Sauna etiquette in Finland

In Finland, going to the sauna isn’t just about escape those freezing outside temperatures.

The sauna is a hugely important part of the nation’s culture and history, with some evidence suggesting that saunas have been used in Finland for thousands of years.

If you understand the way saunas are used in Finland today, and the role they’ve played in the country’s past, you’ll begin to understand more about the Finnish mindset and the kinds of things that many Finns consider important.

So what should you know about Finnish saunas? And how on earth should you handle all that nudity if you’re invited to have a go?

What’s special about Finnish saunas?

It’s true: other Nordic countries like Sweden have saunas too.

But in Finland, going to the sauna is a much bigger deal.

There are a ridiculous number of saunas per capita (according to some estimates, there is one sauna for every Finnish household) and the country’s culture around taking saunas is so rich and important that it’s now protected by Unesco.

Having a sauna at home or work might be seen as luxurious in the UK or America. In Finland, it’s almost a given.

Taking a sauna is part of Finnish culture.

A long, hot love affair

For millennia the sauna has been a special – almost sacred – place for people in this part of the world.

The first Finnish saunas are thought to date back to the Bronze Age, when pits were dug directly into the ground and covered in animal skins. With a wood-fired stove inside, these pit saunas created an intensely hot space for healing and communing with nature.

People also did other things in the sauna, like washing themselves. Or even giving birth. (Yes, really).

Over the centuries, myths and superstitions grew up around saunas, including the idea that ‘whisking’ (or gently whacking yourself with birch leaves) could help to rid people of sickness.

Today’s often luxurious saunas are a far cry from sitting in a hot pit in the ground, but many of those earliest beliefs around saunas are still deeply ingrained in the Finnish psyche.

And while no one today would truly expect to be ‘healed’ by a sauna, there is evidence to support the idea that taking regular saunas is good for your health.

So why do Finns still love saunas?

Today, saunas are mostly just a place for warming up and winding down.

You’re much more likely to see heavily pregnant mothers heading to the hospital, rather than their local sauna.

But there are other benefits to today’s saunas. In Finland, many people head to the sauna before or after work to open their pores and clear their heads.

In the sauna, the distractions of the modern world melt away – and there’s not much to do but sit there and sweat.

Sauna etiquette in Finland

“The sauna may soon be one of the last places where cell phones cannot be used,” says Carita Harju at Sauna From Finland, which helps educate companies on how to provide authentically Finnish sauna experiences.

“A Finnish sauna will be warm and humid enough to damage them. Though water- and weatherproof phones already exist, hopefully no one will invent a sauna-proof phone.”

Finns can be very reserved, and striking up a conversation with a complete stranger on the street might be considered unusual. But in the sauna – Finland’s great leveller – having a chat with someone new is totally normally (just, you know, read the room).

“Finns are known for being a characteristically silent bunch,” says Harju, “but on the benches of a sauna, there’s always plenty to talk about.

“It’s easy to share the joys and sorrows of everyday life. Even among strangers, discussions flow freely.

“The conversation often goes straight to the heart of the matter, and can occasionally dive into even serious topics. The topic of conversation always depends on the bathers, of course, but it’s customary to lavish praise on the sauna and its löyly.”

Trying it for yourself

Given that Finland is speckled with so many saunas, there’s a good chance that – wherever you go – you’re going to be near one.

You’ll find saunas in hotels, of course, but also in offices, factories, leisure centres and just about any other suprising space that a sauna can be squeezed into, like this Helsinki restaurant.

But there are also hundreds of thousands of private saunas across the country, tucked away in cabins, houses, apartments and little patches of woodland.

As a tourist, it’s the public saunas that you’re most likely to encounter. Our advice is to try and find a genuine wood-fired one, rather than one that’s heated by electricity.

If you have Finnish friends, there’s a good chance they’ll have a sauna – and getting invited over to share a sauna is completely normal too.

In either case, visiting a real Finnish sauna is totally worth the effort.

But… and let’s be blunt here: you might have to get outside your comfort zone.

Getting naked

In Finland’s saunas, nudity is normal.

Being completely nude is generally seen as being cleaner, and the purest way to experience the sauna’s warmth.

But the rules around what to wear do shift a little, depending on what kind of sauna you’re in.

At hotels, gyms and other publicly accessible saunas, there will usually be signs telling you what’s allowed (or not allowed) in the sauna. While international style hotels might allow swimwear, at other, more traditional saunas, this is a big no no. So always read the signs or ask if you’re unsure.

Even at the most traditional of Finnish saunas, where nudity is the norm, you’ll find that people are respectful towards outsiders.

Most Finns know that stripping off in front of strangers can feel unusual to people from further afield. And here cometh your saviour: the towel.

Whichever sauna you’re visiting in Finland, it’s completely acceptable to protect your modesty by wrapping your dangly bits in a towel.

Another thing to ‘bare’ in mind is that public saunas are usually male or female only. The only exception would be a private sauna, when friends or family might share a sauna together.

Different rules apply in public and private saunas in Finland

Getting clean

Before getting into the sauna, there’s one golden rule: clean yourself first.

At all but the most primitive of saunas there’ll be a shower near the sauna – though at some really rural saunas, you might have to take a dip in the lake first.

Always wash thoroughly to ensure the sauna remains clean and enjoyable for everyone.

Getting in

Open the door and go inside quickly. No one wants a cold draft seeping into the sauna.

Once you find a space you can stay seated or lie down (if there’s room).

It’s courteous to acknowledge others as you make your way into the sauna but the key thing is to read the room and respect the idea that some people may be there for some serious alone time.

Always sit on a towel (which is easy when it’s wrapped around you). And remember that the top of the sauna is usually considerably hotter than the bottom levels. It’s a good idea to start low and move up if you need a bit more heat.

Will you be whacked with leaves?

Yes, if you want to. But normally you would be the one doing the whacking, so there’s no reason to panic.

This age-old Finnish sauna prop is the vihta or vasta (depending on which part of the country you’re in).

Sometimes called ‘whisks’ or ‘bath brooms’, these bundles of fresh birch branches are used mostly during the summer to help enhance the overall feeling of the sauna.

When the leaves are gently whipped against the skin, usually with water on them, it’s thought they can help to relax muscles and improve circulation.

Finns beat themselves with birch leaves during a sauna.

You simply tap the birch twigs against your body in a rhythmic manner, typically when the heat reaches its peak.

For many foreign visitors to Finland, it’s embracing this ancient practice that makes them finally feel like they’ve cracked this whole sauna business.

What is löyly, and why does everyone talk about it?

When you start visiting saunas in Finland, you might hear people talking about the löyly.

Löyly is the name for the hot steam that rises when water is thrown onto the sauna’s heated stones, in order to amplify the humidity and intensify the warmth enveloping the sauna.

But, like a lot of things to do with sharing a sauna with other nude people, respect is key.

Before creating that magical burst of löyly, especially in public saunas, it’s polite to ask first.

When you leave the sauna and meet other people, they may well ask you ‘How was the löyly?’.

It’s a tricky question for a foreign visitor to answer, as you might not have much to compare it with – but just know that they mean well.

Putting water on a sauna increases the humidity and steaminess

Getting out

Some people see sauna bathing as some kind of macho competition to see who can stay in the longest.

Our advice is simple: don’t mess around with Finnish saunas, where temperatures regularly exceed 90c.

You don’t need to clock watch, but if you feel you’ve had enough, step out and take a breather. No one is going to judge you for not sticking around until you feel faint.

A normal sauna session for a beginner could be anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes, but always go with what feels right.

The cooling-off ritual

After the enveloping warmth of the sauna, it’s time for a rather refreshing contrast!

Most Finns recommend a quick transition from very hot to very cold. That could involve rolling in the snow, jumping into an icy lake (not for the faint hearted!) or simply having a cold shower.

It can feel magically exhilarating or painfully cold, but the good thing is that you can always run back into the sauna to warm up

Staying hydrated

With all that warmth and steam, hydration is more than just a good idea – it’s vital!

Remember to drink plenty of water before you first go into the sauna. It’s also a good idea to have a few sips during breaks.

Just like in Sweden, cold beer is a classic accompaniment to a hot sauna, but drinking in almost always banned at public saunas. So if you want to try this, you’ll probably need to be invited to a Finnish friend’s place.

6 special saunas to try Finland

Still keen on stripping off for a Finnish sauna? From the heart of Helsinki to the serene lakesides of Lapland, Finland has some truly unusual saunas!

Floating saunas are popular in Finland.

Löyly, Helsinki

Situated on Helsinki’s vibrant waterfront, Löyly is a modern architectural marvel with its wooden facades.

Beyond its aesthetic appeal, this public sauna promises an authentic Finnish experience, blending the heat with breathtaking views of the Baltic Sea.

Sauna Hermanni, Helsinki

One of Helsinki’s long-established public saunas, Sauna Hermanni stands as a testament to the age-old Finnish sauna culture. Finns have been enjoying an authentic sauna here since the 1950s.

Forum, Turku

In the coastal city of Turku, the Forum Sauna allows visitors the chance to unwind amidst the bustling cityscape. 

Turku’s only public sauna has been heating and relaxing the residents of the city since 1941.

Rajaportti, Tampere

Located in Tampere, Rajaportti Sauna holds the prestigious title of being the oldest public sauna still in operation in Finland.

Established in 1906, this sauna has withstood the test of time, providing a warm embrace to generations of Finns.

The Ice Sauna Apukka, Rovaniemi

Venture into the Arctic Circle and you’ll find an icy wonder at the Apukka Resort. Crafted almost entirely from ice, the Ice Sauna is a unique juxtaposition of hot and cold!

And if that’s not enough, the resort also has a sauna that floats on a lake and a sauna cabin on skis!

Koivurannan saunalautta, Oulu

Floating gently on the waters of River Oulu, the Koivurannan Saunalautta presents a sauna experience like no other. 

This sauna raft lets bathers immerse in traditional warmth while drifting on the serene Finnish waterscape, followed by a cold dip!

See also:
Sauna etiquette in Sweden
Traditional Finnish clothing: the ultimate guide
What is Finnish baseball? Pesapallo explained

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