Exploring the Sauna Culture of Finland: From Tradition to Modernization

Introduction: Discovering the Soul of Finland through its Saunas

As the taxi winds its way through the streets of Helsinki on a lazy Sunday afternoon, the city appears draped in the universal tranquility of a holiday. Arriving at the iconic Grand Central Hotel, I’m informed by the receptionist that the restaurant is closed for dinner, but the sauna is open. In Finland, this isn’t just a casual remark; it’s a profound statement of values. With a population of around 5.5 million people and over 3.3 million saunas, Finland unequivocally prioritizes this ancient tradition.

In Finland, the sauna isn’t merely a room; it’s a sacred space where daily rituals are observed by millions. Businesses are conducted, friendships are forged, and familial bonds are strengthened within these wooden sanctuaries. Just a couple of generations ago, births took place in saunas, as they were considered the most hygienic rooms, and even farewells to the departed were bid in these sacred spaces, symbolizing the passage from life to death. As I undress in the quaint wooden cabin of Furuvik Beach Sauna, overlooking the sea, I’m met with a wealth of information to digest.

Embracing Tradition: The Essence of Finnish Sauna Culture

My initiation into the universe of Finnish sauna begins with Anna, clad in a raw linen dress adorned with freshly cut birch twigs. She is part of Terhen, a community that has elevated the traditional sauna experience to a holistic level. Within the intimate space, illuminated only by natural light filtering through a small window, the hot stones at the center come to life with each ladle of water Anna delicately pours over them. “The steam created is called löyly, and it’s the spirit of the sauna embracing you, becoming a part of you,” she assures.

After experiencing this, I wonder if I may have started at the pinnacle. Yet, the sauna culture is also enjoyed in a different manner in the neighborhoods, in public saunas bustling with sweaty bodies, where conversations flow freely and beers are enjoyed. Helsinki, reminiscent of a Kaurismäki film, embodies much of this spirit. At the turn of the century, there were 40 such public saunas, and today, the one that best captures that communal spirit is Kotiharjun Sauna, established in 1928 in the former working-class district of Kallio, now a bohemian haven.

Evolution of Tradition: Modernizing the Sauna Experience

In contrast to tradition, a new wave of saunas housed in modern buildings, featuring outdoor pools, Jacuzzis, and restaurants, such as the spectacular Löyly, ensure that the sauna culture remains vibrant among the younger generations. Another example is Allas Sea Pool, located in the heart of Helsinki, where after a sauna session, one can enjoy a rejuvenating dip in an outdoor pool filled with water from the Baltic Sea. Within this complex, the Original SkySauna is nestled within the cabin of an immense Ferris wheel, offering sauna sessions with breathtaking views.

Exploring Beyond Helsinki: The Sauna Trail of Finland

It’s time to venture beyond the capital and explore other regions along the steam trail. The next stop is Tampere, known as the sauna capital of the world, situated approximately 180 kilometers from Helsinki. Its grey skies and overcast weather accentuate its industrial pedigree, with vast factories and warehouses, and defiant chimneys reaching towards the heavens. Also known as the “Manchester of Finland,” it proudly showcases its proletarian past.

In the heart of the city lies the mammoth former cotton mill of Finlayson, now housing museums, art galleries, restaurants, cafes, and shops. When it comes to saunas, Tampere boasts 50 scattered throughout the city. Among them is Rajaportti, the oldest public sauna in continuous use in the country, dating back to 1906. On the outskirts is Rauhaniemi Folk Spa, nestled along the shores of Lake Näsijärvi. Amidst rain and wind, the lake takes on an oceanic guise, with powerful waves crashing against a small pier, where users, their skin flushed with heat and emanating steam, plunge into the icy water before briskly returning to the comforting warmth of the sauna.

The journey continues to the Jyväskylä region, just a two-hour train ride away. Another compelling reason to visit is the recently inaugurated Aalto2 museum center, dedicated to the work of architect Alvar Aalto and his two wives (not simultaneously), architects Aino Aalto and Elissa Aalto, who are considered the father and mothers of Finnish modernism. With the concept of beauty in mind, I make my way to the incredible Petäjävesi Old Church. Built entirely of wood, it is one of the few churches to have survived fires over its nearly three centuries of history and has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1994.

Next is Kivitasku, a farm workshop straight out of a fairy tale. Here, visitors can either stay overnight or simply visit the workshop where the endearing Mella handcrafts traditional sauna hats from the wool of her own sheep. Another must-visit destination is the Sauna Village, a family project spearheaded by sisters Saija and Elissa Silen, who have restored 20 historic wooden saunas throughout the country, creating a kind of living open-air museum for sauna enthusiasts.

As evening falls, we arrive at Hankasalmi. At this hour, the lake is a festival of ochre and reddish hues, reflecting the trees in its waters. At the Revontuli Northern Lights Resort, the final sauna circuit of the journey awaits, alternating between a steam sauna in a yurt, dry heat in a cabin, and a glass igloo sauna overlooking the lake. At night, lying in the wooden cabin with a transparent roof, I adjust my bed, activate the defogging device on the windows, and wait for the sky to be painted with colors from a privileged vantage point for viewing the northern lights.

Conclusion: Immersed in the Heat and Heart of Finland’s Sauna Tradition

As my journey through Finland’s sauna culture draws to a close, I reflect on the profound significance of this ancient tradition in the hearts and minds of the Finnish people. From its roots in tradition to its evolution into modern-day experiences, the sauna remains a cornerstone of Finnish identity, fostering connections between generations and providing solace in the midst of the country’s natural beauty. In the sauna, amidst the steam and heat, I found not just relaxation, but a deeper understanding of the soul of Finland itself.