Fascinating Finland: The Cult of the Sauna

by Chris on October 24, 2011

No one loves a sauna like the Finns. A look at Finnish sauna culture.
Finnish sauna

photo courtesy of MiikaS, Flickr Creative Commons

In September, I made my first trip to Scandinavia when I took the train throughout Finland, hitting Helsinki, Lapland and a few other towns. In a way, though, it seemed quite familiar; the result of growing up in Minnesota. All throughout my trip, people kept mistaking me for a native Finn, even though I never mastered a single word of the complicated language (I attribute the mistake to my hair).

Key to a Finnish sauna

Courtesy of wstryder, Flickr Creative Commons

One of the many things that I found fascinating about Finland was the country’s love affair with the sauna (or SOW-na, as they pronounced it). They’re everywhere! And I mean everywhere; even the smallest apartments often have a sauna inside. The Finns are not an exuberant people, but the ones we met lit up with glee when they talked about saunas. Apparently there are 2 million saunas in this country of 5 million – enough for everyone to get their sweat on whenever and wherever they want.

This love affair with hot steam has been well documented over the years. During World War II, Finnish battalions built their own saunas, and even today, Finnish soldiers on peacekeeping missions put saunas together. Women used to give birth in saunas, which were known as a clean and sterile place.

I can never take more than 20 minutes in a sauna, but for Finns, the sauna ritual can go on for hours, as people soak up the steam until they can’t take it anymore, then plunge themselves in cold water to cool down. During the winter, sitting in the snow is a popular way to decrease body temperature quickly.

 We got up close and personal with saunas when the bus that took us around Lapland had an actual sauna inside (it was creatively named…the Saunabus). I think the owner was a little disappointed that we weren’t more excited about this marvel; he told us that when Finns see the bus, they race out to take photos of it and clamor for tours. We did try it after a chilly rafting trip; the heat did feel nice.

Arty photo of a Finnish sauna

Photo courtesy of Morgaine, Flickr Creative Commons

I felt like I never quite got Finnish sauna etiquette. I’m probably your typical American prude, in that I have no interest in walking around naked around strangers. Most of the hotel saunas specifically forbid swimsuits, so I clutched my towel in the sweltering heat. The Finnish women – so shy on the trains or talking in public! – had no such modesty. Full monty ruled the day. Men and women usually sauna separately.

Being a global spa aficionado, I wish we had a chance to do a full Finnish sauna where you hit yourself with birch branches to relax muscles and improve circulation. Our bus driver also told us about smoke saunas, where rooms without chimneys are heated for hours before people enter. These are considered a better class of sauna than your typical electrical one; I’d love to experience it sometime – even if I’d only last a few minutes.

Thanks to The Eurail Group, which sponsored my trip to Finland. 

| Chris Gray Faust is a veteran journalist, travel expert, social media butterfly - and editrix of this site. Like what you read? Check out her writing, editing and social media services.

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Jenni Bennett October 24, 2011 at 9:02 am

I had no idea! I knew I loved those Scandinavians for some reason! Next time I need a trip to relax & rejuvenate, I know where to go. Thanks for the insight!

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Stephanie - The Travel Chica October 24, 2011 at 11:27 am

I had no idea saunas were such a big thing in Finland. I’m with you…. more than 20 minutes, and I feel like I’m going to evaporate.

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Abby October 24, 2011 at 12:05 pm

That is wild! I also top out at about 20 minutes. Just long enough to warm up in winter, or warm my muscles up before a spa appointment!

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Annekreet October 24, 2011 at 1:21 pm

Dear Chris,
Greetings from Lapland! It was a really fun reading, thank you for mentioning the Saunabus also! :) You inspired me to add some comments, so I did a little piece in our own blog:
http://www.uniquelapland.com/en/the-secrets-of-real-finnish-sauna/
Take care!

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Cheryl October 24, 2011 at 3:01 pm

I’m a Canadian who just moved to Germany, another country obsessed with saunas. I’ve learned to be ok about the whole nudity thing, but much rather be hanging out in the pools. In the hottest of sauna (like 100 degrees), I finish in less than 5 minutes. :)

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Jade October 24, 2011 at 9:57 pm

Too funny- I always love being in them for about ten minutes… and then I suffer for the next ten trying to convince myself that I’ll be okay in the hot room. I wish I could stand them for longer!

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Graham GlobalGrasshopper October 25, 2011 at 5:07 am

wow, that’s a national obsession! i tried it once for about 5 minutes and that was enough for me :)

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Laura October 25, 2011 at 6:47 pm

I’m a Finn who lives now in the USA and misses sauna a lot. Maybe that was the reason why I started my sauna blog called Saunawlow.com a few months ago. Here you find the ABC of sauna bathing: http://www.saunaflow.com/2011/09/the-abc-of-sauna-bathing/

Enjoy!

Laura

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Deb November 2, 2011 at 9:19 pm

I love a good sauna. I just can’t do the dip into freezing cold water. I prefer to cool down slowly. I always have the best intentions to get into the frigid pools, but chicken out and simply dip my toes then go back into the sauna. That’s enough cold for me!

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Chris November 3, 2011 at 9:02 am

Deb – The idea of jumping into the snow after a sauna fills me with horror. Supposedly it’s good for your circulation. I would be screaming like a little girl!

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Theodora January 1, 2012 at 9:33 am

I’ve done it! It’s actually amazing. Completely invigorating, generates a real tingle. And, no, you don’t get cold.

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Jade Johnston November 9, 2011 at 4:06 am

They love the saunas in the Baltics as well… I’ve done the traditional sauna once in Latvia … complete with birch branch thing. It was awesome!

Jade Johnston – http://www.ouroyster.com

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