In Finland, the sauna is a cultural experience. If you haven’t sat in a wooden box full of naked sweating people beating one another with birch branches, you really haven’t lived.
A sauna essentially comprises a cedar plank room with a heater in the corner. Many of the most traditional saunas have open fires that fill the room with smoke as well as heat. More commonly, however, today you’ll encounter saunas that get warm with the help of heated rocks, a wood fire and a chimney, or an electric heater.
Finns have been using the sauna for thousands of years. The sauna is an excellent way to clean oneself, stay warm, and, believe it or not, socialize. A whole family will spend hours in the sauna, especially in the winter.
In private saunas, anything goes. In public saunas, men and women are separated, since people are expected to use the sauna naked. For those of us who aren’t comfortable bearing it all, Finland also has great vodka to help get into the swing of things.
The temperature inside most saunas ranges from 160 to 200 degrees Fahrenheit. To some degree you can regulate how hot it feels by where you sit; most saunas have a series of benches that get closer to the ceiling, and the higher up you sit, the hotter it is. The environment also gets hotter every time somebody dumps ladles of water on the rocks. The resulting steam is magnificent. (Warning: Sometimes it can be scalding.)
Viewfinder Tip: On clear nights, look to the heavens from a Finnish sauna and you might see the Northern Lights.
If you’re feeling too hot inside the sauna, it is common practice to step outside and jump into hole cut into a frozen lake or to roll around in the snow. In the summer you just have to make due with a standard unfrozen frigid lake (or, if you’re staying at a luxury hotel, a cold-plunge pool).
Every hotel in Finland has access to a sauna. At the Radisson Blu Royal, where we stayed in Helsinki, there even were private saunas in some of the finer suites. Especially in winter, when temperatures are regularly below freezing outside, this is one of the nicest in-room amenities of all time. Sauna time in the Lap(land) of Luxury: the Finns certainly know how to relax.
What are some of the cultural rituals you’ve experienced while traveling?