If you are a tourist on your way to Finland, one thing you must try is the sauna. If you leave without a visit to a sauna, you have definitely missed something very authentic and fundamentally Finnish.
Almost all Finnish homes have their own private sauna. If an apartment doesn’t have it’s own, there will be one in the building which the residents can reserve for their use. Even my office has a sauna! In the countryside, the sauna is often in a separate building. Summer cottages can have saunas nearby water – by the sea or a lake. In the city, saunas are usually electric whereas in the countryside saunas are most likely heated by wood.
Fun fact: there are around three million saunas in Finland – for a population of 5,5 million people. So now you see, we Finns love our saunas!
Let’s go over what you should know before your first sauna adventure. Most importantly, you must be prepared to be naked! This can be scary for people who aren’t used to taking their clothes off in front of other people. However, being in the sauna naked has absolutely nothing to do with sex and Finns don’t think there’s anything special about seeing a nude body. It’s best to try not to be awkward about it and keep in mind that for a Finn, it’s not a big deal – I do realize this is easier said than done.
Public saunas often have women-only or men-only shifts but there are also mixed saunas you can attend. Make sure you know which one you are going to beforehand as you don’t want any nasty surprises! If you are going to the sauna with friends, don’t be shy about asking who will go with whom. There is one public sauna in Helsinki where you must wear your swimsuit. Nevertheless, IMHO sitting in your sticky swimsuit in the sauna is very far from a Finnish sauna experience.
In addition to mentally preparing yourself for being naked, you will need a towel and a “pefletti”. The latter is a sheet of special paper or a cloth (a small towel will do) which you will use to sit on in the sauna. Public saunas will often provide you with these or you can rent them separately. If you are going to a sauna at your friend’s house or summer cottage, your friend will surely cater for you.
The sauna will be hot. And it will feel even hotter as Finns throw water onto the sauna stove. Note that it’s polite to ask the other saunagoers if you can throw more water. Usually no-one refuses. Once, when a Finn threw some water with gusto, I heard a visitor ask their friend if you’re supposed to do that. Hell yes! There’s no guideline on how often you can throw the water – just observe how the Finns do it and then bravely try it yourself. To get a true Finnish sauna experience, the sauna needs to be at around 80° Celsius (176° F) but for example my son thinks that’s too cold! He thinks a sauna needs to be at 100° C (212° F).
You can always leave the sauna if you feel uncomfortable – no one will be offended. Even us Finns have to leave the sauna for some cool air. In winter, some people throw themselves in the snow or go winter swimming in between their sauna sessions. If you have a chance to try this – go for it – there’s nothing like the feeling after dipping yourself in icy water!
The main purpose of the Finnish sauna is to take a moment from your hectic life and just relax. Of course cleansing yourself is part of the process too. In very traditional saunas, there are no showers. Instead, you will find buckets filled with cold water and a huge pot with heated water inside the sauna. You use the buckets and ladles to pour the water over yourself. If you are unsure of what to do, just ask a Finn and they will gladly show you. Find out if the sauna provides shampoo and soap for your use, and if not, bring them with you.
If you have a chance to use a “vihta”, go for it! A vihta is birch branches (with leaves) tied together. You use to it to whip yourself on the back, legs and arms. I know it must sound weird but it’s very relaxing and the smell from the birch leaves is lovely too!
In between your sauna session (when you go out to cool off and then back in), make sure you drink lots of water. The sauna makes you sweat and thus keeping yourself hydrated is a must. Finns love to have beer or cider, so if you join them, don’t forget your H2O!
Now you may find yourself asking who is the sauna for. Will it be okay to take my kids? Yes of course! Finnish babies start going to the sauna very early on, getting used to the heat on the lower benches. Around 100 years ago, people even gave birth in the sauna.
So how should you behave in the sauna? Must you be quiet like in a German sauna? Finns are very flexible in this matter – you can chatter along or be as quiet as you like. Anything goes, so just go with the flow. Afterwards, you will feel very relaxed and it’s best not to plan a full program after your sauna. You may find that you just want to lounge around and perhaps go to bed early.
Now that I’ve told you all about the sauna, I’m going to fill you in on another thing you may want to experience in Finland. And that is the “huussi” or as you might know it – the outhouse. Many Finns have summer cottages with a huussi and you can also encounter them at Nuuksio National Park or the islands in the archipelago.
This particular huussi looked so cute that I had to take a photo of it!
You will be glad to hear that there are several public saunas in Helsinki to choose from. All these photos were taken at Kaurilan Sauna. It’s is the most beautiful place for your traditional Finnish sauna experience in Helsinki. Towels and shampoos are included in the price. Check out the sauna’s webpage for the public sauna schedule and pricing here. You can also find them on Facebook here.
To compare a Finnish and a German sauna, do read my post on German spa etiquette here.
After reading this blog post, you should be prepared to encounter the Finnish sauna! If not, just ask anything you may be wondering about in the comments below.
Have you been to a sauna in Finland?