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To a Finn, the sauna (pronounced Sow-nah in Finland) is a part of their everyday lifestyle, some Finn’s were even born in saunas before hospitals were around! But to a tourist, Finnish sauna etiquette can be a bit of a mystery and hard to navigate.
Finland pretty much invented the sauna as we know it today, coined the name and are partly responsible for saunas being built around the world in spas. But, in Finland, the etiquette can be very different to other countries.
With over two million saunas in Finland, there are officially more saunas than there are cars! Many families have their own private saunas.
Apartment complexes and hotels have saunas for residents to reserve for use and they even have saunas in their government and office buildings.
As a tourist, trying a Finnish sauna should be at the top of your bucket list. I mean, it’s almost criminal not to. But, it can be a little confusing to know what to do.
It was my first time in Finland and I visited a few saunas while I was here. It was a little awkward and overwhelming at first, but I soon got the hang of it. So, from one tourist to another, I thought I’d pass over the baton of wisdom to help you out.
Here’s everything you need to know about Finnish sauna etiquette if you’re a tourist in Finland!
Sauna culture is a BIG thing in Finland!
If you didn’t get the memo about sauna culture in Finland, let’s change that right now.
The world without a sauna to a Finn, would be a very miserable place. It’s the cleanest place of the house and a staple part of any family home.
Finn’s are born in the sauna, grow up with the sauna and continue to use them throughout their lives.
It’s a centuries-old tradition that runs deep and according to the Finnish Sauna Society out of the 5.3 million Finn’s approximately two million own a sauna. Incredible!
A sauna is a place of common ground, it doesn’t matter about your status or where you’re from, everyone is equal in the sauna.
I heard it’s the place to settle an argument as no one could be angry in the sauna! Also, in the sauna, you can meet new people and eventually friends.
Some Finn’s will use a sauna every day as part of their morning routine and others may choose to go once a week or month.
The history of the sauna in Finland
Sweat bathing and bath culture have been around for centuries since the Roman era two thousand years ago, but in Finland it’s a very distinctive kind.
The first record of a sauna was recorded in the 12th century where a pit was dug into the ground, with wood for burning brought inside. Then it developed into log huts without a chimney and stove which is what we know now as a smoke sauna. This used to take half a day to prepare!
The sauna in Finland is almost ritualistic in its origins, it was believed to be sacred, bringing purification of the body and soul.
Today, saunas are wooden rooms, usually tiered, which are wood burned, electric or smoked. The steam is usually created by pouring water on the stove. The rooms usually reach temperatures of over 80 degrees celsius!
Legends surrounding the sauna
I love reading about folklore and legends and Finland have so many around the Sauna. Here’s some of my favourite findings;
- The Harvia sauna spirit is an old tradition that people still sometimes used today. A stone with a face made out of holes used to be brought inside and buried amongst the coals. Once you poured water on it with the coals, the reaction would make the spirit ‘speak’ bringing good luck to the sauna.
- In folklore the Saunatonttu, or sauna elf, is believed to be spirit who lives in the sauna and if you don’t treat him with respect by leaving him food he could cause trouble for you. Even today, people honour the tradition of leaving him a bowl of porridge at Yule Tide. I guess it’s similar to leaving cookies for Santa or carrots for his reindeer!
How to use a Finnish Sauna and the Sauna cycle
There aren’t really any set rules with using the Finnish sauna, or taboos where you can go completely wrong and offend someone. It’s mainly a place to relax and unwind. But, here’s the general procedure;
- First, you get undressed. You can go in completely butt naked, with a towel or wear your swimsuit if you’re shy. Some places don’t allow a swimsuit though, so always check before.
- Shower before you go in, in many of the public saunas the showers are on the way into the sauna.
- Enter the sauna room and use your sitting towel to sit down. Don’t be shy if there are already people in there, it’s normal to be busy! At Löyly in Helsinki, there were a few different types with different temperatures. So, go with the one you feel best in and don’t feel pressured to sit too long! Only go with what you feel comfortable with.
- If you have a private sauna, anyone is permitted to throw water on the stones. There isn’t a sauna master or anything like that. So, if you feel like it, throw some on!
- Then when you’re ready, you can cool off. Traditionally, Finn’s bathe in the sea, snow or a freshwater lake. So, if you have one to hand I’d say go for it! But, you can just shower too or walk out the room to cool off. You can also grab your birch twigs, called vasta, to beat yourself with for circulation but I didn’t try that. As I said, there are no set rules!
- Then repeat as many times as you want, it really is that simple. Some Finn’s may do this ten times over. But, for me a few times was enough and I only dipped in the sea once.
What to bring with you when using a Finnish Sauna
- Flip flops/sandals – obviously check the rules in private saunas but in the public ones this was a must for me. To protect your feet and to stop slipping.
- Towel – this may or may not be provided to you but definitely bring one to wrap yourself in and to dry off after your shower.
- Swimsuit – if you’re not prepared to undergo the whole sitting naked experience, I’d bring one. Also, If you’re visiting a mixed sauna, swimsuits are mandatory !
The best Finnish public saunas in Helsinki for tourists
If you’re heading to Helsinki there are some awesome public saunas to try out while you’re here. I’ll outline the best ones below;
This is by far the best Sauna experience in the city, it’s really trendy and popular with locals too! The name Löyly (pronounced Low-Lu) translates to ’sauna steam’ and here it combines all four elements into one.
Wood to make the sauna, air to steam the sauna, water as you get to bathe and swim in the Baltic Sea and fire to heat the sauna and relax afterwards.
It’s quite hectic inside the changing rooms and you have to change in front of everyone else. But, once you get inside it’s a really relaxing experience. If you’re brave enough I would definitely take a dip in the sea! It’s as ‘true’ of an experience you can get in the city as this is the raw ocean, it’s not filtered.
They even have their own bar in the sauna and after you can dine in their scrumptious restaurant with a view.
I would highly recommend reserving your sauna experience and a table at Löyly as it gets extremely busy. There are only limited places!
I have to admit, I came in here but at the last minute chickened out. The public swimming pools in Helsinki have male and female-only days for a reason – most people swim naked!
As a Brit, this was quite overwhelming and I just didn’t feel comfortable, especially by myself. I could wear a bathing suit but I would have been the odd one out by far.
It was also super crowded and I asked the guy on reception when it gets quiet and he replied ‘never on ladies day’, so there you have it! It’s a big social thing for women to chat and gossip in here.
The building is also stunning and is of an Art Deco design, from 1928. There is a second floor with a sauna area that you relax in and order coffee. To see more about, it, click here.
Allas Sea Pool
This is the best swimming pool in the city, mainly as it’s a heated pool that has an epic view of the Baltic Sea and harbour!
The Allas Sea Pool has a deck with three swimming pools on it including their sea pool. Which, you may have guessed by now, is filled up from the sea!
Don’t worry it’s filtered and treated so you won’t have anything unsanitary floating around in it.
It’s the perfect accompaniment for your sauna experience. But, I’m going to warn you that it’s FREEZING.
When I swam in here it was 3 degrees and my whole body felt like pins and needles after. However, it also gave me some incredible energy.
For a full review of my time at Allas Sea Pool and everything you should know before you visit, see here.
8 things every tourist should know about Finnish sauna etiquette
1. There are three types of sauna that you can enjoy in Finland
You may be surprised to know that there are actually three types of Sauna you can enjoy;
- The traditional wood burning sauna – wood is heated on the stove, then water is thrown on the heated rocks/coals to create steam! This is the main type of sauna you will find in Finland.
- Electrically heated sauna – which is controlled by remote, this has been available since the 1950’s.
- A smoke sauna – pretty rare nowadays but regaining popularity, it takes a long time to prepare! It’s a big wooded stove sauna that doesn’t have a chimney. Once the room is ventilated it’s hot enough to enjoy safely. This is the genuine sauna experience from centuries back.
2. Men and women usually have separate saunas
Traditionally, men and women go separately into the sauna and strip down to their birthday suits.
It would only be families that use mixed-gender saunas in Finland. In public saunas, like Löyly, or a mixed gender sauna where everyone goes in together, swimsuits or towels must be worn.
3. Finn’s usually go in the sauna naked, but you can wear a towel or costume
The naked body is not a ‘thing’ or ‘taboo’ in Finland, people are very body positive! So, they won’t judge you for going in without anything on. But, if you’re feeling shy, wear a towel.
You can wear a swimsuit in some saunas but always check the rules as some places won’t allow it as it effects the steam. In many public saunas where both sexes are inside, swimsuits must be worn.
You’ll find at the Allas Sea Pool they have gender-specific saunas so some people will be naked and others in swimsuits.
In some swimming baths, like Yrjönkatu, the pool has women only and men only sessions as everyone goes into the pool naked! So, you’ll need to check what day you can visit before you go.
4. Finnish saunas are hygienic with lots of health benefits
I did wonder about the whole butt-kissing thing if people were entering sauna’s naked. I mean, it doesn’t sound sanitary, right?
But, traditionally, you get a sitting towel almost like a linen napkin to sit on around the sauna. That way, it’s nice and clean for the next person to sit on.
Also, if you think that sweating in a wooden box and then bathing in icy water is strange, I’m with you there. But, it does apparently have a variety of health benefits;
- It can help circulation, pain of the muscles, arthritis and joint movement
- Reduction of stress and cardiovascular disease
- It can ease asthma and breathing difficulties
I did find my skin dried out a lot here and you can get dehydrated if you don’t drink enough. So, go careful and only stay with what you’re comfortable with.
Also, the heat increases your heart rate so always check with your GP if you can enter the sauna with high blood pressure or heart problems.
5. Saunas usually reach temperatures of 80 degrees celsius
Yep, you read that right. In fact, many traditional saunas used to be heated to well over 100 degrees! So, only sit for as long as you feel.
I get claustrophobic and I found that the heat and the lack of ‘fresh’ air were quite stifling and uncomfortable. I can really only stay inside for around five minutes at a time and then I have to leave.
6. In public saunas, the locker rooms can sometimes be confusing and overwhelming
The only thing I found quite overwhelming sometimes were the locker rooms before I got into the public saunas like the Allas Sea Pool and Löyly.
They were busy, hectic with limited space and everyone has to get changed in the open. Which, for me, was quite stressful.
You usually get a waterproof magic band or rubber wristband with your key on to access your lockers. So, don’t worry about where to put the key!
But, I would definitely try to come at an off-peak time if you don’t want that same experience. Early mornings during the week are best.
7. Finn’s usually bathe in the sea, lake or snow after their sauna
Traditionally, Finn’s would use saunas as bathing houses and then dip in the freshwater lake or the sea before running water became available. A tradition that is still honoured today!
Löyly has its own platform and stepladder that you can use to climb into the sea. Of course, you can just dip then come back up, you don’t need to swim a mile or anything. In the winter, they actually crack a hole in the ice so you can still have a dip!
The Allas Sea Pool has its own sea pool that they source from a body of water further away from the main dock. It’s filtered and treated so it’s healthy to bathe in and it’s the same temperature as the sea at the time.
I tried both places and spoiler alert: It’s FREEZING. But, it’s definitely something you should try while you’re in Finland. You’ll be following in the footsteps of a true Finn!
8. You can talk in the sauna, it’s actually encouraged!
As I was on my own here, I usually don’t talk to that many people.
But, in the sauna, most people will be chatting and getting to know one another.
The sauna is a common ground and bridges barriers. You can make new friends, or chat with and amongst them.
So, don’t be shy if someone talks to you in the sauna!
Final tips on Finnish sauna etiquette
- Avoid wearing jewellery – I wore my gold necklace (wasn’t thinking) and it started to burn my neck!
- Don’t think too much about bathing in the sea – just go for it, it’s really refreshing
- You can spend as much time as you choose in the sauna – don’t feel pressured, only sit to your limits
- Swimming is only traditional, you can just shower after to cool off
- Don’t forget to relax by the fire for a while after, Löyly has an amazing cosy fire area!
- You will be sweating A LOT in the sauna, so make sure you keep hydrated. You’ll see a lot of people drinking beer in the sauna too! In Löyly they have their own bar.
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With thanks to My Helsinki for hosting my trip to Finland. As always, although I was a guest, all photos and opinions are my own.