Saunas are integral to Finnish life. Forming part of the national identity, most Finns will use a sauna at least once a week and – when totalled – there’s one for every household. They’re found everywhere from private residences and lakeshores to offices and the Finnish Parliament. Not even World War II stopped their soldiers from getting their heated fix with the country’s military constructing temporary steam baths wherever they set up base. It’s a practice that continues to this day.
But the tradition dates back much further. First documented in the 16th century, they’re much more than a means to escape the Nordic chill; the humble sauna has been used as stove kitchens, winter shelters, shrines and, thanks to their sterility, midwiferies and hospitals.
And, given their cultural significance, health benefits and, simply, their soothing properties, they can crown any Finland holiday (looking for one? We've got you covered!). However, governed by an unwritten set of rules, it can be a daunting experience. That’s why we’ve created this guide on how to take a sauna.
A traditional Finnish sauna often includes use of a 'bath broom', a bunch of twigs banded together and used to scrub the body.
You won’t find piped music and mood lighting in the Finnish sauna. Without any distractions, it’s an ascetic experience designed to fully relax; the only prop is the vasta bundle of fresh birch twigs that Finns use to gently ‘whip’ themselves. Strangely, it really is a calming experience.
• The traditional sauna is heated by a central fire with water ladled onto it from a neighbouring tub to release steam and increase the room’s temperature.
• There will often be two or more tiers of seating. In accordance with the axiom ‘hot air rises’, choose between upper or lower seats to warm up or cool down respectively.
• The person seated nearest to the fire is in charge of maintaining the temperature and, if the water runs out, that’s who is in charge of refilling.
Nothing is cosier than a sauna after a long day in the Scandinavian snow.
Changing the temperature
As Finns are a typically quiet bunch, you’ll have to watch for social cues that let you know whether or not it’s acceptable to add water.
• When you’re reaching for the ladle, look for subtle nods of agreement. A headshake is less common so only add more if you’ve got the nodding go-ahead.
• Every so often, motion towards the water to see if those all-important nods are forthcoming and there’s a consensus.
• Look out for any noticeable signs of discomfort and alter accordingly.
• The default temperature is between 80 and 90°C so you won’t have to seek permission to add more water if it drops below, but you should definitely if you want to exceed 90.
This is perhaps the most contentious part of a visit to a Finnish sauna.
• Nudity is the rule – in a gender-specific bathhouse, anything less would be considered bizarre.
• In a mixed, public sauna, swimwear is sometimes seen but a simple towel is more appropriate.
• Bring in a hand towel to sit on. While the heat kills germs and the benches are coated in sealant, you won’t want to sit on someone’s prints.
An old wooden sauna on the lakeshore of Jyvaskyla, Finland.
It’s an often-uttered phrase that the Finns treat the sauna like their church. And, while that refers more to the mentally cleansing benefits, there are a few guidelines you should bear in mind.
• Shower before you come in; perfumes, scents and post-swim chlorine are accentuated in the heat. Of course, especially if you’re going for a dip, be sure to rinse off after.
• As you might have guessed by now, quiet relaxation is strongly favoured over idle chitchat.
• In groups, genders will go separately but families will use the sauna together. This might vary among friends.
• It may seem obvious but wandering eyes are certainly frowned upon; although your sauna colleagues are naked, it’s not for show.
• Whatever you do, the ultimate insult is to leave the door open.
Eating and drinking
Cool off with something cold and, on special occasions, break out the champagne or prosecco.
• While Russians have their vodka, for the Finns, there’s nothing better than a well-chilled beer or cider, enjoyed in the sauna’s heat.
• Roasting sausages on the open fire can be an indulgent experience, but it all depends on the crowd.