To Finns, it is the most natural thing on the planet: disrobing, sweating it out naked in front of strangers in temperatures of 80°C, occasionally self-flagellating and, ideally, following up with a plunge into water only a fraction above freezing.
To the rest of the world, Finland’s tradition of sauna frequenting – the cornerstone of its culture – can take some getting used to. Yet embrace it every visitor should, in order to better understand this country.
Initial hurdles overcome, it soon becomes obvious why a trip to one of Finland's saunas makes for a fantastic afternoon’s activity, and how it can take you, possibly spiritually and without a doubt geographically, to some very strange places.
In a nation hemmed in by ice for much of the year, the sauna is a respite from the elements, but most crucially it’s a space to relax, contemplate and cleanse yourself.
Saunas have been integral to Finnish culture for hundreds of years; tradition dictates that it should be the first room completed in a new home, and they’re used for births, pre-marriage rituals and funeral preparations.
It’s even said that Finnish president Urho Kekkonen in the 1960s used his sauna for diplomatic negotiations with the USSR. To this day, Finns believe that when naked, all are equal in the steam.
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Finland has three categories of sauna. The bog-standard sort, available in many hotel rooms the further north you head, uses an electrically heated stove to warm things up. Then there is the wood-heated stove sauna and – the Holy Grail – the smoke sauna. Both use a fire started with dried birch twigs to create the heat. With the former, the fire is lit within a stove and the burn is longer; with the latter, the fire burns openly within and aromatic birch smoke fills the room: more atmospheric, but a tad more hazardous.
All three kinds heat up stones onto which water is thrown periodically. There is no rule about when water should be chucked on – simply as and when you want steam – but it’s typically after the first release of löyly that the gentle beating of oneself (and sometimes of others) with a birch whisk known as a vasta is begun. Most traditional saunas also employ an official pesijätär (washer) who will scrub down willing customers afterwards. It’s all part of the detoxification process.
Thanks to the ingrained sauna culture throughout the country, seeing naked flesh is nothing new for Finns, so even in public saunas they’ll bare all (with the exception of mixed-sex complexes).
Do always come armed with a towel and swimming trunks, though, because outside the single-sex saunas there are often common areas where men and women mingle.
The most authentic sauna adventure in Finland is likely to come when a local invites you to a sauna party: a sure sign they are warming towards you (pardon the pun). Most visitors make do with the public saunas, but trademark Scandinavian inventiveness ensures that this experience varies in some fascinating ways. Here are a few of the best places to turn up the heat in Finland:
1. Helsinki’s state-of-the-art saunas
Once Finland’s capital sported hundreds of public saunas: today, following decades of ailing attendance, sauna-going is again the in-thing. A couple of cool new saunas have opened up: Kulttuurisauna combines influences of Japanese and Roman bathing culture as well as Finnish, and Löyly Design Sauna is a colossal, contemporary take on Finnish wooden architecture that comes with a great bar-restaurant.
2. The ultra-traditional sauna, Tampere
Finland’s oldest in-use sauna is Rajaportti, a tradition-steeped spot west of central Tampere, on an isthmus between two lakes below a sylvan park. Built in 1906, the dinky place is frequented almost exclusively by Finns on a break from the daily grind, with the original traditional woodsmoke heating system still intact. There is no better insight into the nation’s sauna-going nuances than be gleaned than on the benches here.
3. The underground sauna, Herrankukkaro
The village of Herrankukkaro on the archipelago southwest of Turku is something of a sauna Mecca. Amongst its steamy boasts are the world’s smallest smoke sauna and the world’s largest underground smoke sauna. The latter is a cosy 124-person capacity hut with six levels of benches: part of a cute coast-flanking spa complex where you can take a dip in the sea afterwards.
4. Lapland’s strange saunas
The further you travel into Arctic climes, the more common these 80°C escapes become – and some Lapland’s offerings are pretty wacky. In the capital, Rovaniemi, a sauna raft called m/s Erkin Arkki emerges during their brief summertime to glide on the river nearby. Guests can dine under the midnight sun (or the northern lights, if their luck is in) on the deck, and take a dip in the chilly waters en route.
Also in Rovaniemi, the Arctic Snow Hotel sauna, open only between December and March, is – rather incredibly – constructed entirely from snow and ice. Further north at Ylläs ski resort you can be transported between-piste in the planet’s one-and-only sauna gondola.
But perhaps the most quintessential Finnish sauna experience lies in remote Kiilopää near Saariselkä. Recline in the woodsmoke sauna that sits at the end of a dead-end lane, then leap into an ice hole: that’s pretty much as Finnish as it gets.
Luke Waterson is author of the Finland chapter in the Rough Guide to Europe on a Budget. Compare flights, book hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to buy travel insurance before you go.
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