What is a Sauna – the Cornerstone of Finnish Culture?
Sauna is an important cornerstone in the Finnish culture. They do exist in other cultures too, however in Finland they are part of our national culture and it is estimated that there are more than two million saunas in Finland – which for the population of roughly five and half million is quite many.
Saunas can be found everywhere from city apartments to cottages in the countryside. There are even saunaboats! There are public saunas for anyone to visit, and it is also common for big companies and institutes to have their own sauna. In Finland, an invitation to a sauna from a business contact that you have never met before is totally normal. Pretty much anyone (except newborn babies and people with serious health conditions) can enjoy its physical and mental cleansing, relaxing atmosphere and nurturing heat.
What is a sauna, specifically?
Traditionally, it is a hot, dimly lit room heated by wood, either in a stove with or without a chimney. The latter way is called a smoke sauna, which is the original way and considered to be the best by some Finns. These days, especially in urban living, saunas are most commonly electric, however the function is similar as with the traditional wood sauna.
All types of saunas have a basket of rocks, which are heated by a stove. The combination of stove and the rocks make up what is a sauna’s heart: kiuas, in finnish. When water is thrown on the rocks it increases humidity and creates steam. In finnish, this phenomenon is called löyly. The steam increases the heat and makes you sweat. As long as there is spark in the stove, water can be thrown on the rocks and the steam will come back again. Especially during summer, a vasta or vihta (name depends on the region) which is a bundle of fresh birch can be used to gently whip yourself with. As odd as it sounds, it is good for skin.
Finnish sauna etiquette
Going to a sauna can be a quick visit to sweat off the day’s dirt or it can last for hours, occasionally cooling down with dips in a lake, rolling in snow or by simply taking a shower. One important thing to note is that commonly Finns go into a sauna nude. However, we understand that it is not common in many other cultures, therefore you can also wear a towel or swimming garment if it makes you feel more comfortable. However some public saunas may have differential rules about this. Finns normally enjoy saunas throughout the year together with family, friends, colleagues, strangers or just relaxing by themselves. In public saunas drinks are usually prohibited, but outside the hot room there is often a place to cool down and rehydrate. Drinking enough water after sauna prevents nausea, caused by dehydration. And what is a sauna without cold drinks between the hot sittings!
Saunas in Helsinki
If you are travelling to Helsinki, there are multiple options to visit a public sauna. We selected here our top picks of different types.
In the heart of the city
Allas Sea Pool is conveniently located in the heart of Helsinki, next to Kauppatori. There you can experience bathing in a sauna, dipping in a sea water pool or more traditional heated pool, as well as enjoy food or drinks in the restaurants. There are also many events especially during summer months. More information and prices from: https://www.allasseapool.fi/en/
Löyly is a unique sauna restaurant, which offers different options for enjoying sauna, public or private. Dipping in the sea is also possible, as well as having lunch, dinner or snacks made with a Finnish twist in the restaurant. More information and prices from: https://www.loylyhelsinki.fi/en/
Kotiharjun Sauna is the only traditional wood-burning public sauna left in Helsinki. It has worked as a popular bathing place since 1928 serving locals and international sauna enthusiasts. More information and prices from: https://www.kotiharjunsauna.fi/
Last but not least is Sompasauna, which was originally an illegally built sauna that now operates with the power of community. It is open 24/7 and anyone can go and warm it up. First time sauna goers it is however recommended to go with someone experienced. It’s good to note that there are no showers, however it is possible to dip in the sea. For more information: https://www.sompasauna.fi/ Note. Sompasauna is currently in the process of moving / rebuilding to new location. The sauna should be up and running again August 2021.
Sompasauna. Picture: Harri Tarvainen / Visit FInland
So, if you want to fully experience the Finnish culture make sure to visit a sauna during your stay! If you need any advice, ask a Finn.