Sweating with naked strangers might not be on your usual sightseeing agenda, but if you’re visiting Finland it’s a must do -- in a sauna at least.
Although the concept was not invented by the Finns, the word sauna is the only Finnish word recognized in other languages, and it defines much of Finland’s culture, with reportedly two million saunas nationwide. (There are only 5.4 million people in the entire country, so lots of room for tourists!) Unlike steam or Turkish baths, saunas have relatively low humidity; instead, the steam is generated by pouring water on hot stones, and the temperature is typically between 70 and 100°C (or 158 and 212°F).
Happy Guide Helsinki even offers a sauna tour, which includes a history lesson on sauna culture, plus a visit to one in the bohemian neighborhood of Kallio. The three- to four-hour tour costs 65 euros per person (approximately $71) and includes the entrance fee to the sauna.
Still not sold? Here’s why you should consider stripping down and saunaing -- when a noun becomes a verb you know it’s serious business -- in Finland:
It’s part of tradition.
Back in the day, when new homes were built in Finland, the sauna was the first structure erected and often provided shelter until the rest of the home was constructed. Now, many apartment buildings and companies, as well as homes, boast saunas. To celebrate this, the first-ever Helsinki Sauna Day, which takes place on March 12, will open up the private saunas of residents and organizations to the public. It’s free of charge for participants, but sauna providers can serve or sell snacks if they choose. And don’t sweat it, women and men usually sauna separately (except for families), and sporting a swimsuit or towel is totally acceptable, especially among tourists.
Some year-round options in Helsinki include Uunisaari, which is located close to the city center and features two saunas that can be reserved (10 persons for 300 euros (approximately $327) or 15 persons for 350 euros, which is approximately $381). And at Sauna Hermanni, visitors can order snacks like sausages, olives, cheese, and pickles (10 euros per person or about $11 for the sauna).
Anthony Bourdain did it.
During a 2012 episode of his now-defunct show, Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations, the chef visited Sauna Arla. Located in the Kallio district, it’s one of the last remaining public saunas in Helsinki that’s heated by natural gas and wood. At the old-school spot, which is a favorite among locals, guests can also experience cupping, an ancient practice involving heat and suction cups that’s believed to promote blood flow.
It’s good for you.
According to an old Finnish proverb, “if sauna, liquor, and tar don’t help, the disease is probably fatal.” And a recent study out of, you guessed it, Finland may have proved that. It found that men who visited the sauna seven times a week were less likely to die of heart problems compared to those who only visited the sauna once a week. One of the reasons for this may be because dry sauna use like the Finnish kind replicates cardiovascular exercise, explains T. Jared Bunch, M.D.: “When our bodies are exposed to the heat in the lower temperature ranges, our heart rates can exceed 100 beats per minute. When the temperatures are in the high range, our heart rates can exceed 150.” Although we love the idea of sitting as the new workout, remember to stay hydrated and avoid the sauna if you have existing heart conditions.