Rethinking Finnish sauna

Hidden beyond the building sites of the vast new urban district of Kalasatama lies Helsinki’s best-known secret, Sompasauna.

Sompasauna welcomes young and old, Finns and foreigners alike, to enjoy a sauna and a dip in the sea in pleasant and relaxing company. It is completely self-service.

Three wood-heated, hand-constructed saunas occupy the end of a peninsula, with the city centre visible across the water. They’re open around the clock every day of the year, free of charge.

“The secret of our popularity is the communal, open atmosphere,” says Wilhelm Björkqvist, one of the active members. “Having a sauna is simple and easy, and so is chatting with new people. I reckon that this is the easiest place to get to know a Finn.”

Finns are known for their love of the sauna – a hot, tranquil room where they relax and gather their thoughts. It is also a place for deep conversations and thinking big. Sauna can be seen as an innovative space where people can create something new. Many business ideas have started in the sauna.

City saunas bring people together

Ready for the sauna: A whisk made from a bouquet of birch branches lies beside a wooden bucket with a ladle in it.Photo: Jorma Marstio/SKOY

“At Sompasauna we’re seeing a new wave of sauna culture,” Björkqvist says. “You can have a serene cottage sauna but you can also enjoy a collective sauna experience in the middle of the city. Sauna can be a social Friday night hangout.”

Whatever the sauna experience, the common denominator is that there is no hierarchy. Everyone is on the same level.

“I’ve been going here for years, and I still don’t know what some of the people do for a living,” says Björkqvist. “We discuss everything, just not work.”

Helsinki has several public saunas,
each with its own unique profile:

By Taru Virtanen, ThisisFINLAND Magazine 2020