experience in Finland!