Beginner Tips to Enjoy a Traditional Finnish Sauna

Beginner Tips for Visiting a Traditional Finnish Sauna

Did you know that the saunas in Finland can fit the entire population of Finland inside at one time? With the largest number of saunas per capita, they are a central part of the culture in Finland. That’s why anyone visiting Finland must experience a traditional Finnish sauna!

Before your first Finnish sauna experience, there’s a few things you should know! Learn the basics of Finnish sauna etiquette, including what to wear in a Finnish sauna and more.

Text: Finnish Sauna Beginner's Guide - will everyone be naked? will it be clean? and more! Image: A clean, wood lined empty sauna with soft white lights and several white towels laying on the benches.

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History of Saunas in Finland

In their most primitive form, dating back 10,000 years ago, saunas in Finland started at pits that were dug into slopes in the ground and heated with hot rocks. Animal skins were used to cover the entrance to the pit to keep the moisture and warmth inside. Interestingly, at one time it was not uncommon for Finns to be both born and have their bodies prepared for burial in saunas.

By the 18th and 19th century, saunas has evolved to be wood burning with chimneys. And by the 20th century, the now common metal stoves began to be used in saunas. 

Today, saunas are typically wooden with an electric, gas or wood burning stove which heat a pile of stones. Water is regularly added to the stones to create steam.

A wooden bucket with a wooden spoon rests on the edge of a railing next to the hot stones inside of a wooden sauna room.
Traditional Finnish saunas have a high level of moisture in the air, which is created by placing water on the hot stones.

In Finnish sauna folklore, it’s believed that each sauna is protected by its own spirit in the form of a gnome called saunatonttu. To thank the spirit for guarding the sauna from fire and damage, it’s tradition to leave a cup of water or food in the sauna. At the Christmas holiday, families will leave a bowl of porridge in the sauna, much like a plate of cookies for Santa. If you see a small gnome statue or symbol in a traditional Finnish sauna, this is why!

Finnish Sauna Benefits

So, why are saunas so popular in Finland and what are the benefits of Finnish sauna? Here are just a few!

  • Increases circulation which helps with muscle soreness, arthritis and mobility issues
  • Reduces stress
  • Reduces risk of cardiovascular disease
  • Flushes toxins from the body
  • Helps with breathing difficulties

If you have specific health conditions, particularly related to heart health and circulation be sure to speak with your doctor before visiting a sauna.

Types of Sauna in Finland

Today, there are three common types of sauna in Finland: wood-burning, electric and smoke.

Wood-Burning

This is the most popular  and classic style of sauna in Finland. These consist of usually large metal wood-burning stoves that heat stones on top. From my experience, the temperature is less controlled in this environment compared to electric saunas. Expect wood-burning saunas in Finland to be dimly.

Electric

These are easy-to-use and most common in homes and hotels. Electric saunas aren’t as moist as wood-burning saunas, bu the temperature is more tightly controlled. Expect electric saunas to be more well lit or have dimmer switches to control the lighting.

Smoke

This is one of the oldest and most rare styles of sauna in Finland that is still in use today. The smoke comes from a wood-burning stove without a chimney, creating a wonderful earthy smell. Expect smoke saunas to be quite dark.

Beginner Tips for Visiting a Traditional Finnish Sauna

Visiting a sauna in Finland can be a bit confusing for visitors. What do you wear? Where do you sit? Is it sanitary? Don’t worry, I’ve got you covered with these Finland sauna tips.

1 | Make a reservation.

If you plan to visit a public sauna in Finland, which I highly recommend you do, it’s best to make a reservation. Check the sauna website to reserve a time or ask for help at your place of accommodation. 

If you are traveling solo and don’t have a reservation, there’s a good chance you can wait until a spot opens up like I did. But, plan in advance if you will be tight on time.

2 | Bring a few essentials with you.

When you arrive at public sauna, you can expect to be given a towel, a sitting towel, and a locker with a key. Inside the locker room there are typically hair dryers and basic toiletries to use. It’s standard to have showers available for before and after the sauna.

Pro Tip: The sitting towel is to sit on inside the sauna. Carry it with you along with your towel into the sauna. This is for hygiene reasons!

Whether you are using a sauna at a hotel or a public sauna, be sure to bring a few sauna essentials with you. Check with the hotel or website to see what is provided.

2 | Clothing may not be allowed.

Don’t worry, that doesn’t mean you have to be naked. You can always choose to cover up with a towel in the event that clothing isn’t allowed. If you’re uncomfortable, ask at the front desk for an extra towel to help cover up.

Being naked in a sauna in Finland isn’t a sexualized experience. Most people don’t wear clothing, particularly in gender-specific saunas, though some saunas do allow you to wear a swimsuit. For public mixed gender saunas, it’s common to wear a swimsuit or towel. 

Pro Tip: Don’t wear your jewelry into the sauna as it gets very hot against your skin!

3 | Warm shower beforehand, cold shower after.

To amplify the benefits of the sauna experience, be sure to use the right temperature for your shower before and after the sauna!

Beforehand, take a warm shower to help remove dirt and oil so that you can sweat more easily and release the toxins in your body. Afterward, take a cold shower to close up your pores and increase blood flow. This will ensure you have a perfect post-sauna glow!

A dimly lit empty wooden sauna is brightened by rays of light coming in through the walls.
The higher up the seats inside of a Finnish sauna, the more intense the heat and moisture.

4 | Pick a seat, but not just any seat.

So, real talk. A Finnish sauna temperature is kept around 175F (80C). When water is thrown on the stones, there is a brief but intense burning sensation in your lungs and nose as the steam enters your body. It can be uncomfortable at first, though if you give it a few moments the feeling passes.

Pro Tip: If you’re not sure how you’ll react to this, choose your seat wisely. Consider a seat close to the door so you can quickly exit if needed. Avoid the upper seats since heat rises and will be felt more intensely in those seats. 

5 | Anybody can add water to the stones.

Saunas are meant to be moist, not dry, so it’s important to keep adding water to the stones regularly. While anyone can add water to the stones, if you’re seated closest to the water bucket, you’re expected to do it by default. 

Icy cold seawater splashes onto the large ice covered rocks on the shore just outside of Löyly Sauna near Helsinki's Design District.
The icy water of the Baltic Sea splashes along the rocky shore outside Löyly Sauna in Helsinki.

6 | Take a break for an icy plunge.

It wouldn’t be a true Finnish sauna experience if you didn’t take an icy plunge between sauna sessions! Many saunas are located next to a body of water so you can literally plunge into the sea or lake. If there isn’t water nearby, it’s not uncommon to roll around in the snow or just sit outside to cool off, even in winter.

7 | It’s a social affair.

Sauna culture in Finland is all about socializing. Don’t be surprised if there is lively conversation in the sauna! In some saunas, you may even see people roasting sausage over the fire!

A glass of beer sits on top of a wooden barrel inside of a wood-lined sauna. In the background is a wooden bucket, spoon and birch leaves are resting on the sauna bench.
It’s common to drink beer or cider while enjoying a sauna in Finland.

I was shocked to be asked if I wanted to purchase a beer or cider when I checked in to the public sauna. My entire life I’ve been told it’s dangerous to mix alcohol and saunas. In Finland, it’s encouraged! But, don’t go overboard. It’s very easy to get dehydrated in the sauna, so make sure to drink water in addition to any alcoholic beverages!

Best Saunas in Helsinki

Helsinki is a common stop for nearly every visitor to Finland and it’s a great place to experience Finnish sauna. Here are the best saunas in Helsinki!

Löyly

Loyly Sauna Helsinki Finland is located right on the sea and is made of horizontally placed wooden slats in an unique geometric shape. Light from inside of the sauna is visible from outside through the slats.
Löyly Sauna in Helsinki has a modern green construction design and is located right on the sea, perfect for taking an icy plunge between sauna sessions.

Pronounced Low-Lu, Löyly is trendy and popular with the locals. It’s located right along the sea near Helsinki’s Design District. The building’s unique green construction design and modern finishes make for a wonderful experience. 

Löyly has wood-burning sauna and smoke sauna. Also, there are several types of showers outside of the sauna and easy access to an outdoor patio and ladders down into the sea. If a dip in the sea isn’t for you, rest between sauna sessions in the lounge areas throughout the space.

Pro Tip: This is where I went for sauna in Helsinki and I absolutely loved it!

Kotiharjun 

Open since 1928, Kotiharjun is the last public traditional wood-burning sauna in Helsinki. There are three saunas, two gender-specific saunas and one electric sauna for small groups.

Kotiharjun is not luxurious, but it is a piece of history. While the outside of the building is nothing notable, expect a lively environment when you get inside. For a unique experience, you can have a full body wash by the nester on certain days of the week!

Pro Tip: Beer and other alcoholic drinks are not available for purchase at Kotiharjun sauna, but you can bring your own! There’s even a fridge at the front where you can keep yours cold.

Kotiharjun is located north of Helsinki Central Train Station near the Kallio neighborhood. Unfortunately it’s not located near the sea so there’s no water to swim in between sauna sessions.

Sauna Arla

Located just around the corner from Kotiharjun, Sauna Arla is the third oldest sauna still operating in Finland. Here you can get a massage and other treatments in addition to enjoying the sauna. A nester is also onsite on certain days of the week.

Similar to Kotiharjun, alcoholic beverages are not available for purchase but you can bring your own. Sauna Arla only has gender-specific saunas.

If you prefer a more relaxing environment, Sauna Arla is great option.

Allas Seapool

Helsinki's skyline at dusk with a pink and blue cloudy sky overhead. In the foreground is Allas Seapool, which several pools and traditional Finnish saunas in the heart of Helsinki. Photo Credit: Allas Seapool Helsinki Finland
Allas Seapool is located on a floating deck in the sea right in the heart of Helsinki. Photo credit: Allas Seapool.

Right in the center of Helsinki, Allas Seapool is located on a floating deck right on the Baltic Sea and offers a beautiful view of Helsinki. The ferry terminal and many popular sites in Helsinki are all a short walk away.

There are three open air swimming pools, one of which is heated and another is a UV filtered (cold!) seawater swimming pool. For sauna, Allas Seapool has two gender-specific saunas and a mixed gender sauna.  All of the saunas are electrically heated.

Looking for more about Finland?

A visit to Finland in winter isn’t complete without a visit to the Arctic Circle, also referred to as Lapland. Find out the best place to visit in Lapland in winter, including a Levi adventure guide and awesome winter activities in Rovaniemi.

Did you know that I visited Finland because it showed up in my DNA results? Read all about DNA tourism and my DNA travel experience in Finland.

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Text: Saunas in Finland How-To Guide Image: A wood-line sauna bench close up with two white towels rolled up sitting next to a wooden bucket.
Text: Sauna Etiquette Finland - what to wear, what to expect, and what to bring. Image: A dimly wood-lined sauna has bright light shining into from outside behind the wood paneling.

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