The Finnish sauna etiquette may feel like a mystery before your first visit to Finland. It’s totally understandable if the whole Finnish sauna culture in general sounds intimidating. There might be several questions on your mind!
- Seriously, are you naked in a sauna, among strangers?
- Is it really hot?
- Is a sauna hygienic?
No worries, I’m here to answer all your questions (yes to all above!).
This article explains a very short history of the Finnish sauna culture and dives into the practical things: How to enjoy sauna like a Finn and what are the key elements of the Finnish sauna etiquette.
Then, I go on to describe the three Finnish sauna types. Yup! There are three different saunas you can waltz your way into in Finland: the wood-burning, electrically heated and smoke sauna. The sauna etiquette is always the same, though.
Lastly, I have included three awesome sauna destinations in Helsinki.
Here are the themes I’ll be covering!
Table of Contents
The Finnish Sauna Culture and History
As you probably know, the sauna is a major part of Finnish culture. Sauna is not a luxury in Finland, it’s a necessity.
Today’s saunas have developed from warmed pits covered with animal skins. I’ve taken a sauna bath in a pit with a turf roof and it was a dirt-filled experience compared to the sleek, modern saunas. I bet it was a bliss 10 000 years ago, though.
After the sauna pit, a smoke sauna appeared. The wood-burning and electrical saunas developed from the smoke sauna.
For centuries, the sauna was a separate building. In fact, when a family started to build a house, they always built the sauna first. The whole family lived there as long as it took the main house to finish! In the 20th century, Finns started attaching them to the house itself.
Everything related to the sauna has a positive echo in Finnish culture. A sauna is a place of health, cleanliness and pureness. There’s nothing sexual about sauna. To be precise, it’s almost a holy place.
There’s an old Finnish saying: “Behave in the sauna as you would behave in the church.”
Finnish women gave birth in the sauna before hospital births came the standard in the mid 20th century.
Saunas have been always used for healing and relaxation. In fact, the Finnish sauna still has old rituals that live on in modern society.
Sauna elf (saunatonttu). Sauna elf lives in the sauna. At Christmas, you can give him a bowl of rice porridge.
Bridal sauna (morsiussauna). A Finnish bachelorette party isn’t complete without a bridal sauna. The sauna is decorated with candles and flowers. The girls enjoy sauna together and wash the bride with an egg, salt and flour. Loud noise keeps the bad spirits away.
Birch twig (vihta or vasta, depends on region). Finns gently beat their bodies with fresh birch twigs in the sauna to improve our circulation.
How to Use a Finnish Sauna?
Here is a step-by-step guide on how to behave in a Finnish sauna.
- Take a shower.
- Go to sauna naked or with a towel (check if you are allowed to use a swimsuit. Usually there’s a sign near the sauna).
- Throw water on the hot stones as much as you want. The idea is that the sauna is moist, never dry.
- Cool off outside/in the shower/swimming.
- Repeat as many times as you want.
The Finnish Sauna Etiquette
The sauna etiquette differs between countries. For example, in Germany, there’s a “sauna master” who throws the water on the hot stones and he is the only person to do this.
#1 In Finland, anybody can throw water on the stove. The job goes to the person sitting closest to the water bucket.
#2 You don’t usually wear a swimsuit, because it has chemicals that react with the warmth of the sauna. If you are feeling shy, use a towel.
#3 Pretty much all places have separate saunas for women and men. This is normal for example in hotels and swimming halls.
#4 If it’s a public mixed sauna, you always use a swimsuit or towel.
#5 Among the same sex, it’s normal to be naked. If you feel uncomfortable, wear a towel.
#6 You can talk in a Finnish sauna. It’s not forbidden, although usually, Finns are pretty quiet in the sauna.
#7 You sit on a towel in a sauna. Public saunas have a specific disposable sauna tissue for you. There’s a roll or a pile of them near the sauna.
#8 Saunas are washed regularly and they are hygienic.
#9 Saunas are usually heated to be around 80 Celcius degrees, which is 175 Fahrenheit. If it’s too hot for you, sit lower.
#10 You can take the nearest seat to the door in the sauna if you want to escape fast. Usually, the heat is not so sharp next to the door.
#11 After or during sauna, it’s a tradition to have a cold sauna drink (a beer, cider, long drink, lemonade, water) and a small snack, for example, a sausage.
Final words of caution! In general, Finnish men are quite relaxed about being naked. It’s not unusual that there’s sometimes female housekeeping staff in male changing rooms.
A Wood-burning Classic Finnish Sauna
A wood-burning sauna is the star of the traditional Finnish sauna experience. It takes about 30 minutes to be ready. Most Finns could heat up a wood-burning sauna with their eyes closed.
This sauna type is warm and moist and it’s the most popular sauna type in Finnish summer cabins and the countryside.
An Electrically Heated Finnish Sauna
An electrically heated sauna is easy to use and the spirit of this sauna is sharp and a bit dry. The sauna snacks need to be cooked in the kitchen, not in the embers of this sauna stove.
You can find electrically heated saunas in public places like swimming halls, hotels and city homes. They are certainly a cure for sauna cravings when living in the city.
A Finnish Smoke Sauna
Even though it’s the oldest of the saunas, a smoke sauna is the sauna type that is the rarest in Finland. I love it the most, as do many other sauna fans in Finland.
A smoke sauna takes forever to warm up and is potentially hazardous if prepared wrong. One can inhale carbon monoxide or burn the building.
However, the sauna experience is pretty close to religious when you walk into the gentle warm darkness. I am one lucky girl to have this type of sauna at our summer cottage.
Trying out Sauna in Helsinki
If you are visiting Helsinki, the trendiest place to try both wood-burning and smoke sauna is Löyly – a cool sauna venue next to the sea. Make a sauna reservation in advance!
If you want to experience the last public sauna with traditional wood-burning style in Helsinki, head to Kotiharju sauna. It’s been warming up since 1928!
A hidden sauna gem in Helsinki is Kulttuurisauna, which offers an esthetic and truly relaxing sauna experience without the hassle of modern life. Read the instructions on their home page carefully.
What would you like to know about the Finnish sauna? Have you already been in a sauna? Comment below and let me know!
Looking for more information about Finnish culture and Finland? Check out some of my other posts:
Warm wishes from Finland,
After Finnish Culture Compass, you’ll…
...feel connected with the Finnish culture (even if you aren’t in Finland)
...be confident with the Finnish communication style (even when it’s filled with silence)
...be prepared to meet and get to know Finns