Visit Finland and you’ll soon discover just how much the Finns love sauna. In fact, the custom of Finnish sauna is so woven into the local culture that having access to one is considered a necessity rather than a luxury.
But perhaps this isn’t surprising when you think that the sauna was invented thousands of years ago in Finland. Sauna traditions centre around having a calm and restorative experience which usually involves relaxing with friends and family.
It’s also common for Finns to punctuate their time in the sauna with refreshing dips in a pool or nearby lake.
So whether you’re getting ready for your own sauna experience, or are just curious about Finnish sauna culture, you’ve come to the right place. Read on to find out more.
- Check out these trips to Finland and get inspiration for a Scandinavian escape
Are saunas common in Finland?
Absolutely! It’s estimated that there are over 3.3 million saunas in Finland. And in a country with a population of just 5.5 million, this means there are plenty of saunas to go around.
You’ll find saunas almost everywhere in Finland, including homes, countryside cabins, hotels, gyms and even in offices.
- Fun fact: As of now, UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list now includes sauna culture in Finland
What is a traditional Finnish sauna?
Historically people visited the sauna, which was originally a heated cave or pit, to keep warm during winter. Thankfully the traditional Finnish sauna has evolved somewhat since its invention.
Nowadays a Finnish sauna is a cosy wood-lined building or room, warmed to a temperature of around 80°C (176°F). It’s a place where Finns come to unwind, whether that’s on their own or with friends and family.
An integral part of Finnish saunas is a pile of hot stones that sit atop the heat source. While you’re in the sauna, you’ll see bathers occasionally ladling water from the sauna bucket onto these rocks. This creates steam and maintains the humidity of the sauna.
- Experience sauna culture in Norway, Sweden and Denmark on one of these popular Scandinavian tours
Are there different types of Finnish sauna?
Yes, when you visit Finland you'll find a variety of saunas. In fact, the Finnish Sauna Society recognises 3 main types of sauna: wood, smoke and electric. They're named according to their heat source, and each will give you a slightly different experience.
Generally, wood and smoke saunas are favoured because they’re seen to be more authentic. That said, electric stove saunas are handy in a town or city setting as they’re easier to fuel. For instance, if you're staying in a hotel city, the sauna here is likely to be electric.
The wood-heated sauna is the Finnish classic, and they’re a popular choice with Finns at their summer cottages. Indeed, a practised hand could have one ready in as little as 30 minutes.
A smoke sauna (“savusauna”) is the oldest and rarest variety of Finnish sauna. Despite going out of fashion in the mid-1900s, you might notice during your visit that they’re undergoing a revival.
If you decide to try a smoke sauna when you're in Finland, it's good to know that your host will require around 2 hours to prepare it. This is because more care is required to get everything just right.
First, a fire is lit, and the room is allowed to fill with smoke which coats everything in soot. Secondly, the room is aired thoroughly to clear the smoke and the benches are cleaned. And when you're in the sauna, it’s the burning embers that keep the temperature up.
A smoke sauna should only ever be prepared by someone who is experienced and knows how to heat the room and air it safely.
- Good to know: Have you ever wondered what those birch branches (“vasta” or “vihta”) are for? By beating, or “whisking”, themselves gently with these birch bundles, the Finns hope to improve their circulation while in the sauna.
How hot is a Finnish sauna?
Wood burning and electric saunas are normally warmed to 80-110°C (176-230°F).
Smoke saunas on the other hand, although they might feel just as warm, may only reach 60°C (140°F). This is because their higher humidity makes them feel hotter than they are.
You can adjust the temperature of your sauna experience slightly if there are benches on multiple levels.
Seek out the hottest part of the sauna by choosing the highest place to sit. Or, opt for a lower bench close to the door if you’d prefer to enjoy the lowest temperature in the sauna.
- Choose a honeymoon package in Scandinavia and treat yourselves with a spa or sauna visit
What should you do when visiting a Finnish sauna?
If you’ve never been to a sauna in Finland before then your first trip might feel a little intimidating. But don’t worry, follow these simple steps and you’ll soon be relaxing like a local.
- Shower before going into the sauna
- Head to the sauna with your towel, naked or in a swimsuit (depending on the sauna recommendations)
- Pick a spot in the sauna to sit (remember, higher benches will be warmer)
- Ladle or throw water onto the hot stones as you wish
- Stay in the sauna for as long as you like, 5 to 10 minutes is good to begin with
- Keep hydrated by drinking plenty of water
- Take a refreshing swim or shower to cool down
- And repeat
For the ultimate Finnish sauna experience, we recommend heading to the countryside. Here you’ll find that lake shores are dotted with charming log cabins complete with private saunas.
Picture yourself soaking up the delicious warmth of the sauna before indulging in a rejuvenating dip in the lake. You can enjoy this cycle – sauna, cool off, repeat – a few times as part of your sauna ritual.
Finns relish this tradition all year round. So it’s no matter if the lake is frozen over, why not simply roll in the powdery snow instead of going for a swim? Bracing!
- Explore Finland’s snow-dusted landscapes and have your own sauna experience on a winter getaway in Lapland
- Related: Finland in winter – what to do and where to go
What do you wear to a Finnish sauna?
Or perhaps this question should be: are you supposed to get naked in a Finnish sauna?
The answer is usually yes. But if you’re feeling shy it’s no problem to wrap a towel around yourself. Indeed, you’ll need to bring a towel into the sauna anyway so you’re not sitting directly on the wooden bench.
If you’d rather keep your swimwear on in a public sauna, it’s best to check what the rules are first. This is because some saunas don’t allow swimwear due to lingering chemicals, such as chlorine.
Although Finnish families do go together in mixed saunas, groups of men and women often visit the sauna separately in Finland. If you’re unsure of the etiquette, don’t hesitate to ask your host or the sauna attendant.
- Uncover more ways to unwind in Northern Europe on one of these Iceland spa breaks
What are the benefits of using a sauna?
Although there isn’t much robust evidence to back up specific health benefits, regular sauna visits are thought to improve your blood circulation and wellbeing.
Even if the science is lacking slightly, you’ll likely feel revitalised after your sauna experience. And surely that’s all the benefit you need?
The Finns actually have a name for this feeling of post-sauna glow: “saunanjälkeinen”. It describes a deep sense of relaxation.
Preserving this almost spiritual state of calm is important to Finns. So after a sauna, it’s respectful not to disturb someone’s “saunanjälkeinen”.
- Related: Nordic spa and wellness traditions
If all this talk of sauna culture has you adding a tour of Finland to your travel wish list, then contact one of our regional travel experts. They will answer any questions you have and arrange a hassle-free trip for you.
It’s also worth knowing that Finland has a lot to offer beyond its love of sauna.
For example, head to Lapland to learn about the local Sámi culture and discover enchanting landscapes blanketed in snow. You could chase the aurora on a Lapland northern lights tour and experience a “cool” ice hotel package in Lapland.
Or, if you’d rather enjoy warmer weather then why not combine your Finland summer getaway with a trip to Scandinavia? Visit the Scandinavian nations of Norway, Sweden and Denmark and you’ll soon discover that Finland isn’t the only Northern European country with a thriving sauna tradition.
So get in touch with us and soon you could be uncovering the joys of Finnish sauna culture for yourself.