There are various forms of spa culture all over the world: bathhouses, hot springs, saunas, steam rooms, and more. (Finnish Sauna)
Japan, for example, is well-known for its onsen or natural hot springs, whereas Turkey has its famous hammams or bathhouses. When it comes to Finland though, their love for saunas resonates all over the world. They are, after all, the country that invented this form of amazing public bath culture.
Back when I visited Finland for a week, I was lucky enough to have been able to try and witness a typical Finnish sauna and it was an experience that was not only memorable but refreshing too!
It’s best for you to know by now that unlike how we might see saunas, the Finns DON’T see it as a luxury — but rather a necessary daily experience given that it has become ingrained into their culture and life for years. In fact, when you visit Finland, you will see for yourself how every Finnish residence will have their own private sauna (studies say that there is on average, 1 sauna in every household).
Hotels will always have it as an amenity as well, and if you travel around the region, you would even notice these small wooden huts that are either beside a house or near a body of water.
Now if you were ever to pay a visit to the wonderful country of Finland, a trip to a Finnish sauna is a must! And in order to prepare you for this experience — since it can be daunting to step into a heated place with strangers and with no clothes on — let me share with you some facts and basic know-how.
About Finnish Sauna
» The Tradition
It is difficult to trace the exact origins of the Finnish sauna, however, one can surmise that this ‘warming activity’ was born due to the naturally cold climate of the country. (Yet, of course, it helps to note that its popularity still remains even in summer!)
What we do know is that the sauna culture spread out to other countries when European bathhouses were being destroyed during the Reformation in Scandinavia, and it remained to flourish in Finland over time because of the great versatility possessed by it. I say this because, in the olden times, Finns can live in a sauna: they can make food on the stove, cure their meat, take care of their hygiene with it, and even give birth in it (as it is regarded as a sterile environment). Because of this fact, Finns would customarily build a sauna first whenever they moved!
Today, Finns take a sauna at least once a week as they regard it as a place for physical and mental healing. Truth be told, they have a saying that while one is in a sauna, one must conduct (behave) himself as one would in church. But that doesn’t mean that they’re all stiff and uptight since you’ll see some sipping some beer while inside the sauna.
Anyhow, their attachment to it perfectly shows when it comes to vacations and getaways because you could see Finnish families dragging along their mobile/portable saunas, if not seek out a sauna place while abroad. Though, if in case a person or family doesn’t have a private sauna in their home, it’s common for Finns to go to a shared public one.
Now, as a visitor to the country, if you ever get invited to a Finnish sauna, it’s best NOT to refuse. Of course, you can refuse but it might disappoint your Finnish host(s) because such an invitation signifies their acceptance of you — it’s an honor, per se. So should you ever decline, you better have a good reason for it!
» Different Sauna Types
There are various types of saunas in Finland and they can be categorized by the building or by the stove it uses.
Primarily, however, there are the types below:
Smoke Sauna (Savusauna). This is a Finnish sauna that has no chimney. Wood is burned in a large stove in order to fill the room with smoke. The fire is slowly permitted to die when the sauna becomes hot enough, and thereafter, the smoke is slowly ventilated.
Wood Stove Sauna. This is the most common type of Finnish sauna found outside of the city. It uses a metal stove with stones on top (kiuas) that are heated by a wood fire. With this kind, the use of birch wood is preferred for its good quality and smell, and the person would typically sit on a high bench near the ceiling where the hot steam would reach them quickly. The vital thing about this kind of sauna is to achieve a good löyly — the state when the stones are hot enough so that you can throw water at it in order for the steam to rise.
Electric Sauna. As the name suggests, this kind of sauna does not require wood to burn. It mainly uses stones that are heated ‘electronically‘ at a push of a button, and which would produce steam whenever you throw water on it.
» How to Sauna
Here is a helpful ‘rough’ guide of how you should have a sauna bath in a public Finnish sauna (which applies for all other kinds of sauna all over the world, even private ones too). For sure, there are instructions available in the sauna place itself, but it helps to know how the sauna process goes beforehand, right?
1. Drink 1-2 glasses or a bottle of water 30 minutes to an hour before you get into a sauna.
2. Take off all your clothes, and then take a shower in order to remove any oils or dirt from your body. (Some Finns would already take a dip in a cold lake at this point!)
I know how weird it must feel for you to get into a public sauna with strangers without your clothes on. I assure you though that the Finns regard this as normal (much like how Japanese people in onsens do their bathing routine in the nude).
So yes, there’s no ‘sexual’ context in this. If in case, you really can’t do it, you can always cover yourself up in a towel during your sauna experience; the Finns would understand, but of course, it’s best that you take off that towel once you’re in the sauna ;)
3. Before entering the sauna, grab a towel which is sometimes available for free or for rent. (Some people enter the sauna with wet skin, while others don’t — it depends on you.)
4. Once inside, you will see that there are benches along the walls. The top ones are the hottest, and the lower ones are the coolest. As a first-timer, it’s best to opt for the middle benches — you can move up or down later on as you gauge your tolerance for the heat. Spread out your towel on the spot you picked and sit on it (this is for hygiene reasons, and also because the bench can get very warm).
5. You will notice that breathing inside the sauna feels a bit awkward. Don’t worry, this is normal. Now, while you are sitting in your spot, some people will pour water over the hot stones which will give rise to steam. This will be very warm at first, but you won’t be burned. If you like the feeling though, don’t hold back: feel free to pour water on the rocks as often as you’d like.
6. After 8-10 minutes of sweating, get out and take a cold shower. The maximum time you can stay in is 15 minutes, but feel free to get out sooner if you don’t feel comfortable.
Apart from taking a cold shower, you can do it like the Finns do in order to get an incredible ‘rush’: jump into a cold lake (or during winter, it’s called ice swimming where they cut a hole through the ice; otherwise, you can roll in the snow!)
7. Cool off somewhere for 10 minutes and drink something.
8. Go back into the sauna and warm yourself again (maximum 15 minutes). At this point, you can try the Finnish vihta on your shoulders since your skin is smoother than when you first came in. (This is a bunch of leafy fragrant birch. Finns gently use this to beat themselves as it is said to help relax the muscles and improve circulation.)
9. Repeat this sweating and cooling-off process as many times as you want! Some Finns can take hours inside the sauna, but since you’re new to this, do STOP when you start to feel dizzy.
10. End your sauna with a shower and let your body cool down.
» Other Tips and Facts
Apart from the tips that I’ve already mentioned above, here are some other things you should know:
- To be clear, yes, saunas are taken in the nude by the Finns. But again: it’s all non-sexual and public saunas have separate sections for men and women.
- Always remember to keep your body hydrated during your sauna session; however, alcohol is surely something you should avoid! In most public saunas by the way, you’re free to bring your own drinks if you want.
- Authentic Finnish saunas are often dimly lit. There are no music or fragrances added except for the fresh smell of birch, pure steam or natural tar.
- It’s always great to go into a public sauna with a local — so make sure you say YES if they ever invite you! On the other hand, just bring your friends with you and enjoy your time there as you socialize. You’ll see it for yourself: the scene inside a sauna is like a ‘cafe’ — less the coffee and food, but more casual chatter and whatnot.
- In the end, there really are no strict rules to using a sauna since how you use it can change depending on any occasion. What’s ultimately important is that you get to relax and even socialise especially if you stepped in with other people (Finns or non-Finns alike).
» Where To Find Saunas?
With literally MILLIONS of them spread out across Finland, you’re bound to see one, if not be lead to one. Like I’ve previously stated, not only does almost every household have a private Finnish sauna but hotels and corporate places have it — it’s that abundant. So for sure, if you step into a city, you can either use the hotel’s sauna facilities or simply ask for the local public sauna’s location.
For only 10EUR for adults, 8EUR for students, and 3EUR for kids, you can enjoy their quality IKI-Kiuas stoves as well as their mellow ambient that will take you on a trip back in time.
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I’ve tried saunas for numerous times now, but the authentic Finnish way of doing sauna is an experience that you should absolutely try for at least once in your life, most especially if you’ve set foot in Finland! (Who knows, you’ll be addicted to it in no time like the Finnish people!)
Now I haven’t been all too ‘Finnish’ about my sauna escapades since I chickened out on jumping into a frozen lake or rolling around the snow — rest assured, that’s a bucket list item that I will absolutely try when I get back to Finland. That’s a promise!