Sweden is a haven for sauna enthusiasts. In fact, saunas are one of the most important tenets of life in Sweden. If you're looking for a relaxing and rejuvenating way to unwind, a Swedish wood-fired sauna next to a lake is the perfect way to do it all year round. Not only will you experience the cleansing benefits of a traditional sauna, but you'll also be able to take a refreshing dip in the cool water of the lake to cool off. 

I have fallen in love with the ritual of sauna thanks to my many trips to Scandinavia. The post-sauna body high is unlike any other form of relaxation! 

Visiting a Swedish sauna is an essential must-try experience for travelers in Sweden. In this blog post, I am sharing everything you need to know about Swedish saunas for first time visitors. From tips and suggestions to etiquette and culture, this comprehensive sauna guide will make sure you are fully prepared for your first sauna experience in Sweden. And if you’re like me, you might just fall in love with the sauna too. 

The Ultimate First Timer’s Guide to Swedish Sauna

History & Culture of Saunas in Sweden

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 Sweden the first recorded use of a sauna comes from the Viking period. In Swedish, it is called the "Bastu", in reference to "Badstuga", which designates the chalet or the sweat lodge.

This tradition is practiced throughout Scandinavia, but it is especially popular in Sweden and Finland. The sauna is almost ritualistic in its origins. It was believed to be sacred, bringing purification of the body and soul. This ritual of health and well-being is truly anchored in the daily life of the Swedes. It is customary for Swedes to sauna regularly and throughout the year. Some Swedes even do it weekly. Think of it as part of their daily self-care. 

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. 

Finnish Dry Sauna Lapland Finland 4

What to Expect at a Swedish Sauna

While there aren't any strict set rules about using a sauna in Sweden, there are a few norms you should be aware of before your first experience at a Swedish sauna.

Nudity & Gender

Just as with onsens in Japan, saunas are typically enjoyed nude in Sweden. You should expect a Swedish sauna to be naked – the Swedes are uninhibited vis-à-vis nudity. You wouldn’t wear a swimsuit in the shower if you want to be clean, so why would you do that in a sauna? Although there are many ‘tourist friendly’ public saunas that allow swimwear, it is not the norm. 

Additionally, the sauna may be mixed gender and men & women will be naked together. This might seem odd at first, but Swedes are very firm about the asexual nature of the sauna. Saunas are meant to be a space for cleansing, both mental and physical. There are typically days or times when it is gender separated, if you prefer to sauna with only men or women. 

Talking in a Sauna

Contrary to what you might expect, the sauna is a social space in Sweden. It is not out of the ordinary to see Swedes having extended conversations at 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.

Watering the Stones

Pouring water over the stove produces steam and 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 or birch branches around in the air like a propeller.

If you have a private sauna, anyone is permitted to throw water on the stones. 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. 

What to Bring to a Swedish 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 because the metal heats up in the sauna and can even burn you. Similarly, avoid glasses. They get fogged up in the sauna and the heat isn’t good for the glass. Contacts are ideal for a sauna. 

Other things you should bring to a Swedish sauna:

  • Swimsuit: While a majority of public saunas in Sweden will be full nude saunas, there are some “tourist friendly” places that require/allow you to wear a swimsuit. In that case, you should bring a swimsuit. 
  • Towel: You'll want to have two towels with you: a small towel to sit on in the sauna, and a larger towel for wrapping around your body or for drying after the shower. Some saunas will provide you with a towel, while others may not.
  • Robe: If you are feeling shy about walking around naked, a robe is a great thing to bring. You can wear it around the sauna, and there will usually be hooks in front of the sauna door to hang it up.
  • Flip-flops or sauna shoes: check the rules of the sauna first, but I always bring my sauna shoes. Clean flip flops protect your feet from dirt and germs, and will also prevent slipping on slick floors.
  • Skincare products: after you’re done at the sauna, you’ll typically change back into your clothes in the changing room. Make sure to bring lotion & skincare products to lather your freshly cleaned skin!
  • Water bottle: You’ll be sweating a lot in the sauna so make sure to drink lots of water before you arrive. Keep a water bottle in your locker for afterwards. Dehydration and lightheadedness are common side effects that newbies can experience. 

Types of Swedish Saunas

There are several different varieties of sauna that you might encounter while in Sweden. Regardless of which type, the customary temperature for traditional Swedish 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 Sweden 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. 

Electric Sauna

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. 

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.

How to Do a Swedish Sauna

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.

Once inside a Swedish sauna, it is good to remember the 10-2-10 rule for first timers.  Spend 10 minutes in the heat, then spend 2 minutes in the cold, and then rest for 10 minutes.

It is very common for Swedes to cycle between hot and cold temperatures at the sauna, with a brief rest in between. This is where the health benefits and better circulation come from! You can repeat the cycle of hot-cold-rest, as many times as you like. 

The higher you sit inside the sauna, the higher the temperature will be. I usually start on the top tier, and then move down levels as I get warmer. There is typically an hourglass timer on the wall, which you can flip when you enter. This will help you keep track of how much time you’ve spent in the sauna. 

Once you are quite warm with a rolling sweat, it is time to cool down. This is typically done with a jump in the lake, sea or snow. In some parts of Lapland, Swedes will carve out a hole in the ice to jump into. BRRRR! Think of it like a mini Polar Plunge. 

How Long Does a Swedish Sauna Take

Personally, I usually budget about 2 hours for my sauna visits. This leaves enough time to do the 10-2-10 cycle several times, as well as shower and get dressed before and after. 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 dried reindeer slices, blueberries or nuts. Because of 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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