Finnish Sauna Etiquette

Finnish sauna etiquette and the best saunas in Helsinki

Today, we’re going to provide everything you need to know about Finnish sauna etiquette, and explore the history behind sauna taking in Finland. We’ll also bring you the very best saunas in Helsinki, to make your visit extra special. If you’re ready, let’s get started…

Finnish sauna culture and history

The sauna is a major part of the Finnish culture — so much so, in fact, that for many foreigners, sauna is one of the first things that come to mind when thinking about what Finland is known for. 

Sauna has been a pivotal part of being Finnish throughout the country’s history. In olden days, the sauna was where life began and ended; most babies born in Finland before the 20th century were born in saunas due to it often being the cleanest spot in the household. 

The deceased were taken to the sauna after death to clean and prepare them for the funeral.

Today, “taking a sauna” is often a weekly routine for Finnish families. Although many houses and apartments come with a personal sauna built in, apartment buildings, especially in cities, tend to have shared sauna facilities for which residents can make a standing weekly appointment. 

Saunavuoro, a sauna shift, is a treasured appointment that Finns hold on to dearly — cancelling plans because of a sauna shift would hardly raise eyebrows among Finns.

The sauna has its place in many Finnish holidays and special occasions as well: the tradition of a Christmas morning sauna is common, as is a bridal sauna during bachelorette parties. On Midsummer evening, a sauna is a must.

Finnish Sauna Etiquette

What is a Finnish sauna?

The Finnish sauna culture, while universally known, features several terms that cannot be adequately translated to other languages. For example, the kiuas is the heart of the sauna and “sauna heater” or “stove” would simply not suffice to describe its purpose. 

The kiuas, which is topped with rocks that heat as the kiuas heats, is what the sauna is built around and can be powered by either wood or electricity. Heating a wood-fired sauna is considered an important skill by Finns — the faster and steadier, the more impressive. 

The only pieces of equipment one should need are firewood, old newspapers, and a box of matches.

A laude is a wooden bench where sauna-goers sit and enjoy the heat. There are typically two or three in any given sauna. The bottom laude is typically reserved for those hoping for a milder sauna experience and for children — yes, children go to the sauna as well! 

In fact, babies are the only Finns who are discouraged from enjoying the benefits of the sauna. 

The top laude is for the toughest of sauna-goers, with the seat next to the kiuas reserved for whoever is willing to take on the task of throwing water on the hot stones of the kiuas. The spot comes with responsibility, as the frequency and amount of water thrown to the kiuas could be considered an art form. 

If you throw too much water or too often, your fellow sauna-goers will step out one by one as the steam becomes too unbearable. If the throwing is too far and in between, the sauna will become too cool. 

The term löyly refers to the steam rising off the hot stones. In a public sauna in Finland, the person sitting closest to the bucket of water may ask their fellow sauna-goers politely: “Is it alright with everyone if I toss some more löyly?”

Saunas come in many shapes; most apartments and houses come equipped with a small electric sauna, while a wood-heated, separate sauna building by a waterfront is considered by many Finns to be the “real” and most authentic sauna experience. 

Those who do not have access to such luxury can visit public saunas, which are found in most Finnish cities and towns. The sauna culture is so extensive that it reaches into the business world: companies often rent public sauna facilities for a “sauna evening” for coworker groups. 

Rentable saunas range from traditionally rustic and wooden to ultra-modern and luxurious with views and glass walls.

The Finnish sauna tradition is strong enough to have possibly stopped wars from happening in the past. Urho Kekkonen, the beloved and longest-serving Finnish president who led the country from 1956 to 1982, was known for hosting Soviet Union guests of the state in a sauna. 

It is no wonder that Kekkonen believed in the diplomatic powers of sitting half-naked inside a hot room — he had been born in a sauna himself.

What makes a sauna Finnish?

The Finnish sauna culture includes several aspects that differentiate it from other saunas. 

In a Finnish sauna, the temperature is usually kept at a maximum of 100 degrees Celsius (212 degrees Fahrenheit), but many like to keep the heat much lower, at around 75 to 80 degrees Celsius (167 to 176 degrees Fahrenheit). 

This allows the amount of löyly, the water thrown onto the rocks, to alter the temperature as needed. Some like a lot of löyly, while some prefer only a few throws during each sauna session. 

In recent decades, the infrared sauna has gathered fans due to its alleged health benefits. The infrared sauna is not as hot as a traditional sauna and is intended to be enjoyed for longer spurs of time, approximately half an hour to an hour at a time. 

No water is used in an infrared sauna; since the heat is light-based, it warms the body instead of the air within the room and is thus always electrical.

Although the sauna is a historically Finnish concept, many other countries have taken on the concept and altered it to their liking. German soldiers were acquainted with the concept of the sauna during World War II, when homesick Finnish soldiers built sauna-like facilities inside tents and bunkers. 

After the war, Germans spread the sauna enthusiasm to neighboring countries, including Austria, Belgium, and Switzerland. Finland’s neighboring Sweden and Norway are also fans of the sauna, and the Scandinavian sauna culture is derived from the Finnish sauna.

The Russian sauna, banya, carries a long history and is similar in concept to the Finnish sauna, but is more of a steam bath. North American sweat lodges are similarly close to the Finnish sauna idea but are considered more of a spiritual cleansing ceremony than a daily activity.

Finnish Sauna Etiquette

What is proper Finnish sauna etiquette?

Finns believe that the sauna is a sacred place, due to both its long history in the country and its strong hold on the Finnish culture. Throughout Finland’s storied and often painful past, the sauna has remained an unchanged and vital part of being Finnish. 

Having said that, Finns are quite easygoing when it comes to the actual part of “taking a sauna”. Finnish children are taught early that the sauna is only for sitting, due to the danger of falling onto the hot kiuas and getting burned, and to respect the sauna experience. 

A common saying in Finland suggests that one should behave in a sauna as they would in a church.

Finnish sauna etiquette means that chatting quietly or sitting in silence are both acceptable, but loud noises and any kind reckless behavior is typically frowned upon. That’s not to say, however, that the sauna can’t be an ideal place for deep conversations. 

The 2010 documentary Steam of Life (titled Miesten Vuoro, or Men’s Shift, in Finnish) explores the culture of Finnish men finding it easier to speak about difficult things inside the safety of a sauna.

Some public saunas in Finland are chattier than others; when visiting a new public sauna, it is best to observe the atmosphere for a while to determine its level of casualness. More traditional public saunas tend to be quieter than modern, trendy ones. 

Some Finns see the sauna as a meditative place and prefer to sit quietly with their thoughts, while others see it as a perfect place to catch up with a friend or a relative.

Every sauna visitor, particularly at public saunas in Finland, is expected to take a quick shower before entering the sauna. Not only does this quick rinse help keep the sauna facilities clean, it gives the pores a quick wash and makes it easier to sweat once inside the sauna. 

Finns consider the sauna experience to be cleansing and relaxing, and particular rituals such as the pre-sauna shower are all important parts of the experience.

What do you do during a sauna?

There is no common standard for how long to be in a sauna for, but most Finns likely average around ten minutes. However, many sauna-goers like to cool off for a moment, perhaps by taking a shower or swimming in a lake or the sea, and return for another sitting. 

Some Finns are sauna purists that believe all you need is a kiuas and some water, while others like to add to the experience by bringing a vihta. The vihta (or vasta, depending on where in Finland you’re from) consists of a handful of birch tree branches that are tied together in a bunch and used to, quite simply, hit oneself on the back. 

This age-old tradition is believed to improve circulation and stimulate the skin. The branches hitting the skin fills the sauna with a pleasant odor of birch trees.

Those who enjoy aromatherapy can add a few drops of essential oils into the löyly water — when the water hits the rocks on the kiuas, the scent evaporates into the air. Sauna accessories are a common housewarming gift in Finland and there is something for everyone. 

If your dream is to cook sausages over the kiuas while taking a sauna, there is a special rack available!

What do people in Finland do immediately after a sauna?

Finns like to enjoy the relaxed feeling after a sauna in various ways. One of the most common is to take a dip in a lake or the sea, and saunas are often built by the waterfront for this very reason. 

Winter won’t stop Finns — if someone has drilled a hole on the ice, Finns will undoubtedly run from the sauna for a dip in the freezing water. For first-time ice water swimmers, only a quick dip up to the chest is recommended.

If there is no water nearby during wintertime, rolling around in the snow is a popular activity as well. The coldness of the snow provides a nice shock to the warmed-up body. And what’s better than running back into the warmth of the sauna after a quick roll in a snow bank? 

During summer, sitting on the porch of the sauna and enjoying the midnight sun is often enough to make the experience perfect.

Regardless of your favorite post-sauna activity, one thing is a given favorite: a cold beverage. A saunajuoma, a sauna beverage, often consists of a cold beer or cider, but a soda or a sparkling water will do the trick just as well. 

Some sauna-goers like to step out of the heat, enjoy a drink overlooking the scenery, and go back into the sauna refreshed. Taking a beverage inside the sauna, however, is not considered acceptable. 

Due to the sweating, it is particularly important to also drink water before and after a sauna.

What do you wear to a Finnish sauna?

This is one of the things about Finnish sauna culture that puzzles (and worries) foreigners the most. Fear not: if you do not feel comfortable being naked in a sauna, Finns won’t try to pressure you into stripping before stepping in. 

In fact, a towel is perfectly acceptable attire, especially in co-ed situations. Bathing suits are not ideal due to the possibility of the chemicals in the fabric reacting to the heat but are fine in a pinch or when the plan is to swim right after the sauna. 

However, many Finns prefer to have men’s and women’s turns and to enjoy the sauna in the nude. Public saunas in Finland offer free, disposable cloths to sit on for nude sauna-goers. Those with private saunas often buy washable and reusable seat cloths for everyone in the household.

How many saunas are there in Finland?

Considering the fact that Finland is home to only five and a half million residents, the number of saunas within the country is quite staggering: roughly two million. At the beginning of the 20th century, most house construction projects began with the building of the sauna. While that may not be the case anymore, most Finnish houses still include saunas. 

Small saunas are also very common among apartments and the ones that do not have one often offer a public sauna for the residents within the apartment complex. Of the two million saunas in Finland, approximately 30% are located at summer cottages and 55% are inside private houses. 

The rest are within apartments or apartment buildings and outside houses that are not considered summer cottages.

Finnish Sauna Etiquette

Where are the best saunas in Helsinki?

Those visiting the Finnish capital and hoping to catch a sauna are in luck — the city of Helsinki is filled with unique sauna experiences. 

The saunas in Helsinki range from traditional to modern, with a few quirkier ones thrown in for those searching for an adventure. Note that nearly all public saunas offer a reduced rate for students and pensioners, and children can often visit for free. 

Here are some of the most interesting saunas in the Helsinki area:

Löyly

Löyly is a public sauna and restaurant complex that opened in the Hernesaari area of Helsinki in 2016 to widespread interest — it was even featured in the New York Times

The Löyly complex includes two large saunas that can accommodate approximately 20 guests at a time. A smaller sauna is also available for rent for two hours at a time and can accommodate up to ten sauna-goers. 

All saunas include a menu of drinks and light snacks, as well as access to the seafront for a swim. A two-hour sauna visit costs 19 euros, and the private sauna can be rented for 300–400 euros, depending on the day.

Allas Sea Pool

The Allas Sea Pool complex opened in 2016 and is one of the newest additions to the Helsinki public sauna scene. 

Centrally located next to the Market Square and the Presidential Palace, Allas Sea Pool features three pools — two are heated year-round with renewable energy and the other is filled with filtered sea water — and three electric saunas. 

One of the saunas is intended solely for men and the other for women. The third sauna is available for rent for larger parties and when not rented, is available for co-ed use. 

A single ticket to use the pools and saunas at Allas Sea Pool costs 15 euros and is valid for three hours. Monthly passes are also available from 45 euros per month.

Lonna

The Lonna public sauna is located on the tiny island of Lonna, off the coast of Helsinki. A water bus runs between the island and the Market Square and takes approximately ten minutes each way. 

Each of the two available wood-burning saunas, one for women and one for men, can accommodate 12 guests at a time. The view of the archipelago makes Lonna an excellent choice for a relaxing sauna experience. 

Each Tuesday and Friday are dedicated to co-ed saunas. The fee for using the Lonna saunas is 17 euros per person for up to two hours.

Kotiharjun Sauna

One of the more traditional public saunas in Helsinki, Kotiharjun Sauna dates back to 1928 and is the oldest functional public sauna in the city. The sauna is located in the trendy Kallio area and is a great option for an authentic city sauna experience. 

The wood-burning sauna is among the largest public saunas in the capital area, offering space for 20–30 individuals on the top laude alone. Groups of approximately 17 people can rent a private, electric sauna starting at 14 euros per person for two hours. 

The public sauna costs 14 euros as well, but frequent sauna-goers can save by purchasing a ten-visit card for 120 euros.

Kulttuurisauna

The Kulttuurisauna, which translates to Culture Sauna and was launched in 2013 as part of the World Design Capital Helsinki 2012 program, is wood-heated. The sauna requires a reservation for visitors and asks sauna-goers to arrive alone. 

Silence is essential at this sauna — there is absolutely no talking allowed in the sauna or inside the dressing rooms. One 90-minute reservation costs 15 euros, while a seven-visit serial ticket has a price tag of 70 euros.

Sauna Arla

Sauna Arla has been a popular Helsinki attraction for more than 90 years. Men’s and women’s facilities take up one floor each, with a photography exhibit on display between the floors. 

One of the more unique aspects of Sauna Arla is the option to pay for a traditional washing experience, which used to be available at nearly every public sauna in Finland but today is reduced to a mere few. 

The recipient lays on a table similar to those used at massage parlors, except in this case within the washroom area. The washer uses a large washing cloth and lots of foam. Cupping, where suction cups are placed on the skin to improve blood flow, is also available. 

One visit to Sauna Arla costs 13 euros, and multi-visit passes start at 59 euros.

Sompasauna

Sompasauna is a free public sauna that is open 24 hours a day year-round. The sauna was opened in 2011 after a few locals came across an abandoned, wood-burning kiuas and built a modest sauna around it. 

Sompasauna does not feature a staff, and visitors are expected to heat the sauna themselves if they are the first ones to arrive for the day. Visitors are also encouraged to chip in by cutting up firewood and cleaning up the spaces after use. 

The sauna is located in the traditionally industrial port area of Kalasatama in Helsinki.

Sauna Hermanni

The traditional Sauna Hermanni first opened its doors in 1953. The two electric saunas accommodate 30 men and 20 women. Sauna Hermanni offers small snacks and beverages, but also encourages visitors to bring their own drinks. 

Tickets cost 12 euros and do not include a time limit. The saunas can also be rented to groups of up to ten people for a cost of 200 euros.

Enjoy your traditional Finnish sauna!

Now that you have learned about the proper Finnish sauna etiquette and the best saunas in the capital area, enjoy the sauna culture! Just keep in mind — always ask before tossing some more löyly.

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