Finnish sauna: wellness from the far north

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What fika is in Sweden, the sauna is in Finland: a social institution, a place of community and, above all, a great piece of culture. Here, people not only relax in the traditional sense, but also talk, drink and brave the temperatures of the Finnish winter.

What is the Finnish sauna all about?

Finnish dry sauna
The Finnish dry sauna

Here, the term Finnish sauna is mainly used to describe the Finnish dry sauna. The interior is made of wood and the temperatures are quite high at 85 to 105° Celsius. Electric saunas can also be found in Finland, but the smoke sauna and wood-heated saunas in particular are considered classics. In a traditional smoke sauna, logs are lit and left to glow for several hours, heating the pile of stones underneath. Once the fire has gone out, the smoke is expelled from the sauna and the ashes are removed. The first infusion on the hot stones follows.

Typical of the Finnish sauna, is that it is kept rather natural, which means dim lighting, no music and no artificial fragrances. Instead, the Finnish sauna smells of fresh birch and tar.

Tradition & culture

Finland without a sauna is unimaginable. The word “sauna” is the only Finnish word that has been adopted into other languages around the world. No wonder the Finns are particularly proud of their sauna culture. Almost all buildings in Finland, including small one-room flats and even state institutions, have their own sauna – including the embassies and the parliament in Helsinki. This is why it is said that important decisions in Finland are not made at the conference table, but in the sauna.

small sauna at the lake
A small sauna with direct access to the lake.

The sauna is of historical significance in Finland as well. For a long time, it was considered the most hygienic room in the home, replaced the bathroom and was often the only room with access to hot water. Therefore, many babies in Finland used to be born in the sauna as well as it was the traditional place for washing the dead. Today, the sauna is often associated with the bathroom.

The Finns even have a fixed term for “after the sauna”: saunanjälkeinen describes the need to simply rest and relax after the sauna. Another tradition in Finland is the Christmas sauna on Christmas Eve, when people cleanse themselves for the festivities. This makes it clear that taking a sauna really is a “community thing” here: Finns get together in there and have a relaxed chat while drinking or eating. Thus, invitations to the sauna are common.

Tips for the Finnish sauna

Birch branches

birch twigs
Traditional birch twigs

Vasta or Vihta (the name varies depending on the region) is what the Finns call the bundle of fresh birch twigs that they use in the sauna. These are gently beaten on the skin to stimulate blood circulation and stir up the air, making you sweat even more.

At the same time, a pleasant and fresh fragrance spreads through the sauna. As there are still leaves on the branches, the procedure is not painful, but has a very soothing effect. The leaves also release a light, soap-like liquid onto the skin. You should definitely give it a try.

Cool down: bathing in the lake or snow

Bathing and swimming after a sauna session to cool off is particularly popular with locals and tourists alike. An experience in both summer and winter. In Finland, there are numerous saunas located directly at the lake. Sometimes in winter, there is even a hole cut in the ice so that you can take a quick dip in the icy water.

Alternatively, it is particularly fun to lie down in the cool, soft snow after a sauna, even if it takes some courage.

Sauna marathon or short sauna session

You are free to decide for yourself how long you want to stay in the sauna. According to Finnish tradition, there are no fixed times or intervals, as the Finns themselves like to spend the whole day in the sauna (with breaks, of course) and turn it into a kind of communal event. However, they also like to use them for just a short sauna session to relax in between with infusions done according to personal preference.

Eating and drinking

Finnish barbecue between sauna sessions
The Finns barbecue between sauna sessions.

It is generally recommended to drink enough between sauna sessions. As the Finns love their sauna and particularly enjoy using it in company, it is also customary to drink beer or cider. Sometimes sausages are grilled in aluminium foil over the stove. In summer, this is often done outside on the barbecue, so people like to get together for a sauna day in Finland.

Sauna on holiday in Finland

Cold lake after sauna
From the sauna straight into the cold lake

All of this can of course be experienced on a holiday in Finland. Whether in a group or with the family, in summer under the midnight sun, or in the snowy winter under the Northern Lights: a cosy holiday home with a separate sauna is worthwhile at any time of year. You can also enjoy the view of the neighbouring lake and take a dip in it.

If you are on a city trip in Finland, you can use the public saunas, instead. You can find them in swimming pools right in Helsinki, or a little further afield they are also traditionally found in the countryside. Most hotels in Finland have a wellness area with a sauna and pool as well.

Buy or build a Finnish sauna

Whether an outdoor sauna, garden sauna or indoor sauna – the Finnish tradition can also be brought home. Wooden saunas for indoors and outdoors are available in various shapes and sizes, for example from DIY stores or mail order companies. A wood-burning stove is ideal for the typical Finnish sauna experience, instead of an infrared sauna. However, this is only suitable for outdoor saunas as it requires a direct outlet to the outside.

As there probably is no lake, a cold shower or bathtub is suitable for cooling off at home. If you are a skilled craftsman and have enough time for a large project, you can of course also build your own wooden sauna.

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