Finnish sauna for beginners: etiquette and terminology

Sauna a quintessential Finnish experience – and something that can cause unnecessary concern for newly arrived visitors to the country. Sauna is one of the things that we enjoy most about Finland, and we can only recommend that you give it a try! In fact, my best experiences in Finland have been visiting wood-burning saunas in summer, alternating between the heat of the sauna, the cool of jumping in a lake (or the sea) and sitting outside and enjoying the sounds of nature.

Visiting the sauna is an important part of Finnish culture – this is reflected in some of the local proverbs:

  • “First you build your sauna, then you build your house,”
  • “If sauna, vodka and tar won’t help, the disease is fatal”

Sauna is a wonderfully relaxing activity, and so, as some encouragement for those who may be a bit skeptical or intimidated, we thought we’d tell you a bit about the essentials of sauna. And if you’ve been to a Finnish sauna, how about sharing some of your experiences in the comments section below?

A kesämöki sauna near Kuopio (central Finland)…

… right next to a beautiful lake – a perfect sauna spot!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

First – it is pronounced “sow-na”, with sow said like how – not “saw-na” like we learnt back home in South Africa. Second, there are no hard-and-fast rules about how to sauna – you should enjoy the experience how ever it feels best for you. One of the most common concerns amongst visitors is about whether to sauna naked or in a bathing suit – the easy answer is that it is up to you. In general, in Finland sauna is done nude with members of the same sex or with close family – indeed, public and workplace saunas are almost always split by gender. If you are in mixed group of friends visiting a private sauna it would be common to wear a swimming costume or to cover up with a towel. But the simplest thing is just to ask – we’ve both had experiences where we’ve been the only ones naked or the only ones clothed in a sauna… and no-one has ever complained (or even commented) about that. And remember this Finnish proverb in case you have any doubt about what not to do in the sauna: “One should behave in the sauna the way one behaves in church” (from Lappeenranta Sojourn)

There are three types of sauna – electric saunas are the most common in Helsinki, while most summer cottages probably still have wood-burning stoves heating their saunas. I definitely prefer the wood-burning saunas (despite the extra effort they require before, during and after) as they become infused with the smell of the wood that is being burnt – birch, in particular, has a lovely smell that I now associate with a relaxing visit to the sauna. The smoke sauna is a third type – we’ve not yet experienced it, but it comes recommended. Smoke saunas lack chimneys and are heated to the right temperature, before the fire is extinguished and the sauna ventilated… and then the sauna is ready for guests who’ll quickly warm up as heat is radiated by rocks that were warmed by the fire.

The interior of a kesämöki sauna…

… and then the refreshing lake outside! (near Lahti)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

OK, so how to get started… saunas have a few distinct areas: the entrance / dressing rooms, the sauna with benches, and usually somewhere nice to sit outside. Once you’ve shed your clothes in the dressing room, you’ll usually have a quick shower so that you can keep the sauna clean (and it may protect your hair from the heat?). Then into the sauna – the top bench is the hottest, so you may want to start on a lower bench, moving up if you feel like you want some more heat.

You can expect sauna temperatures of around 80 – 90 °C in Finland – that can feel a bit chilly when the air is dry and frighteningly hot when the sauna is very humid. Someone (apparently it is traditionally the person sitting on the top bench) will then use a ladle to throw some water onto the rocks above the sauna oven (kiuas) – this increases the humidity, and can feel like a hot wind striking you.  I think this is what is meant by löyly – the sauna steam. This wave of heat can feel like quite a physical force, which for me is one of the nicest feelings – but in a hot (or very humid sauna) I have to lower by head a bit because the tips of my ears can get (temporarily) painfully warm.

Once you’ve had enough of the heat, then head out of the sauna to enjoy some cool air or a dip in cold water outside… even very cold water can feel quite lovely when coming straight from the sauna. It is a real pleasure to sit outside, wrapped in a towel or a robe, enjoying the cool evening air, maybe watching the stars come out or listening to the birds… And then the idea is to repeat moving between the sauna and a cooler spot until you’re totally relaxed (find more at The Sauna Site). Normally you’d finish with a shower – either ladling water that had been heated in the sauna over yourself or just using a normal shower (if the sauna is new enough to have that sort of plumbing). In older saunas (especially at summer cottages) you might do this just outside of the sauna building.

A kesämöki near Pori (west coast of Finland), with an attached sauna…

… and the nice cold sea for cooling off in!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Remember to drink enough while sauna’ing – some people take drinks (typically beer or water) into the sauna with them, while others will drink when outside. Either way is acceptable, although beware of your cup / can getting hot if you take it into the sauna with you!

There are two “accessories” that I should not forget to mention. First, mats or towels for sitting on – these may be small linen towels or disposable mats. If they are available it probably means that you are meant to use them – this is common in saunas used by large numbers of people. Remember to remove yours when you leave, even if you’ll be coming back again. Second, vihta (birch branches) – it is a tradition to “beat” oneself with birch branches while in the sauna. This is meant to increase the circulation of blood to your skin and release a nice smell from the birch leaves. We’ve done this once – but then watching a Finn do it later I realized that we were much too gentle with the branches!

Inside one of the four saunas that are part of friends’ apartment complex…

Many homes and all (I presume…) summer cottages have saunas, while many apartment blocks have shared facilities that tenants reserve for their sole use. But for those lacking their own saunas there are an assortment of public saunas – in Helsinki there are some classics (built for sauna and nothing else – e.g. Kotiharjun sauna, Sauna Hermanni, Arla) and some that are associated with swimming halls or beaches (e.g. at Rastila beach, Yrjönkatu Swimming hall). We’re excited about a new public sauna being built around the corner from us in Merihaka (or Hakaniemi depending who’s geography you believe) – it is a World Design Capital project, and it will maintain an avanto (a hole in the ice) in winter for those really wanting to cool off! We’ll be visiting there once it opens later this year…

If you want more information, you can check out Lonely Planet‘s sauna webpage or ThisIsFinland‘s customs and manners section, or the history of Nordic sauna on Mikkel Aaland’s Sweat website.

Visiting the famous architect Alvar Aalto’s sauna… in Helsinki you can also visit past president Urho Kekkonen’s sauna (at Tamminiemi) where he apparently conducted negotiations with the Soviets.

 

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