Discovering Finland’s sauna culture

I’m in the eastern reaches of Finland, in the Lakeland region that includes scenic Lake Saimaa, which has 14,000 islands and more shoreline than all of France. As the sun sinks slowly into the surrounding forest, I slink on to a “floating sauna,” a mini houseboat specially designed for a sauna experience.

I’m discovering Finland’s sauna culture, which I’d heard about years ago from a native, Heiko. He had described to me how saunas were a necessity of life, something the Finnish couldn’t survive without, whether in urban venues, apartment complexes, or as outhouses – called mokki – by lakeside cottages.

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Entire social gatherings revolve around saunas, with families inviting other families to their homes to sauna together, as others might invite friends over for dinner. I am quickly learning that in Finland, what pasta is to the Italians, saunas are to the Finnish.

Mikkeli – Gateway to the Lakeland Region

Earlier that day in the pretty city of Mikkeli, I’d left my hotel suite, which had its own requisite sauna, and did some touring. Mikkeli, about a 2 ½-hour drive from Helsinki, has quite a bit of WWII history given that the city served as command headquarters for fighting off a possible invasion from Russia, 100 kilometers to the east.

Especially interesting are the Headquarters Museum that housed the Finnish high command and a communications center, based in a cave blasted into the side of a mountain.

Mikkeli is also the gateway to the Lakeland region, and so at day’s end, I find myself on the beautiful lake, pouring cold water over roasting stones in the floating sauna, then soaking in the heat before diving into the lake to cool off. I repeat the process, breaking momentarily to admire the amber hues of the setting sun from the deck while sipping a refreshing mixture of gin and grapefruit, called lonkero, or long drink.

Regarding this sauna culture I’m experiencing, the captain says, “It’s a lifestyle, it’s like eating.”

He proceeds to tell me that he has numerous saunas including one at home, at his workplace, and in his mokki alongside his country cottage.

In fact, there are one million saunas in Finland – about one for every five persons – and it’s in Finland from where the word sauna originates, saunas going back 10,000 years in the country. I’m told there was a time, back in olden days, when some women even gave birth in saunas (the heat tempered), since it was a clean, warm place.

The Art of the Sauna

I gain a glimpse of mokkis the following day as I navigate a small rowboat along the shores of Lake Saimaa. I pass one quaint mokki after another as birds gracefully sweep between reeds along the water’s edge. Then I pull my rowboat up to a private dock that leads to my rented villa at Anttholanhovi Art & Design Villas.

This lakeside resort features architecturally stunning villas set amid a lush Finnish landscape of pine and birch trees. It is from some of the birch trees that a sauna whisk, or vihta, has been made for me, a bundle of supple, green tree twigs bound together, which I will use to gently lash and rub myself in my sauna.

This tradition sounded a bit barbaric to me when I first heard of it – slapping oneself with branches (or doing the same to a friend) – but it’s a requisite part of the sauna culture. So, whisk in hand, I head to my warmed-up sauna. After pouring cold water on the slabs of heated stone, I reach for my whisk. I follow the protocol of gently slapping the soft, new birch growth over my limbs then making my way toward the heart.

This is meant to jumpstart one’s circulation and infuse soothing birch oils into the skin. Birch, I’m told, is especially beneficial for relieving joint and muscle pain.

Invigorated and warmed up, I swiftly head down the dock for immersion into Lake Saimaa once again. By now, I’m beginning to feel like a well-heeled sauna-goer, not flinching for a moment before jumping into the chilly lake but relishing this exuberating Finnish tradition.

The next day, I enjoy a guided boat ride on the lake, weaving around scenic islands as well as surveying mystical ancient rock paintings carved into bedrock at water’s edge.

At a stop for lunch, I meet a lakeside resident, Otto, who lets me peek inside his “smoke sauna,” a special type of sauna-hut without a chimney. There’s a laborious process behind this sauna. Otto first takes out the hut’s wooden benches before firing up 4,000 pounds of stones for 10 hours.

Upon extinguishing the fire and opening smoke holes, he replaces the benches and is ready to relish the sustained heat within, which he says offers a superior sauna experience. (Certainly, Otto is a connoisseur of saunas; he was the first person in Finland to be married in one).

Of much shorter tenure are “tent saunas” that Otto builds along the shoreline when out hiking with friends. These versions are made very quickly, relying on a fire to suck up moisture from the ground for a good dose of heat. Otto likens these tent saunas to Native American smoke tents.

Urban Saunas in Helsinki

Following my Lakeland diversions, I head to Helsinki, which is situated along the Baltic Sea. I stroll the pretty harbor area of Market Square, where stalls of local vendors feature crafts and culinary treats. Many historic highlights of the city are in this vicinity such as a large cathedral, its steps serving as a gathering place.

As I pass by it, there’s a live art installation on the plaza, featuring a dozen or so poised acrobats dangling alongside one another from high bars. Also, by Market Square, adjacent to an enormous Ferris wheel, is Allas, a sauna facility that has three sea pools that float atop the Baltic, offering a unique urban sauna/spa experience, and special experiences such as sauna yoga.

In the distance across the water is Suomenlinna, a naval fortress stretched over six islands. Built in the 1700s, it was intended to counter threats of a Russian invasion by sea, and its church tower today flashes signals in Morse code that spell out Helsinki. I take a short ferry ride to the islands and stroll winding paths, enjoy scenic views of Helsinki, and tour museums on the grounds.

Returning to Helsinki, I buy a day pass to visit the other major urban sauna in Helsinki, Löyly. This sauna-spa, an easy bus ride away from the city center, boasts exquisite architectural design. There are three types of saunas within, and between sauna socializing guests bask on Löyly’s tiered sundecks that overlook the Baltic or take dips in the sea.

I wrap up my immersion into Finland’s sauna culture, staying for the night in a prison, not because I’d broken any sauna rules, but because Finland is renowned for its original design, and a former prison has been turned into hip, boutique hotel, Hotel Katajanokka. I head into my airy cell for a night’s slumber – and dreams of all-things-sauna.

Where to Stay

Lakeland Region:
Original Sokos Hotel Vaakuna – In the heart of Mikkeli with suites featuring private saunas.

Anttolanhovi Art & Design Villas – Architecturally stunning private villas, along with hotel rooms, along Lake Saimaa.

Hotel Katajanokka – A former prison converted into a contemporary boutique hotel.

This article first appeared on Travel Squire. 


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