Heading to Scandinavia and planning on things to do in Finland? Experiencing a Finnish sauna in the land of its origin (did you know that the word “sauna” comes from Finland?) will certainly be one of the highlights of your trip!
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Finnish sauna: what’s so special about it?
The feeling! The time you make just to you sit there and have a good, purifying sweat. All the while, the steam you inhale and the sauna ‘ritual’ itself is held in a very casual, natural way so you feel you are having relaxing fun with some healing effects as a bonus.
The tradition of Finnish sauna goes back to the fifth century, when Scandinavian nomadic tribes settled down. It’s assumed that up until then, they carried a portable sweat lodge, similar to the ones of Native Americans.
Unlike in Sweden and Norway, where the tradition of a hot steam bath disappeared because of sicknesses whose proliferation was mainly blamed on the saunas, partly because of prostitution connected with them, Finland developed saunas as a quintessential part of their culture and has remained a leader of sauna culture even today. The Finnish proverb, “One should behave in the sauna the way one behaves in church” explains a lot.
Join some local tours in Finland:
- Helsinki Musical Tour
- Helsinki Airport Layover 3-hour Guided Tour
- From Helsinki: Return Day Trip Ferry Ticket to Tallinn
- Helsinki: Helsinki and Suomenlinna 5-Hour Sightseeing Tour
- 90-minute Helsinki Boat Sightseeing on Beautiful Canal Route
Tradition of the Finnish sauna
Sauna is one out of many traditional and interesting things to do in Scandinavia. Finnish sauna used to be a very particular, often considered a sacred place. There you could find a woman giving birth (the environment was sterile and she did it when the sauna was not heated), a person dying or a person performing a healing ceremony.
Sauna was one of the first things Finns built when they moved and became how they were recognised among the other Scandinavian nations. In the past, people in Finland considered the sauna to also be a place to wash and clean themselves and traditionally they used to do it every Saturday. Nowadays, every Finn visits a sauna on average once per week too, but naturally, with a different purpose.
There are almost 3 000,000 saunas in Finland, meaning that each household contains one on average. Theoretically, the saunas in Finland can accommodate the whole country’s population. In case a family doesn’t have its own sauna, it’s common to use a shared, public one in an apartment building. As a resident, you just need to check a schedule and book it in advance.
As a traveller, you can check out if your hotel has one (which is very probable), or ask your Finnish host. We guarantee they’ll have some good tips. If you fancy a special experience, there are even saunas integrated in some buses or ferries!
Different types of Finnish sauna
There are different kinds of this blissful and healthy procedure and you can choose between the traditional smoke sauna (savusauna), wood stove, electric saunas. We tried the first two types and we can honestly say that after spending an afternoon in a smoke sauna in Vierumäki, we were hooked. No, nobody has a pipe inside, and no bacon is smoked there either.
The main principle of smoke sauna is that you do the all sweaty detox in a dark room with no chimney and no windows, just by candlelight since there is no electricity. The room is heated up by burning wood in a kiuas (stove) for 8-10 hours in advance.
Since there is no chimney, all the smoke stays inside until the room is hot enough. Then the doors is open so smoke goes out and the sauna is ready for you to enter. While sitting on a small, wooden chair or a platform, in both cases with a disposable tissue, you pour some water over the coals from time to time with a loylykauha (ladle) from a kyulu (wooden bucket) and inhale the steam mixed with the tar that remains in the wooden walls.
The traditional room also contains two big buckets with hot and cold water to mix in the third, small bucket, from which you take the water with a small ladle to wash yourself with at the end of your Finnish sauna experience.
The other type of sauna you might enjoy a lot is the peat sauna, where you go through the same basic process as in the normal sauna, but you cover yourself with a thick layer of peat all over your body. We tried the peat sauna in Hartola while staying at the Linna Hotel where they use natural products.
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How to have the best Finnish sauna experience:
* go with a local
If you’re planning to visit a Finnish sauna for the first time, go there with a person who has some experience already. There is no “big science” behind the sauna experience, but to know a few tips and tricks from a local makes a difference.
* go nude
We admit that we didn’t do this ourselves, since we were in a sauna with other bloggers in our group and none of us was exhibitionist enough. But we can imagine how great it must be to do it the way all Finns (and most Europeans) do.
On that note, to go to a hot room with a swimwear is not only impolite, but also dangerous. When chlorine from the swimming pool that remains on your swimwear vaporises in a hot sauna, it can cause breathing problems to people suffering from asthma or allergies.
* go to a sauna near a lake
This is the best possible way how to get an awesome Finnish sauna experience. There is nothing better than jumping into a cold lake after each round in the sauna. We had a chance to freeze our bones twice: in Lake Mustalampi near Vierumäki and in Padasjoki near Päijänne National Park.
To say it was exhilarating is an understatement and just from that evening, when we jumped into the lake to join swans swimming nearby, we cannot imagine having a Finnish sauna any other way! Not only is it refreshing (to put it mildly), but you also do something you would have never expected you’d do with such pleasure (Gianni) and courage (Ivana).
If you visit a Finnish sauna in winter, then rolling in snow after a hot room is the way to go!
* have a shower before
Having a short shower before entering the sauna is not only a matter of your personal hygiene, but it’s also a polite gesture of respect to the people who are going to share a hot room with you.
* find the best spot
To get the best of the steam and heat, you might want to sit on a laude (an elevated platform), preferably on the top where the hot air circulates the most intensely. But if you think you’ll need to adjust to the heat or you take your children to the sauna with you, a lower platform will be the better option.
* use a towel or perfletti
The temperature in the sauna goes usually up to 80-100C, so if you want to avoid burning your bum, you better use either a towel or disposable tissue called a perfletti to sit on. The latter one is specially designed to tolerate heat.
* have a chat
Compared to public saunas we visited in Europe, here, in Finland, people talk about casual things (also to a stranger), which creates great, relaxing atmosphere. Sauna for Finns is a place where you socialise and have a good time, not meditate and suffer from the heat with your own thoughts.
* drink, drink, drink
In Finnish saunas, you lose a lot of water, so make sure you drink a lot of non-alcoholic liquids before, during and after the sessions. We filled ourselves with water and soft drinks, although, while enjoying steam, Finns will most probably offer you a beer or two, as it’s one of the most common drinks to bring with you into the sauna.
* whisk yourself
This was the part we had to skip, since the birch trees from which we were supposed to make a vihta (sauna whisk), had started losing leaves at that time. Now it might sound that Finnish sauna is nothing but a sado-masochistic event, but to get the best out of it, it’s highly recommended to whisk yourself or your friend with a bouquet of branches of a birch, eucalyptus or an oak tree to help relieve muscle and joint pain, release stress or heal your respiratory problems.
* no additional fragrance
There are no additional essential oils added to the water you pour on the stones or the stove. Pure steam and the smell of tar are what you’ll smell during your sauna session.
Finns know very well what they do if they build saunas near lakes. There is nothing better than jumping into cool water after using a hot room. You don’t jump to swim in the cold water for minutes. It’s enough to stay in the water until you feel refreshed, which might take only 30 seconds to a minute. Moreover, the more times you repeat this cooling-off procedure in the same day, the less cold you’ll feel.
* wash up in the end
After all the sweating you do, you’ll want to wash off all the dead cells and toxins that come out of your skin. One of most traditional ways in the smoke sauna is to mix hot and cold water from two huge buckets into a smaller one and then use a ladle to pour the water over yourself.
Join one of the local tours in Finland:
- Porvoo: 5-Hour Town Tour from Helsinki
- Nuuksio National Park: Half-Day Trip from Helsinki
- Rovaniemi: Reindeer Farm Visit in the Summer
- Sipoonkorpi National Park Half-Day Hike: Trolls’ Trail
- Helsinki Stopover Tour with Round-Trip Airport Transfers
* go with a half-empty stomach
As with any sport or wellness activity, it’s better that you only have a light meal before entering a sauna. You’ll let your body get rid of toxins much easier that way.
* know your limits
Make sure your first Finnish sauna experience will be not the last one. Don’t overestimate your condition; do more short rounds in a hot room rather than a long one. Begin with a 10-minute round (or less, if you feel like it) and go refresh yourself in a lake, have a shower or roll in the snow afterwards.
* leave a shot of vodka for later
To have a shot of alcoholic beverage or mixed soft drinks with alcohol before or while sweating is really not the best idea. Not only because you might find it difficult to jump in a lake or find your way back to the sauna. Bear in mind what you drink is going to evaporate through your skin, and it’s not very pleasant for the other people to inhale alcoholic fumes while detoxifying in the sauna.
In the end, enjoying a Finnish sauna is all about feeling great, and it’s something you definitely shouldn’t miss on your trip to Finland. Just keep in mind a few basic rules and go with the flow once you are inside. Remember, Finnish sauna is a neutral “territory” where we are all equal. And equally sweaty.
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Disclaimer: Our sweaty adventures were supported by Outdoors Finland and Visit Finland. All opinions and experiences are our own.
36 thoughts on “Finnish Sauna: How to Have a Blissful Experience”
I wonder if having a sauna experience in Finland is part of the “entire” experience of trying to learn and understand the “hygge.” If so, I would like to have (all of) it one day. 🙂 Thanks for writing about making the most of a Finnish sauna!
Definitely it is, Henry. I guess Finns would be super happy to learn that their part of culture might become a crucial the element of ultimate blissfulness of a human being 🙂
This is a well written, beautiful post about Finnish Saunas! And the photos are out of this world! great job!
Thanks a lot, Cacinda, I guess you could taste a bit of this blast also yourself recently, right?
That sounds like a very special thing to do especially if done with locals as you said. I have to admit that I’m not a sauna person myself, I probably wouldn’t voluntary choose to have one, but being in a foreign country I’d also love to try their traditional activities so I’d probably join in if I’d have the opportunity. I like the idea though of having a lake close by, it must feel so good to jump into it after the sauna 🙂
Finnish sauna is way more interesting experience than we’ve done back in other European countries. In Finland, the tradition and all “ritual” are so strong that you can barely resist to experience it. The lake or a swimming pool are fantastic, indeed. I actually cannot imagine Finns doing it other way 🙂
Love it – they all look so inviting! I love the idea of jumping into a lake after. bliss!
It really is, Delia, but you definitely need to jump back on the bench or chair in the sauna afterwards 🙂
I’ve heard so much about Finnish Saunas in the past, but this how to guide has got me jazzed to finally try it out. Next summer when I go to Europe, I will take a trip to Finland just to experience this!
If you’ll have a chance, go for it, Caroline! It’s a heavenly experience 😉
What a great article and breath taking photos!
Obrigado, Yara! We’re glad you like the post 🙂 And thank you for sharing, too!
This is a great article! Makes me want to strip down immediately and hang out in a Finnish sauna, especially with the current weather conditions (it’s wet and cold in Hamburg, Germany right now). Visited Finland a few years back and stayed at a cabin with its own sauna, of course. Also got to see some northern lights, which was simply breathtaking!
Thanks for commenting, Marc. Sounds like you had an awesome time in Finland. Wow, I can only imagine the scenery of a cabin and northern lights! Brrr, winter in Germany must be hard (we lived in Frankfurt am Main for three years), but you have there so many fantastic thermal spa, which make your winter time easier, doesn’t it?
Excellent photos and overview! We’ve never been to Finland so we’ve never experienced a Finnish sauna.
We did however live in the Netherlands for 3 and 1/2 years, and while my wife never visited a Dutch sauna I did so a couple times. It was really relaxing, but yes, strangers generally don’t chit chat! This looks very different from what I experienced in Holland. Would love to experience it some day!
Thanks a lot for your comment, Alex! We don’t have any experience with Dutch sauna, but if you love wellness, Finnish sauna is one of the best ways to relax and recharge. Hope you’ll get a chance to travel to this absolutely gorgeous country soon!
In 2015 the estimated number of saunas in Finland is getting closer to 3 million. Definitely 2 million has been passed in the beginning of the year 2000.
200 000 is missing a zero and a bit! 😀
– In the sauna one must conduct himself as one would in church.
– The sauna is a poor man’s pharmacy.
– If a sick person is not cured by tar, spirits [alcohol] or sauna, then they will die.
– A woman looks her most beautiful after the sauna.
– All men are created equal; but nowhere more so than in a sauna.
– A house without a sauna is not a home.
– A sauna without a birch whisk is like food without salt.
Hi Jaana, thanks a lot for the correction 😉 And for the proverbs, too. A lot of them we heard back in Finland and some of them we liked to implement into the article, too. Cheers!
As a 3rd generation Finnish-American, I have enjoyed the Finnish sauna at my Grandparents’ camp in Canada at Lake-of-the-Woods as well as saunas in Northern Michigan. I have also experienced the Native sweat in B.C. Sauna lifts the spirit as it also is cleansing. The Finnish sauna used a stove to generate heart with Sauna rocks on its top on which water was ladled for steam. Heat at top level was too intense for me, I preferred the middle level. The wood building added its own fragrance. By contrast the Native sweat had a pit in the center with heated rocks, and we sat on the ground around the pit; it was very hot but not quite as intense as the sauna levels. Water would be ladled onto rocks. Similar but different, both invigorating and cleansing. Cultural similarities and differences were more subtle. Wish I had a home sauna.
Hi Marilyn, thank you so much for sharing your experience! I could feel the hot steam and particular wood fragrance of the wood from your message.
We’ve never tried the sweat lodge, but we wish to experience it very much! Hope one day there will be a chance to do it when we touch the American continent.
Thanks again for reading and commenting and hopefully you can enjoy some good cleansing sauna soon!
If you’d like to try a true Finnish sauna without leaving the United States, head to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Every good Finnish Yooper has one in their basement – including this Wisconsin transplant. 😉
Thanks a lot for the tip, Carie! ps: my vocabulary is richer now with a cool word: Yooper!
After living through a life (67 years so far) in Finland and experiencing the Sauna culture as part of the everyday life it is very interesting to read a ‘separate article’ about Sauna. I kind of woke up noticing: oh yes it’s all that and you can analyse it that way. You got the facts right but connecting them to a curve of life is missing there: the first time you enter sauna as a baby, the first time you take your child to sauna and so on. But thanks for the story and description: it’s all correct but ‘there is more in it’.
Hi Simo, thanks a lot for reading and your input! Much appreciated.
I got your point. We spent in Finland only about 10 days in total, which is definitely not enough to capture crucial moments of Finns you are writing about. But we heard some stories from our Finnish friends who were even born and grown in saunas (literally), so we can only imagine how much is sauna culture integrated in your daily lives 🙂 Thanks again for stopping by!
Thank you for writing this blog post! As I’m working for thisisFINLAND, a site meant to tell foreigners about Finland, I found it very helpful for our “promotion work” so I featured you last night on our page.
You can find your blog post here: https://www.facebook.com/thisisfinlandFB
Have a great day!
Hi Mari-Helene, thank you so much! Yes, we noticed a huge number of traffic to this post yesterday and were actually wondering where it was coming from 🙂 Thanks again, we do appreciate it a lot!
No worries, my pleasure 🙂
Great article and interesting to read! I even enjoyed a Finnish sauna whilst growing up here in Australia (in winter) as my parents, being Finns, built one in their home.
Thanks for commenting, Peter! It must have been great to have sauna available whenever you felt to go for it 🙂
Good explain of sauna, but you do not lose fat in the sauna. And it is quite polite not to talk in sauna
Thanks for reading and your comment, Lisa. I’ll correct the info about the fat, but with the silence in sauna, I’m not sure… We went to a few different saunas in Finland and talked to locals who actually encouraged us to chat with them and confirm Finns are not quiet compared to other nations who developed their own sauna culture. Thanks for your input, though!
The Cultural-historical context of Sauna comes clear best when noting that Sauna (as building) was practically always the very first building to be constructed when settler family moved to a new areas of wilderness. Sauna was ‘proto-home’ during first years of new household in the middle of vast forests, before proper house and other essential agricultural buildings were constructed, thus Sauna was (and is) often oldest building of an estate. For first years it was de facto lifeline and necessity in a midst of cold winters, often serving also as a shelter for lifestock (Yes. First winter was hardest for settlers).
Traditionally there has been also Sauna-Pihlaja (planted or naturally grown) near the Sauna building, a Sacred tree (Sorbus aucuparia) that served as a shrine and sacrificial place for home tutelary. It was forbidden to cut a single branch from that tree.
Sauna as a Sacred place makes perfect sense from a practical perspective in a given archaic context of colonization of northern boreal forests. It was necessity. Sauna’s concrete spiritual and religious functions as a place of birth givings and washing place of a dead add even more to it’s traditional importance for Finnish people.
It’s the warm Heart of Finns, in the Core of Finnish culture, and the proven Lifeline of the ancient generations. Every Finnish child learn about these things that… usually when bathing in a Sauna with their parents.
Thanks so much for this deep input, we do appreciate it a lot! There’s no doubt how important sauna is for you and all Finns, we could see it two years ago on our trip to Finland. Actually, one of our friends was born in sauna, so as you’ve said, it is truly a place of birth giving, too.
Oh, missing that feeling of jumping into a lake after some nice herbal steam now! Thanks again and happy sauna time 🙂
You have written a good article about sauna. Not so many visitors do it like you have done. The important thing is the respect. Respect to sauna and löyly, respect to the fellow “saunoja”.
My children, both of them, had their first experience of sauna at the age of 6 months. And this late age because we were living in Spain and the first visit for them was at that age.
Funny thing, though, happened when I finally found a decent sauna in Spain and we were told that children are no allowed to sauna for itś dangerous for them 😀 They were 8 and 13 years old and both very used to it with their mom.
After arguing a while they let them in but it was the last time in Spanish sauna
Thanks so much for sharing! I can only imagine how much you’re connected and used to sauna in Finland and then you need to face the situations similar to this one.
Love that you stayed your ground and took them in! Thank you again for feedback and reminding us and other readers about the respect that needs to be paid to the sauna in your homeland.
Very nice article, you are a real salesperson (in Finland we have no gender) for the Finnish sauna. If you have time, please correct a couple of terms:
– “kiulu” is a small bucket, volume about 5 liters, with a short vertical handle at its side.
– “pefletti” is a word concocted after a nationwide voting for a small disposable or nondisposable seat cover, made from a piece of cellulosic weave or sheet of plastic foam. If I recall it correctly, it was widely adopted in the 1970’s. The word is a combination of “peffa” (butt in Finnish, the most lenient name of this bodily part) and a tablet.
My father, born in a smoke sauna in 1912, built our wood-heated family sauna in 1946 in an eastern suburb of Helsinki, and we use it 2 to 3 times a week the year around.
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