Finland’s quirky love for saunas

The Finnish sauna is getting a makeover as new venues offer creative takes on the traditional steam bath. Here’s a guide to some pretty awesome saunas.

Traditional saunas have long been a mainstay of Finnish culture. In recent years, a range of unusual steam baths have entered the scene. Now it’s possible to enjoy a sauna in exotic locations ranging from a Ferris wheel to the Helsinki waterfront.

Swimming your worries away

If all 5.5 million Finnish citizens went to sauna at the same time, distributed evenly among all the saunas in the country, there would only be one or two people in each sauna. Photo: iStock

Finland is a land of thousands of lakes and millions of saunas, so it is only natural to combine these two elements. The ideal Finnish sauna experience includes a refreshing swim in natural waters, no matter what time of year it is.

Freezing hot

Winter swimming improves blood circulation, boosts metabolism and lowers blood pressure; if you want to warm up in a sauna afterwards, nobody will blame you. Photo: iStock

Ice swimming is a big part of a Finnish winter bathing experience. While it may sound scary, it is in fact good for you – and nothing could be more refreshing.

Finnish docent Pirkko Huttunen of the University of Oulu has found that the refreshing effect of winter swimming is good for the body: It improves blood circulation and boosts your metabolism. According to Huttunen’s findings, frequent ice swimming will also lower blood pressure.

Luxury in saunas

Modern sauna culture has given rise to a whole industry of accessories, from bathrobes to sauna scents. Photo: LuinSpa

Sauna scents, sauna hats, and sauna stove decorations have taken their share of the sauna market. Sauna scents have various options from the scent of smoke to the scent of birch leaves, and sauna hats come in many designs.

Sauna seems like a regular part of the Finnish culture, but it is also considered as a luxury. This luxury is a strong message of Finnish towel brand LuinSpa.

LuinSpa wanted to bring the luxurious feeling of spas to every sauna and started to make high-quality towels, bathrobes and other accessories for sauna enthusiasts.

The business of sauna

Sauna stoves and the stones that go with them are highly specialised equipment; there are several dozen brands of sauna stove in Finland.Photo: Harvia

There are some 30 commercial sauna stove brands in Finland, and that is totally normal for a sauna-crazy country. According to the executive director of the Sauna from Finland network, Carita Harju, the sauna-loving Finns know their way around different sauna stoves.

“There are so many different kinds of saunas in Finland that many types of sauna stoves are necessary,” Harju says.

The biggest sauna stove brands in Finland are Harvia and Helo; approximately 50 percent of their sauna stoves are sold abroad.

Mindful sweat

A tied bouquet of leafy birch branches can be used in the sauna to increase circulation at the skin level. Photo: iStock

In Finnish culture, sauna has always been thought of as a place that keeps people healthy. There is even a proverb that says, “If liquor, tar and sauna won’t help, the illness is fatal.”

Nowadays it is demonstrably true: sauna can actually heal, or at least keep people healthier.

A medical journal called JAMA Internal Medicine has published research from the University of Eastern Finland showing the health benefits of sauna. According to the research, frequent sauna bathing reduces risks of cardiac arrest.

Helsinki’s trendiest seaside sauna

Löyly may be the only sauna in Finland that requires customers to wear bathing suits; the opposite is usually true. Photo:

Löyly is a monument to the development of modern saunas. An impressive building located on a beautiful stretch of Helsinki waterfront, it is a rectangular, sculptural structure made of heat-treated pine. The elongated wooden shape forms terraces where people can sit and relax. The building consists of two parts: public saunas and a restaurant.

Traditionally men and women bathe separately, but the owners and architects of Löyly wanted the sauna be a place where people can spend time with their friends, regardless of gender. So, in an unusual policy for a Finnish sauna, bathing suits are required at Löyly. Anu Puustinen and Ville Hara of Avanto Architects, believe that in the future there will be more unisex saunas.

“Finnish saunas will become more interesting and gain more global popularity, and they will be regarded for their curative properties as well as a luxurious place of cleansing. Nowadays people see sauna bathing as a social event, so we believe there will be more Löyly-like public bath houses in cities.”

Finland’s oldest public sauna

Opened in 1906, Rajaportti is the oldest Finnish public sauna still operating today. Photo: Seppo Saarentola

Rajaportti (Border Gate), the oldest Finnish public sauna still in use, lies in Pispala, in the central Finnish city of Tampere. Its large sauna stove, or kiuas, is equipped with special stones weighing a total of more than 1,000 kilogrammes. It is a challenging task to warm up this sauna, as it must be heated with one-metre logs.

Though the heating process takes time, the steam stones are so large that once they are heated up they stay hot for the whole day.

In Finnish culture, the sauna is a place to rest and cleanse mind and body. Mobile phones must be turned off; it is enough to listen to the calming hiss of water becoming steam as it hits the stones.

From private to public

On Helsinki Sauna Day, many unusual saunas are briefly open to the public. Photo: Harvia

There are approximately three million saunas in Finland – and there are only about 5.5 million people in the whole country. This equation means that there are saunas that are not in use as often as they could be. This was the thought that created Helsinki Sauna Day.

On Helsinki Sauna Day, anyone who has access to a sauna can invite people to visit it. An app displays the availability. Saunas that people would not normally be able to see suddenly open up.

Sauna with a moving view

At the northern Finnish ski resort of Ylläs, you can have a sauna in a gondola lift. Photo: Sport Resort Ylläs

There are always new, exotic saunas popping up as the sauna culture evolves.

In Finnish Lapland, at a ski resort called Ylläs, you can steam your muscles after skiing in the Sauna Gondola. There’s room for four people.

In Helsinki you can find a sauna 40 metres off the ground with a marvelous sea view – in a Ferris wheel. Sky Sauna’s unique sauna cabin fits five people, and is probably the hottest way to enjoy a view of Helsinki. The sauna experience is perfected with a hot tub, located safely on the ground. You can enjoy the sauna in the air and then come down and relax in the hot tub.

A Ferris wheel with a sauna cabin turns next to the Allas Sea Pool complex on South Harbour in Helsinki.Photo: Tommi Haapaniemi/Allas Sea Pool

Close to the Ferris wheel is another relative newcomer, Allas Sea Pool. The unique complex brings together ocean swimming pools, urban culture and of course saunas.

As with most sizable cities, Helsinki has its own Burger King, but with a twist: there is a sauna in this one. The sauna is located downstairs from the restaurant, and can accommodate 15 burger- and sauna-loving people.

By Anni Saastamoinen, ThisisFINLAND Magazine 2017