Few traditions are as rooted to the Finnish way of life as the sauna experience. So much, in fact, that most hotels have them (even if they are North of the Arctic Circle, where I also experienced one) and even families tend to have one in their homes, when they can.
If not, will often visit the closest one for a good dose of extreme heat and humidity.
As a visitor this may seem a bit odd, but when you remember that the average temperature of the country is around 0ºC things begin to make some sense- Finnish people don’t really have too many opportunities to experience heat and humidity, or wear few clothes.
First things first: Finnish public nude saunas in spas and swimming halls are gender separated. This means that while the same swimming hall or sauna is open to both genders, they will not be in the sauna at the same time. Public saunas by the lake tend to be mixed, but everyone wears swimming suits. There is, however, one exception, which you can learn more about here.
Thus if you were hoping to find something like in the picture above, keep dreaming. You won’t. If you want to learn more about what to expect in a Finnish sauna continue reading, otherwise you may want to read about other things I learned while visiting Finland.
Yrjönkatu Swimming Hall
I looked online for a public mixed sauna in Helsinki that would offer the quintessential experience during my visit; I’m not much of a fan of saunas but nonetheless wanted to see what the big deal is here anyhow.
Unlike in most places, public saunas in Finland are not just about heat and humidity, but are more of a social event where strangers and friends come together to discuss whatever is relevant or not at the time.
My search didn’t yield too many options and I opted for the Yrjönkatu Swimming Hall, a public bath house in the center of Helsinki that opened in 1928 and for decades was the only indoor swimming pool in the city.
Anticipating a possible fee for borrowing a towel I grabbed one from my hotel and walked to the hall, and after some trouble found it hidden in a little alley- I expected to find a big sign which apparently does not exist.
The 90 year old swimming hall. The saunas are on the right and left sides at the end of the pool.
Drop Your Inhibitions- and Clothes
Once I found it I stepped into an old, dark wooden room- it did not even feel right. But I then saw a booth, and proceeded with the standard routine: pay 4 € (saved one because I had my own towel), walked to locker number 88, got rid of my clothes, placed the key-bracelet on my ankle and decided to go to the sauna first.
Yrjönkatu Swimming Hall is a mixed gender nude sauna, but there’s a different schedule for each gender. As I made my way to the sauna I realized that unlike what I had expected, all swimmers were by themselves and not socializing, swimming back and forth in their lanes- butt naked.
Photo by https://theicebath.com.au/
The sauna was a little bit of the same. There are two saunas, one slightly hotter than the other, and each had about 5 -8 males sweating and letting time go by, no discussions or friendly conversations as I had been told is the norm.
After about ten minutes I went to the pool and swam a few laps, and made my way back to the sauna. I repeated the process two or three times, and after about 30 minutes later I had had enough; I currently live in the tropics and preferred the cold weather outside than the steam in the hall.
Finnish Sauna Etiquette
Any mixed sauna in Finland follows the same unwritten rules, which do differ from those in other countries. These tips will help you understand what Finnish sauna culture is like.
- In Finland, anybody can throw water on the stove; the person sitting closest to the water bucket is responsible.
- Pretty much all places have separate saunas for women and men, specially in hotels and swimming halls.
- It’s normal to be naked if your new sauna neighbors are of the same gender as you. If you feel uncomfortable, wear a towel.
- If it’s a public mixed sauna, you must always use a swimsuit or towel.
- This said, you don’t usually wear a swimsuit, because it has chemicals that react with the warmth of the sauna. If shy, use a towel.
- You sit on a towel while in the sauna. Public saunas have a specific disposable sauna tissues available; there should be a roll or a pile of them near the sauna.
- Saunas are usually heated to be around 80 Celcius degrees, around 175 Fahrenheit. If it’s too hot for you, sit lower.
- If heat is not your thing (like it isn’t for me) you might want to take the seat closest to the sauna’s door. It usually isn’t as hot close to the door.
- You can talk in a Finnish sauna. It’s not forbidden, although Finns are pretty quiet in the sauna despite saunas being described as a “social event”.
- It’s very common to have a drink after a sauna session. This can be a beer, soda, juice…whatever! Heck, if you’re lucky you might even be able to have it while in the sauna!
Is it Worth it?
Been there, done that. It was not as interesting as I had thought it would be, or as entertaining as my improvised sauna session a few days before in Inari, where I did have some fun (and beers) with a few locals excited about speaking with a traveler who was North of the Arctic Circle at that time of the year.
Perhaps a sauna experience in a nice hotel is something entirely different?
It may have been this Helsinki public sauna in itself as I had heard that there is another popular sauna. But it was further away from the hotel, and I didn’t feel like making my way there.
In any case I can understand that if you’re spending a few days in the city swimming a few laps without clothes in a warm environment can be soothing and rewarding, even an experience on its own, but if I have just one or two days to spend in Helsinki I wouldn’t go again.
Yrjonkatu Swimming Hall Location
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