Let’s face it. Visiting Finland and not going to a sauna is the same as visiting London and not going to a pub. Or going to Paris and not seeing the Eiffel tower. It just doesn’t really count.
Now I know many of you have severe reservations about the Finnish sauna culture. Do I have to be naked among a whole lot of strangers? Will I faint? And ultimately, will I survive? This is a short survival guide for you all since sauna in Finland is definitely something you cannot miss.
Sauna is an essential part of our culture and heritage. It is a place where several high-end political negotiations have been held and where families spend time together. It has a special role in our bridal showers and bachelor parties and ultimately it brings people together, relaxes them and makes us happier. In a country of 5,5 million inhabitants we have about 3 million saunas (including all legal and illegal saunas, from summer houses to trailer saunas and everything in between). That gives you an idea of how fundamentally it is rooted in us.
Furthermore, to build up your motivation, let me give you my three reasons for going to the sauna three times a week:
- Cleansing: sweating and showering cleanses the body from microbes and bacteria more efficiently than a mere shower or bath.
- Physical relaxation: the heat relaxes tense and sore muscles.
- Mental relaxation: no cell phones, iPads, laptops, TV’s or any of that sort. Just you and your thoughts. Or the company or your spouse, child or a good friend. Time to have a nice chat and clear your head. There’s nothing like 15 minutes of solitude in a sauna after a busy day to bring you back to life and sooth your nerves.
Now that I’ve provided you with the reasons why you should try it, here’s how you will survive the experience in good physical and mental state and come back feeling better than ever:
Bring a bath towel and a small towel with you. A bath towel is for you to dry yourself with afterwards and the small towel is for you to sit on in the sauna.
Check the dress-code. Now the fact is that in most cases we sauna naked. But don’t worry, we have separate saunas for men and women. In some public saunas in spas for example you may be allowed to wear a swimsuit to sauna but usually not. So be brave and go naked like everyone else, you get more stares if you wear a bathing suit when no-one else does. And don’t take your bath towel in the sauna because first: you get way too hot with it, second: it’s unpleasant to dry yourself in a sweaty towel and third: no-one does that.
Start from the lower bench. The higher up you go, the hotter it gets. Finns tend to occupy the highest bench but if you feel at all unsure how you will feel in the heat, start from the lower bench. It’s cooler there. Splashing some cold water on your face also helps.
Have an open mind. If you are in a public sauna in Finland and there are other people, be confident and just go with the flow. You might find other people being very talkative or completely mute. Both social forms are completely normal, don’t worry.
Don’t hesitate to leave if it gets too hot. If you are accompanied by hard-core Finnish sauna-goers, they might chuck a whole lot of water on the stove and it gets hot. Don’t hesitate to exit if it gets too hot. Finns do that too. And don’t try to stay too long on your first go, a couple of minutes is just fine.
Hydrate. If you want to be on the safe side or you have low blood pressure, take a water bottle with you. You can take it to the sauna or at least have a good drink of cold water after you get out. Beer is usually the Finnish way to go but bear in mind that it dehydrates you even more. But to be honest, I don’t think beer can ever taste as good as it does after a good long sauna.
Relax and enjoy. Take a deep breath, let the heat relax your muscles, have a cooling shower or swim afterwards and enjoy.
In the rare occasions I have come across a sauna overseas there are usually big warning signs saying you shouldn’t go to a sauna if you are pregnant or suffer from high or low blood pressure. Or that children should be left out. None of that is true, you just take that into account and don’t stay in the heat too long and stay on the lower bench. But if you are pregnant, do bear in mind that according to Finnish folklore sauna helps you go into labor if it’s time for the baby to arrive.
The easiest way for you to try sauna is to book a hotel room with a private sauna. Usually all hotels in Finland have public saunas as well so that is another simple option. The most authentic experience would be to go to a Finnish summer house and try a wood stove sauna with a nice dip in a lake afterwards.
If you are in Helsinki, I would also recommend Löyly, a sleek and hip public sauna with a cool restaurant, and the Allas Sea Pool which is a sauna with a nice heated pool overlooking the harbour and market square.
I hope I have succeeded in convincing you to give sauna a go. And those of you who have tried it, please share your experiences to those still hesitating in the comment box below!
(These photos are from my two favourite saunas: the one at our house and the one at our family summer house with a 50-year-old wood stove and a lake.)