Some like it hot: discovering Finland’s sauna culture

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As winter approaches and the flakes start to fall thick and fast in northern climes, what better way to keep toasty than by stripping off and sweating it out in a little pine-clad room heated to 80°C, before taking a joyous leap into an icy lake just for the hell of it. Finland invented the sauna and, frankly, nobody does it better.

Image of an empty wooden sauna room with ladle, bucket and vasta ready to be used. The essential tools to sauna like the Finns © Malkovstock / Getty Images

Come snow or shine

There’s no right or wrong time of year for getting your kit off and hitting the sauna in Finland. Even in bleakest midwinter, the Finns don’t let the darkness and cold get them down. When temperatures plummet below zero and the sun barely pops its head above the horizon, you’ll find them sitting in communal silence in a roasting hot sauna. Here it’s quiet but for the crackle of burning wood and the hiss of water being tossed onto stones to emit waves of fragrant vapour, or löyly. And it’s never too cold for a post-steam dip in a frozen lake, where the numbingly cold water jump-starts the nervous system.

In summer, many Finns embrace the long days by heading to holiday cottages in the back of beyond – wood-built retreats with nothing but wide open forest, swarms of bloodthirsty mosquitos and, of course, a sauna. Here the all-important ritual of sweating is done with friends and family. Between steams, there’s time for walking, wild swimming, cracking open a cold beer and a vigorous beating with a birch branch whisk  the vasta or vihta – said to boost the circulation and soften the skin.

Image of a vasta – a birch branch whisk – hanging up inside a pine-clad sauna.The traditional vasta – a birch branch whisk – is said to aid circulation © Lauri Rotko / Getty Images

In life and legend

Though the sauna’s origins can’t be pinned to an exact moment in time, some say it dates to the Neolithic period around 7000 BC, when the first shivering settlers dug holes in the ground and filled them with hot stones.

While many people might think of saunas as a luxury, in Finland they are an everyday necessity and an integral part of the culture. In this sparsely populated, densely forested country of 5.4 million people, there are three million saunas and counting.

Dubbed ‘the poor man’s pharmacy’, the sauna is said to keep the Finns fighting fit with wondrous health benefits: from encouraging weight loss and reducing stress to improving circulation and strengthening the immune system. At pretty much any important life event you care to mention, you can bet a sauna is involved somewhere along the line. Besides purifying mind and body, this is where Finns socialise and do business, and traditionally prepare for births, deaths and marriages.

But if you’re planning on sneaking into a sauna in your bathing suit or having a boisterous chat with your mates while you’re in there, think again. In Finland, the sauna is treated with reverence and lore has it that anyone who behaves improperly will have to face the wrath of the resident saunatonttu, or sauna elf, who might burn it down in fury.

Finnish sauna © Samuli Vainionpää / Getty ImagesSome Finnish saunas come with spectacular lakeside views © Samuli Vainionpää / Getty Images

Seven golden sauna rules

  • While the Finns won’t berate you for covering up, to truly fit in it’s nude or nothing – leave modesty in the changing room or master the art of the cunningly placed towel.
  • Men and women generally visit the sauna separately unless they are members of the same family.
  • Shower first and enter the sauna clean.
  • Shhh… quiet! Saunas are no place for noise.
  • Take a towel to sit on so you don’t drip sweat onto the wooden benches.
  • Ladle on the löyly as you see fit. Sauna tolerance varies but you should work up a good sweat in around 15 minutes.
  • Take breaks and drink plenty of water – sauna-going is not a competition to see who can last longest before passing out. And you’ll never beat a Finn at their own game anyway.

Holy smoke

Sauna purists sing the praises of the smoke sauna, fired by the natural, pore-opening warmth of a wood-burning stove. High on any wish list should be Herrankukkaro (Mama’s Pocket) on an island just south of Turku at Finland’s southwestern tip. On a gorgeous stretch of coastline, the world’s biggest underground smoke sauna has space for 124 sweat-drenched folk, as well as hot tubs and pools playing up the views out across the Baltic Sea, where you can go for a swim if you have the nerve.

Finnish sauna covered in snow © AarreRinne / Getty ImagesIn the snowy depths of a Finnish winter, a sauna is the perfect place to warm up © AarreRinne / Getty Images

A couple of hours north, Finland’s oldest working sauna, Rajaportin in Tampere, has been letting off steam since 1906. It’s a down-to-earth number, with a wood stove emitting soft steam and a convivial cafe, with massages available.

In Kuopio in the lake district of Northern Savonia, Jätkänkämppä is a huge smoke sauna, with blackened walls and clouds of gentle, perfumed löyly. It has a lovely position right on the lake should you fancy a swim in summer (for the brave) or winter (for the downright bonkers). It’s mixed so wear your towel.

Helsinki hot list

If you’re seeking saunas that are more cutting-edge cool than trad, Helsinki is where it’s at. The Zen-style, seafront Kulttuurisauna is the vision of architect and designer duo Nene Tsuboi and Tuomas Toivonen. Sleek and understated, it’s heated ecologically by wooden pellets and inspired by Japanese and Roman bathing cultures. It has expansive views of the bay, and post-steam you can splash around in the Baltic or rest on the deck overlooking the harbour.

Image of a man sitting inside boutique sauna Loyly in Helsinki.Interior of Löyly, a stylish boutique sauna in Helsinki © Sam Kingsly / Getty Images

A newcomer to the capital’s sauna scene is the aesthetically striking Löyly, entirely powered by wind and water, and with a slatted pine exterior made from 4000 custom-cut planks. When the sea freezes, there’s an avanto (ice hole) for a heart-stopping, post-sauna dip.

For greater insight into the cultural nitty-gritty of Finnish saunas, consider signing up to a bespoke guided tour with Helsinki sauna expert and guide Ulla Maija. Her tours reveal everything from the sauna’s origins and health benefits to their role in Finnish hospitality.

Cold as ice

North of the Arctic Circle, the sauna really comes into its own when the winter dump of snow arrives in the fells and forests of Lapland. In eastern Finland, just south of Lapland, Rukan Salonki has put its own quirky riff on tradition with its visually stunning igloo sauna made from giant blocks of ice carved from Lake Salonkijärvi. Defying all logic, the igloo heats up to a pleasantly warm 60°C. Jump into an ice hole for a teeth-chattering cool-off afterwards if you dare.

Photo of the wooden door to a sauna made of blocks of ice.Rukan Salonki’s mindbending ice sauna © Manuel Cazzaniga / Getty Images

Should you want to splurge on the wackiest and arguably most wonderful of Finnish sauna experiences, make your way to the sauna gondola in Ylläs, Finland’s highest skiable fell at 718m above sea level. Here you can disrobe, soak in an open-air Jacuzzi and grab a drink before taking a sweaty ride in the world’s only cable-car sauna. The far-reaching views over a snowy landscape are just like a Christmas card come to life.