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

There are a small red wooden cabin and a hot tub among several birch trees. In the background, there is a lake.

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

A barrel-shaped sauna building and a hot tub are on the shore of a frozen lake in a snowy landscape.

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 researcher 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

Three people in bathrobes are sitting on a wooden bench. Only their legs and slippered feet are visible.

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 is like a regular part of the Finnish culture, but at the same time it is also considered a luxury. Some brands manufacture towels, bathrobes and other accessories that aim to provide sauna enthusiasts with a spa-like experience.

The business of sauna

A light coloured and well-lit sauna with a round stove in the middle.

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 are sauna-stove connoisseurs.

“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 person is holding a bouquet of leafy birch branches in front of a building made of logs.

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 don’t help, then the illness is fatal.”

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

The medical journal 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

There is a crowd of people on the terrace of an angular modern wooden building beside the sea in front of several industrial buildings.

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. The word löyly is the Finnish name for the steam that rises from the stones on top of the sauna stove.

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. They say that Finnish saunas will become more interesting and gain more global popularity, and will be regarded for their curative properties as well as a luxurious place of cleansing. Puustinen and Hara believe that there will be more Löyly-like public bath houses built in cities, since people see sauna bathing as a social event nowadays.

Finland’s oldest public sauna

A dressing room in an old building, with green benches and shelves along the walls.

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.

Sauna with a moving view

A gondola ski lift is hanging from a cable above a snowy landscape.

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 in the Sauna Gondola after skiing. There’s room for four people.

In Helsinki you’ll find a sauna 40 metres off the ground with a marvelous sea view – on 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 augmented with a hot tub, located safely on the ground. You can enjoy the sauna in the air and then come down and continue to relax in the hot tub.

An aerial photo of Helsinki market square and harbor shows a pier with swimming pools and a white and blue Ferris wheel.

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