This post was originally published in January 2018 and updated in February 2023.
One of the most important tenets of life in Finland is the sauna. There is nothing more Finnish than a sauna— they invented it after all! In a country of approximately 5 million people, there are an estimated 2 million saunas. There are officially more saunas than there are cars. That's a lot of hot rooms!
I loved my experience with the sauna culture in Finland, and I can't recommend it enough for anyone visiting this Nordic country. Getting steamy in a Finnish sauna is a must-do activity on any trip to Finland. There are millions of saunas all across the country in Finland, so it's not hard to find one— your hotel or AirBnb might even have one in your room!
Public saunas will give you the full Finnish ritual. I absolutely loved my experience at the public sauna in Helsinki. It was the most relaxing moment of my trip, and the post-sauna body high is unlike any other form of relaxation! Once we knew what it was like to have a sauna experience, we started seeking it out on the rest of our trip in Lapland.
In this blog post, I am sharing all of my tips for visiting a sauna in Finland for the first time. You will be fully prepared for your first sauna experience in Finland. We fell in love with the practice of sauna-ing so much that now I visit spas and saunas around the world! You can follow these tips at all the saunas in Finland, since they largely all work the same way.
Everything That You Need to Know About Visiting a Finnish Sauna
History of Saunas in Finland
Sweat lodges, communal bathing, and visiting thermal waters have been used by Europeans for nearly 2,000 years. It dates all the way back to the Romans! In Finland though, the history is distinct. The first recorded use of a sauna, at least by our modern understanding, comes from the 12th century.
At the time, a dirt pit was dug into the ground, and animal pelts were hung around it like a tent. Wood for burning was brought inside with a small hole in the top to let out smoke. Over time, it developed into log or wood huts without a chimney and a wood burning stove, which were always built outside the home. These were the original smoke saunas, and it used to take half a day to heat the sauna and prepare it for use.
Today, saunas are typically wooden rooms covered in wood slats and tiered seating. The sauna in Finland is almost ritualistic in its origins. It was believed to be sacred, bringing purification of the body and soul. There’s an old Finnish saying: “Behave in the sauna as you would behave in the church.” Up until the 20th century, most Finns were born in saunas before hospitals were ubiquitous.
Cultural Importance of Sauna
Nearly all Finns have a sauna in their home or apartment building and they also visit public saunas. It is customary for Finns to sauna at least once a week, but some do it several times a week. They think of it as part of their daily routine and a necessary part of self-care. A sauna is a place of health, cleanliness and pureness. It’s mainly a place to relax and unwind.
sau·na | ˈsônə,ˈsounə | noun | a small room used as a hot-air or steam bath for cleaning and refreshing the body.
Finns are very firm about the asexual nature of the sauna. Saunas are meant to be a space for cleansing, both mental and physical, which Finns take very seriously. There’s nothing sexual about saunas. If you make a sexual joke about saunas, you can expect some dirty looks from the locals. Families will sauna in the nude together, and it is customary for there to be gender separated areas in public saunas.
Saunas aren’t just about cleanliness. There are some health benefits linked to the ritual as well. The practice is shown to help circulation and reduce stress. It is also good for pain management, relaxing muscles, reducing arthritis inflammation and improving joint mobility. It can even ease asthma and breathing difficulties. The heat increases your heart rate so always check with your doctor if you struggle with high blood pressure or heart problems.
Types of Sauna in Finland
There are several different varieties of sauna that you might encounter while in Finland. Regardless of which type, the customary temperature for traditional Finnish saunas is not less than 65.5 degrees C (150 degrees F) with a maximum temperature of 90 degrees C (194 degrees F). Most run around 80 C (176 F).
Wood Burning (Dry) Sauna
The most traditional sauna in Finland is a wood burning sauna. This sauna is heated by, you guessed it, wood. There will be a wood burning stove inside that you feed with wood and steam to get the right temperature.
Smoke (Dry) Sauna
Increasingly rare in Finland, smoke saunas are similar to wood burning saunas except that there is no chimney to vent the fire’s smoke. Hence the name. This type of sauna has to be heated up for many hours prior to opening in order to heat up the massive rocks that are inside the stove. The room will fill with smoke and once the temperature is ready, the room will be ventilated. Be careful to always sit on your towel in these saunas — otherwise you’ll be cover in soot!
Steam (Wet) Sauna
Usually the most well-understood of sauna varieties, a steam sauna will have a high humidity level and temperatures will typically be a little bit cooler than a dry sauna. These are great for getting your sweat on! You can typically find this type of sauna in spas or athletic clubs in the US and Canada, but it is not quite as cultural in Finland.
These are the most common saunas that you’ll see in private residences, hotel rooms or cabins. They tend to be small saunas intended for 2-4 people. While these are nice for locals who want quick access to the heat and steam, I would not recommend one of these for your first sauna experience. They don’t typically get as hot and aren’t a full representation of what the sauna is like for Finns.
I didn’t personally experience this type of sauna, but they do exist in Finland. Infrared saunas use infrared heat waves to heat the person rather than the room and no steam is used in the process. Similar to the electric sauna, I would not recommend this type of sauna for a cultural experience because it is best used for toning and relaxing the muscles after a workout.
Etiquette and Customs at the Sauna
While there aren't any strict set rules about using a Finnish sauna, there are a few norms you should be aware of prior to your first experience.
Talking in a Sauna
In a country full of introverts, the sauna is one of the most social spaces in Finland. It is not out of the ordinary to see Finns having extended conversations at the sauna. They may even conduct important business meetings or play a game of chess while sitting in the sauna. Although plenty of saunas have a chatty atmosphere, they can also be a space for silence and personal meditation.
Each sauna will have a different vibe, so read the room before you strike up a conversation with your neighbor. Saunas can be a great place to engage with local people, as long as you keep the volume low and don’t act disruptively.
Throwing Water on the Stones
If you have a private sauna, anyone is permitted to throw water on the stones. Pouring water over the stove (kiuas) produces steam (löyly) and further raises the temperature of the sauna. You can throw as much water as you want. The idea is that the sauna is moist, never dry. You’ll even sometimes see people circulate the hot air by whipping a towel around in air like a propeller.
If you’re in a public sauna, there is some etiquette around adding water. There isn’t typically a formal “sauna master” but instead, the person seated in the hottest part of the sauna (the upper bench closest to the heat source) is the one who decides when to increase the temperature. They will be the one to add more water. One informal rule that Finns joke about is that you can’t heat and run. If you throw water onto the stove, you should stay in the sauna for at least a few minutes to enjoy the heat you just created.
What to Wear to a Finnish Sauna
In a traditional Finnish sauna, you should not wear any clothes – fully nude. You wouldn’t wear a swimsuit in the shower if you want to be clean, so why would you do that in a sauna? After all, this is seen as a place to get clean. If you’re feeling shy, you can drape yourself in a small towel.
While a majority of public saunas in Finland will be full nude saunas, there are plenty of more “tourist friendly” places that require you to wear a swimsuit. Pack accordingly for your winter vacation. You might also want to pack a pair of flip flops for the sauna. Obviously check the rules of the sauna, but clean flip flops protect your feet from dirt and germs, and will also prevent slipping as you get wet and sweaty.
There is such a thing as a sauna hat. Yes, really. They are typically felt hats that Finns will wear while in the sauna to help regulate the body’s temperature, which increases the amount of time someone can sit inside the hot room. You probably won’t need one on your first sauna, since you will likely be in and out faster than most Finns. But in case you see a local wearing one, this is the purpose.
It is important to have a clean towel for the sauna and another towel for drying after the shower. You can also wear a robe. You should bring the small towel into the sauna with you, so that you can use it as a seat. Some saunas will provide you with a towel, while others may not. Make sure to check on the specific rules prior to arrival so that you have the necessary supplies.
How to Use a Public Sauna in Finland
Before Arriving at the Sauna
You’ll be sweating a lot— like A LOT— while in the sauna so make sure to drink lots of water before you arrive. If you aren’t used to the heat, your first (or second) sauna experience will probably take a toll on your body. Dehydration and lightheadedness are common side effects that newbies can experience. Just prepare yourself!
Some public saunas are well known and quite popular, requiring you to make a reservation in advance. On my visit to the design-minded Loyly sauna in Helsinki, we made a reservation a few weeks ahead of time. The visits are staggered to ensure that there are never too many people inside the sauna at once.
Arrival at the Sauna
Typically you will be given a small locker to store your things while in the sauna. Regardless, it is best to pack lightly because the locker rooms are often small. Avoid wearing jewelry. I recommend storing it in the locker. The metal heats up in the sauna and can even burn you.
Similarly, I wear glasses, which get super fogged up in the sauna. The heat isn’t good for the glass either. I always had to take them off, and leave them in my robe pocket. I wish I had worn contacts that day. Just a small piece of advice!
You are required to shower before you go into the sauna. This will help wash off any dirt, lotions or creams on your skin. The showers are typically in the locker rooms on the way into the main sauna area.
While in the Sauna
You’ve reached the best part of the experience; you’re finally at the sauna! Time for some heat and relaxation. The higher the tier, the higher the temperature. I usually start on the top tier, and then move down levels of seating. There is typically an hourglass timer on the wall, which you can flip when you enter. This will help you keep track of how long you’ve been in the sauna. 10-15 minutes is a good length of time for a first time.
Depending on the layout of the sauna, you may be able to try out a few different types of sauna. The most traditional pairing you’ll see is a wet sauna and a wood-fired dry sauna. On my visit to Loyly in Helsinki, I also got to try a smoke sauna and a traditional wood sauna.
Once you are quite warm with a rolling sweat, it is time to cool yourself down with a jump in the snow or dive into the sea. It is very common for Finns to cycle between hot and cold temperatures at the sauna, with a brief rest in between. This is where those circulation benefits come from! In some parts of Lapland, Finns will carve out a hole in the ice to jump into. At Loyly, I actually jumped into the frigid Baltic Sea between my saunas. BRRRR! Think of it like a mini Polar Plunge.
In traditional saunas, you may be offered a bunch of birch leaves. Called a vihta, you might be wondering what to do with it. Well, you whip yourself with it! Finns will use the branches to lightly hit themselves over the shoulders while in the sauna. This improves circulation, functions like an exfoliant to smooth your skin and will enhance the effect of heat on your skin.
After the Sauna
You can repeat the cycle of hot-cold-rest, as many times as you like. Personally, I usually budget about 2 hours for my sauna visits. You should feel loose yet invigorated afterwards, similar to how you’d feel after a workout.
After the sauna, it is traditional to have a cold drink, such as a beer, cider, long drink, lemonade, or water. They will often be accompanied with a small snack, like a sausage or smoked salmon stick. Because of the all the sweating, make sure to continue hydrating throughout the day after a sauna.
Do you have questions about visiting a sauna in Finland? Comment below!
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