About eight years ago, by a lakeside in Finland, I discovered the glory of sauna.
Visiting a friend I’d just met on university exchange in Germany, he took me to his summer house near Tampere (Finland’s second largest city). I’d been in a sauna before, but never properly – or so I suddenly realized. It wasn’t just relaxing in the powerful heat. It wasn’t just sitting in the summer sun with a beer, some food, and that blissful post-schvitz tingle. It was seeing Riku’s dad in the sauna – his casual but masterful conduct – and understanding that some people do this every day. It changed my life. Not instantly, but profoundly.
A few years later, my friends started going to a pool with spa and sauna facilities. We called it a “triple-S” (swim/spa/sauna) and did it regularly for a while. Eventually, with everyone rosy-cheeked and tingling, conversation turned to getting a sauna ourselves (five housemates in a rental property with enough space in the garage). One night, we did it. Ebay. It cost AU$1000. It was 14 hours from Sydney. Pick-up only. Adventure beckoned.
The only option was to hire a truck (another $1000 inc. fuel). Me and comrade Dave Drayton were able to commit, pulling off an insane overnight drive in memorable fashion. 2400km in 40 hours. We stayed overnight with the people we bought it from. They even packed us lunch for the drive home.
It was possibly the best decision we ever made.
The sauna worked – and the world got better. Suddenly in the backyard was a device to launch the day when we woke up bleary (which was often). Suddenly we had a magic box to help unwind in the evenings. Suddenly the lazy weekend just got a whole lot lazier. It was a reason to love winter, and a reason to have more friends over. And more friends came: we popped a lot of sauna cherries, made a lot of cheeks rosy, and opened a lot of eyes to the regenerative joys of sweat bathing. Tssssssssss!
That was five years ago. Since then my motto for world travel has been “Another City, Another Sauna”. I’ve had saunas in Melbourne, Canberra, Brisbane, Los Angeles, Atlanta, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, London, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Hamburg, Queenstown, and Berlin, to mention only the highlights. It’s become an obsession – a functional equivalent to religious practice that provides peace, grounding, and energy. Lost in the powerful heat, you escape the insanity of the world. You come out refreshed. I think of it as bullshit neutralization therapy. I still use the sauna at home almost every day.
So when I got accepted to speak at a conference in Germany in August 2015, the natural choice was to fly Finnair – all flights go through Helsinki (the only reason I visited Riku in the first place). Returning after 2007, this would be something of a consummation.
I managed to squeeze in five days before the conference, three of them in Helsinki. Following is an account of those days, being also a guide for getting sweaty in the Finnish capital (QUICKGUIDE available here).
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I planned well. You should too. Three days in Finland isn’t long if you love sauna. Surprisingly, Helsinki isn’t as chock-full of saunas as I expected – at least not public saunas. Sure, Lord Google did reveal a dozen or more spots around the city (see QuickGuide), but I learned that while there are allegedly 2 million saunas in a country of 5 million people, most of them aren’t public. Thankfully I found three gems.
DAY 1: THE TOUR
I arrived from Sydney, dazed. Through Singapore, the journey took 23 hours. I left in the morning and arrived in the morning, about 7am. I was meeting Riku for lunch at noon. We hadn’t emailed for ages, but I tracked him down and waxed lyrical about the transformations in my life since being at his summer house. It was especially nice to receive the following reply:
Man, you’ve gone deep with that sauna thing! 😀 Well I’m glad my family was able to provide you with something very special and important in your life. I like sauna as well, but you… you’re like my dad now!
I took a morning walk around the harbour. Weather beautiful, warm and blue. Still with an hour before lunch, I stumbled upon an antique bookstore. Hmmm. After poking around, the question was inevitable: “Excuse me, do you have any books about sauna?”
“Yes,” came the pleasant and squeaky reply, “follow me”. It was like a movie. In a small back annex of the store, she wheeled over a ladder, and pointed up. “Thank you,” I said, beginning the ascent. Jackpot! A small shelf holding perhaps 40 books in a range of languages. I had just gotten a new job. My credit card was relatively unencumbered. I had to get these books.
Fifteen minutes later, returning to the front holding a stack from waist to chin, the nice old lady chuckled. Grimacing more with each book, I watched the total climb to €200, then €300 … capping out at €510. Twenty seven in total. One from the personal library of ex-President of Finland, Urho Kekkonen, a major promoter of sauna who was famous for his “sauna diplomacy” (check this fascinating account by a former Minister of Foreign Affairs).
She agreed to pack them in a box, so I returned after lunch. It was a heavy box. The post office was only a block away – but a further €170 shipping. In for a penny… But what an investment.
By coincidence, Riku worked around the corner from my airBnb place. It was lovely to catch him. He was leaving the city that afternoon on business so I’m glad we got a hug and a pizza. I told him about the books, he laughed. (The pizza place had an excellent salad bar. Good place if you need something downtown.)
The day was going well, but I was itching for sauna. It wasn’t far away. Two weeks earlier I’d found a group called Happy Guide Helsinki who offer, amongst other things – a sauna tour! Often the tour is by bicycle, but this night by public transport. At €60 I thought twice, but decided it would be silly not to. Price includes sauna, tram fare, and a snack. Definitely worth it if you want a fun sauna experience in the Finnish capital. You’ll probably meet people.
As it happened this night, I was the only guest (someone else pulled out last minute) – so it was just me and Dani, the guide, an Austian living in Helskini studying architecture. Meeting downtown at 5pm, we caught the tram to Kallio, the old working class district. As Dani pointed out, it’s the working class district where public saunas still remain. In wealthier districts, they’re all behind private doors (aside from the odd hotel, pool or gym). You can imagine the need for pubic saunas in earlier times when few households had proper bathing facilities.
Our destination was Sauna Arla, established 1929. It was great. Nothing fancy. Tucked away in a terrace complex, there are chairs in the courtyard, and a small ground floor front desk. You pay €12 (€2 more for a towel). Soft drinks available, BYO beer. Highly recommended.
Men go upstairs, women stay downstairs. Dani and I confirmed the layout is the same (the heaters must share a chimney). The room might hold 40 people packed in (though it’s always hard to tell…). Being late summer, there weren’t many people around, but that was fine – the heat was everything I was hoping for!
The three saunas I visited in Helsinki all have different heating systems. Arla uses gas. A big, tall oven that looks 1950s, with a small door around chest-level opening to a massive heap of stones inside (see pic above). The oven is heated all morning, then the gas is switched off. Which explains the opening hours of 2-8pm. It’s open Wednesday to Sunday.
The best part – the newest thing for me – was having a ladle the size of a saucepan … on a 6-foot wooden handle! You could spend more than 30 seconds doing a long, steady pour over several square feet of rocks. It’s hard to describe how satisfying that is. Then climb to the top bench, lie down, and feel the steam roll over you.
The Finns have a word for this steam: löyly. (Pronounced “ler-lu”.) You can say hyvät löylyt (“Good steam!”) or even, upon exiting: olipas hyvät löylyt – roughly: “Now that was a good steam!”
They actually had several ladles, some on smaller handles. I used them all – the long one was the best. There are some great youTube videos of Arla if you’re interested: I found a short one showing the heater in action (0:50), and a longer one with some great history from the owner (4:04).
A few guys were using vihta leaves and offered me a bunch, so I gave myself a good whack, not unlike this guy:
Dani and I had several sets of heat with chill time between, hanging in the outside courtyard. Caught the tram home around 9pm. Slept like a log. It was a good start to the trip.
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DAY 2: THE INJURY
Day 2 was the strangest and most memorable of the trip. Like many such days, it began with uncertainty.
Only 24 hours prior I’d found something on the (very useful) Wiktravel page for Helsinki. It listed the main saunas in town. Everything else I’d seen already – but sompasauna caught my eye. Their website revealed all:
“Sompasauna is a wood burning self-service public sauna in Helsinki built and maintained by a group of volunteers.
… You enjoy the sauna at your own risk. There is no admission fee, staff or lifeguard for your safety. No food, drink or supplies are sold in location, bring your own. You may need to cut your own firewood at place: a saw and plenty of wood is usually provided.
TALK. ABOUT. INTERESTED. I even wrote an email asking if anyone would be around, and got the following reply:
Hi, you’re welcome to Sompasauna! Ask around for activists when in Sompasauna and you most likely find some for a chat 🙂
Sauna activists? This was my kind of place! Their Instagram made it look even more awesome.
It was over an hour walk away from downtown. The location is hard to describe. Located miles from most other human activity, sompasauna (amounting to a few semi-permanent shacks) sits at the end of a long man-made island jutting out into the Sompasaari harbour. The adjacent island is home to an enormous coal-fire power plant, the kind with a literal black mountain stacked beside it. Major construction is underway on sompasaari island itself, only God and Business know what monstrosity is being erected.
Sompasauna looked easy to find but was tricky on the ground – a smartphone with offline maps saved a lot of time. I arrived at noon, hoping to meet people. Would anybody be there this early?
Things started to play out immediately. Upon arrival, I saw two saunas. One large, painted in happy pink, the other small. A guy was heating the small sauna – I was in luck. I said hello, he was friendly. A somewhat scrappy character (he explained a complicated personal history later), but very nice. He asked if I wanted to smoke a joint while the sauna got hot. Naturally I said yes. After a chat, we stripped off and got in the box.
It was beautiful. Where Arla is heated by gas, sompasauna is all wood. A woodfire oven creates a wonderful smoky smell – the last one I’d been in was at Riku’s summer house. This was a lovely moment.
Despite the season, the harbour water was cold. Not freezing, but decently chilly. To reach the water, you must climb down a set of large, sometimes slippery boulders. “Careful”, my friend said.
We splashed around, then ascended for more heat – the usual procedure: get hot, cool down, get back in. Everything was going well.
Until – we climbed down for a second swim – … and I slipped on the rocks! At the bottom, just before you dive in. So I fell into water, but right on my ass. There were submerged rocks. I didn’t feel much pain, but looked down aghast: my forearm had a deep gash! There was a lot of blood! And some skin flapping around!
And you know what my first thought was? “Fuck. I forgot to get travel insurance.” Well done Jack. Well done.
The second immediate thought, clashing painfully with the first, was: “Is this the end of my sauna trip??!!” Money was one thing – but I had travelled a bloody long way for the specific reason of having lots of saunas (conference aside), and still had almost 2 weeks ahead in Germany (where I also planned to have a lot of saunas).
More pressingly, I realized I needed to get out of the water. The cut looked bad. Get up, get clothes on, and sit down before the pain sets in. Clean it up, you idiot.
My friend winced. He climbed out with me. I dried and dressed in a one-arm dance, he helped put my shirt on. I’d brought a small towel, so wrapped it around the gash. He looked at it and spoke the words I was helpless to agree with: “We should take you to the hospital. That might need stitches.”
So much for sompasauna! I got a photo before we left:
Thankfully his kindness continued, and he drove me to a public medical centre, calling a friend on the way to find out where he should go. He explained at the front desk and I got a ticket. I said thanks and told him I’d be fine, it was his only day off, don’t hang around this shitty place. He said cool, we hugged, he left. I never got his name.
Turns out the place wasn’t shitty at all. They looked after me well. A nice English-speaking doctor fetched me. She asked what happened. When I said “I was having a sauna”, she smiled a little.
And lucky for me… no stitches required! I couldn’t remember my last tetanus shot, so she delivered one for good measure. Thankfully my foolishness wasn’t absolute, and passport was to hand. Not sure what sums were pulled, but I wasn’t charged. The world as it should be.
And it was only 2pm. Naturally the doctor said stay out of the sauna until the bleeding stops, I heard the words “maybe a week”. But doctors’ orders are, of course, doctors’ suggestions. So I sat down in the shade for half an hour. How shaky was I? Actually, I was OK. I ate a Snickers to get some sugar. Had one in the bag.
As it happens, the medical center was in Kallio, right near Sauna Arla. I’d walked just near here on the way to sompasauna. I knew the way back. It was only 45 minutes.
Be careful Jack. That was a close call. Don’t fuck it up.
But I couldn’t lie: I felt OK. What else was I going to do? Go home and lie down? Come all this way and just rest? Not an option. Go and look at a museum? Just go for a walk? Under other circumstances, perhaps. But not today.
With a deep breath, I got up and started walking. Quick grocery pit stop for more supplies. Couldn’t resist a €1 beer, an icy cold can. Drained promptly but discretely upon leaving the store. A bit of courage.
When I got back to sompasauna, people had started to show up. Lots more bikes. Several dozen. The big sauna was now firing!
Remaining cautious, I sat. Blood seeping into the gauze, reading, thinking, smiling. Perhaps 2 hours. Basking in sun, sight, and sound. Scratched a poem in the back of a book.
It had to happen eventually. I stripped off and entered the big sauna, wearing only the gauze. The heat, the smell. Yes. Correct decision.
The bigger sauna fits around 15 people, perhaps 20 with standing. It has windows to the water. Temperature hovers at around 70ºC – not searing, but hot enough. You can even see the temperature live on the website – one guy even had the app on his phone! Imagine if you could see if it was worth a quick bike ride while sitting on the couch or about to leave work. (BUT: the big sauna appears to be gone now. See the Quickguide for more info, I need to chase this up.)
The box was mostly full, but the numbers ebb and flow. Plenty of talking, all in Finnish. I kept hearing people call for löyly, water kept hitting the rocks.
There was a place next to some people I’d said hi to earlier. Soon enough, one of them asked about the bandage. “I was here earlier today and I slipped on the rocks. But it’s OK. So I came back.” The random Australian made a pretty funny sight. I even got an email the next day from the same person who told me about the activists:
“Hei! I heard a rumour that some australian visitor got seriously wounded while swimming, was it you? I hope you’re ok?”
OK indeed. I spent the rest of the evening chatting with people and getting more heat. But I didn’t go back in the water.
Around 8pm, with the light starting to change – the sauna got blocked! Someone had to climb on the roof with a chimney cleaner. He spent a good 15-20 minutes heaving the thing up and down. Finally, success! The chimney spewed ash as the air flowed once more. People clapped and cheered.
I had one more set in the heat. By now it was almost dark. People were talking less. The smell was rich from firesmoke.
I decided that, having made it through the day, I needed a swim to round everything out. With care down the rocks, the entry was clean – and my good sweat, what a feeling! Cold, sweet, calm. Several minutes floating. The satisfaction was deep. Another correct decision.
I said goodbye to people. It was a long walk back. I think I got a tram for a few stops near the end.
I got home, bought travel insurance, and fell asleep. Thank you sompasauna.
A few pics of sompasauna, mine unless noted:
Great arial shot of the location. Must be a few years ago because there’s loads more construction behind it now (Courtesy of Google Images)
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DAY 3: THE HAMMOCK
The final day presented two options: Sauna Hermanni or Sauna Kotiharju the two other traditional public saunas in Helsinki aside from Arla. I decided on Hermanni because the owner had responded to an email (asking if someone could show me the place and talk about running a sauna). The gash on my arm was messy but OK. I cleaned it, dressed it, and largely ignored it for the rest of the day.
I needed to go to Kallio again. But just before setting out, a thought struck: surely there’s a specialist sauna shop in Helsinki? Consulting Lord Google again, my heart started racing. It looked like there were three in the city centre – three! I must have walked right past one yesterday!
This time I was deceived. All three stores are now closed, as I discovered by traipsing around for half the morning. Including a place called Saunamarket (! – I almost had a heart attack), right on the corner of Senatsori (Senate Square). The website is still tantalizingly alive. Looks amazing. I would have spent a lot of money. Look at this! –
The day turned out expensive anyway. A market by the dock yielded not only some handmade sauna artwork – but also … an outstanding ladle! Nice wooden handle with metal scoop. Perfect for the sauna at home. Proper upgrade from the cheap kitchen ladle we had used for years.
After some delicious food, I was so confused about the non-existence of Saunamarket that I even asked at the Information office nearby. They guy said “Oh, yeah, that place is gone.” Did he know anywhere else? “Um … You could try Stockmann, the big department store. They might have something.”
Bingo. I was already hot and bothered after lots of looking for places that didn’t exist. It was 1pm. And I now had a bag of stuff from the market. Stockman’s was back near my starting point, about 20 mins walk. Right next to the first non-existent place I checked 3 hours ago.
But last day in Helsinki, so off I marched. The air conditioning was welcome. I asked at the info desk on level 1. Thankfully the woman said “Oh yes, if you go up to level 5”.
I did a lap of level 5, wondering what to look for. Then, at the start of the second lap (i.e. right next to were I started), loomed the display: two large shelves of sauna equipment and accessories, from soaps to buckets to towels. My knees went weak for a moment.
This resulted in another significant purchase. I scored 2 new buckets, another ladle (bigger than the charming one from the markets – shaped like the one at Arla, but a smaller home version), plus a wide range of soaps and scrubs. Plus several sauna hats. You can never have too many sauna hats. Notice them next to my backpack (above).
I took the haul armfully to a service desk (which was quite a juggle considering the injury to my left wrist. But the wound was tolerable.) The young lady was very helpful and somewhat entertained. I told her it was going back to Australia, could we wrap it? Sure, there’s even a post office upstairs. Relief. Extravagance.
She did a solid, patient job, especially with a few glass bottles of soap. €345 later, twitching slightly, I headed upstairs. Frustratingly but unsurprisingly, they had no box large enough. The main post office was 10 minutes away near central station. Ok, kiitos, thanks very much.
Half an hour later (it was tricky to find) I finally got the stuff in a box, including the bag from the market. Everything packed into a large box snugly enough to not need improvised padding. Wrapping the box in tape about 60 times and filling out a customs form (an almost automatic task by now), the final damage was another €80.
So it was a shitload of money to spend on sauna gear in 3 days. But hey, what’s money for? I already had about 15 sauna books at home, so the library has swollen considerably. And the artefacts are practically enough to open a small sauna museum one day. I am very lucky to be in a position to afford it. A dash of hard work, but a whole lot of luck and privilege. I console myself with the notion that the motives are pure. This is about spreading the good heat and improving human lives. But the waft of post-rationalization always lingers.
Speaking of good heat, I definitely needed a sauna by now. I got the tram to Kallio, heading half a mile north of Arla. The place was in a nondescript residential area, tucked away under a normal apartment building. But the tram stops right outside (get the 6 or 8). Signs on the footpath point you in.
Sauna Hermanni is small and quaint. The front office is tiny, but Mika keeps a fridge stocked and can prepare a range of snacks.
The male dressing room is decked out 1950s style. The place opened in 1953, but Mika took over only a few years ago and has refurbished it brilliantly. It’s a killer dressing room. Well done Mika! The website has just been refurbished too.
Again there weren’t many people around. I stayed at Hermanni for about 5 hours (3-8pm), and mostly had the heat to myself. For an hour a group of older men were there, the Finnish was flowing fast and free in the heat. Plenty of löyly. It felt a lot like this.
This sauna is excellent. Go there. It’s like a square tube, maybe 20ft wide and only 8ft deep. Perhaps 15 people comfy, two dozen full, thirty crammed. Long benches, plus one solid log-made free-standing bench (3-5 people). There’s a washroom/antechamber similar to Arla with several showers and benches. It’s great to lie on a bench straight after the heat.
Hermanni has an electric heater. An awesome one. A 5ft tall circular cage with a 1½ ft diameter. I later learned that it holds … 300kg of rocks! What a beast. (For sauna nerds, it’s an IKI stove.)
The heater is FANTASTIC to pour water on. What a cage! The ladles were about 3ft long. You could pour water over the top and throw it on the side of the cage, sometimes as part of the same scoop. The tubular shape makes the löyly swirl around intensely. This was the hottest moment of my stay in Helsinki. Running around earlier in the day was a distant memory. The only reminder was a nice sauna scrub retained from the Stockman’s haul. Mint and blueberry with large sugar crystals. Goopy. Gorgeous.
I took 5 or 6 sets of heat that afternoon. Between sets, I sat in a hammock strung up outside. It was incredibly pleasant, next to a table in a big open grassy courtyard near the entrance. The only non-sauna book I’d bought on Day 1 (a biography of Ludwig Wittgenstein) was proving gripping. I swung for close to an hour on multiple occasions in the afternoon shade. Bailing out of the sauna, light-headed, stumbling outside, and plopping straight in a hammock: now that’s something to recreate. What a feeling. Let there be more hammocks at saunas!
Near the end of the session I ordered a toasted sandwich (feta + sundried tomato, €4). A damn tasty morsel. Washed down with a coke (€3). BYO beer. I was advised of this by email so took 3 beers along, there’s a small fridge in the dressing room. I drank the beers in the hammock.
Before leaving I had a longer chat with Mika. He showed me the controls for the sauna, including an air ventilation system. I had noticed something on the wall of the sauna (near the floor) that looked like a speaker: it was air vent. Mika explained the importance of good ventilation. I sort of knew this, but not properly: good tip for any public sauna. Especially important for Hermanni, being tucked away under concrete. The sauna door itself even had a gap of close to a foot at the bottom! Largest gap of its kind I’ve ever seen. It was like a public toilet cubicle. All part of the ventilation. But it doesn’t compromise the heat. You just keep hitting the steam.
I bought another t-shirt, caught the tram home, packed my bags, and went to sleep. The flight to Berlin was at 7am, a very early start. I had a lot of saunas in Germany too. That’s another story.
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So that’s 3 days in Helsinki if you love sauna. The obvious alternative was to visit Sauna Kotiharju, the third main public sauna alongside Arla and Hermanni. It’s a wood-burner and looks like another great place. It would’ve been Day 4.
The saunas will be even more fun when it’s colder. I think most of them even close down for 6 weeks in the height of summer. So if you’re there when it’s hot but desperate to sweat, ask around. You’ll find something.
KEY TIP: ONLY PLAN FOR ONE PLACE PER DAY. Make the most of it. Perhaps you’ll get lucky, or perhaps you’re a maverick who doesn’t need advice. But the best approach is to visit one place – in the early-mid afternoon –and stay there for a while. See the QUICKGUIDE here if you haven’t already.
There’s several other places to visit. One is Yrjonkadun Swimming Hall. Riku actually took me there after our lunch, but it was closed for renovation, which was a real shame. Check the website, it looks awesome. A digestive schvitz to open the account on Day 1 would’ve been gorgeous. Yrjonkadun looks like the best option for a good sauna downtown – it has 7 saunas inside!!! Electric, steam, and wood fire. Two of them private. Check for opening hours.
The second place is called Kulttuurisauna, and sits on the harbour opposite sompasauna, on the city side (i.e. much closer). It even has steps down into the water! Looks cool. I actually walked right past it on the way to sompasauna, recognizing it from photos (it’s pretty nondescript). It didn’t open until 4pm and I was heading to sompasauna anyway. But take note for those travelling! A bit on the pricey side (€15, BYO towel) – everyone at sompasauna was trash talking it. Pretty amusing. But I’m sure the heat is good. There’s a great article about the place here.
Plenty more options exist if you have time. One place to check out is the 1952 Olympic Stadium, west of Kallio. More sweat-spots are listed here. To say nothing of the type of places you can find in the rest of the country.
The only thing I missed entirely was savusauna – the traditional smoke sauna. It’s different from a normal woodfire sauna: the whole room is cooked for 6-8 hours with no chimney, smoke pours out of windows for a while. Here’s a great video showing how they work (6:54). And here’s a cool UNESCO video with good production values. I prefer the first video.
You can visit savusaunas not far from Helsinki if you have a few days (except in summer). This place claims to have “the only public Smoke Saunas within the greater Helsinki Metropolitan area”. I couldn’t make it. Next time. Please report back if you go!
The whole time I was in Germany I worried about the two precious boxes of goods. But they arrived home, safe and sound. It was glorious to unpack.
The sauna we bought off eBay still works. Although the household eventually dissolved, I was lucky enough to retain the box. It’s got an electic heater, and does the job in mighty fashion. Comrade Dave came around for a sauna the afternoon I got home. We had fun opening the boxes. The best part was using the new ladles!