Finland has frequently been ranked as the happiest country in the world. There are a lot of reasons for this, but one of them may be that Finns know how to slow down and relax. After all, Finns invented the sauna. In a country of 5.5 million, there are over three million saunas. In other words, just about every Finn is addicted to löyly, the rush of warmth you feel when water hits the sauna rocks and produces a burst of steam.
No trip to Finland would be complete without enjoying a Finnish sauna. While Finland has an almost limitless number of saunas, the capital Helsinki itself has an impressive selection of public saunas for your experience in Finnish culture.
A bit on sauna etiquette
Saunas are deeply rooted in Finland’s culture and have existed there for over 2,000 years. In addition to being places to warm up and relax, they were also places to get clean — and cleanliness is an important Finnish value. Always shower before entering the sauna. Also, note that sauna time shouldn’t be rushed. You’ll want to shower, get in the sauna until you are nice and sweaty, and then cool off — either by taking a cold shower, jumping into a sea or lake, or just spending some time outside — before heading back in for another round.
You’ll find that public saunas in Helsinki are usually filled with mostly Finns, many of whom speak fluent English, so you can strike up a conversation as you chill in the hot steam room. In many saunas, you’ll go naked. If you’re planning to head outdoors, though, you’ll want that swimsuit. Also, saunas can be part of social or work events, so they may include a cold beer during the cool-off sessions, or even a meal afterward.
Unsurprisingly, there’s a huge diversity of places you can enjoy a relaxing, naked steam amongst locals. Below are the highlights of each category. Just note that, for many saunas, you may need you to reserve a time slot in advance. Make sure you check the websites.
Allas Sea Pool — perfect for travelers
Located right next to the Market Square, floating atop the Helsinki harbor, is Allas Sea Pool. Inside the relatively new wooden structure — it opened in late 2016 — you can find good food and saunas, and outside are hang-out areas and two massive pools: one heated pool and one with seawater. There’s a men’s sauna, a women’s sauna, and a mixed-gender sauna (where you’d be wearing a swimsuit) that can also be rented as a private sauna for certain events. As you jump into the pool to cool down from the heat of the sauna, you can watch ferries pass through Helsinki harbor with the hubbub of central Helsinki as their backdrop.
If you want to visit a sauna within walking distance of Helsinki’s most famous landmarks and take in a great city view, head to Allas. A single adult visit is 14€ (about $15.75). Even if you decide to sauna elsewhere in Helsinki, you should still climb to the top of the wooden Allas building for sweeping views of Helsinki Harbor. It’s free to enter if you aren’t planning to use the pool or sauna, although you may want to buy a beverage to sip on as you enjoy the view.
Kotiharjun Sauna — a traditional, wood-fire sauna
If you’re looking for a traditional sauna experience, Kotiharjun is one of the last public saunas in Helsinki with a wood-burning stove. It takes five hours to prepare, but sauna connoisseurs believe that it’s worth it as it delivers the best löyly out there.
Built in 1928, Kotiharjun carries the history of generations of Finns partaking in the sacred sauna ritual. Kotiharjun is in the center of Kalio, a once-working-class neighborhood that’s now one of the hippest corners of the city. Taking a sauna there is an urban experience, and you’ll join the sauna goers cooling off in their towels right out on the street. Unlike most public saunas, Kotiharjun Sauna allows walk-ins.
Löyly — modern architecture and good food
Right on the Helsinki waterfront, Löyly is located in a prominent and unique modern wooden building less than a mile from the city center. Löyly is both urban and easily accessible but also peaceful as it’s at the edge of a big waterfront park and not in a commercial area.
Löyly’s public saunas are modern and clean, with easy access to an exhilarating jump straight into the freezing sea to cool down. Naturally, Löyly’s sauna comes with all the amenities needed for a longer stay, with drinks and food served. Löyly also has a popular restaurant serving surprisingly delicious fresh Finnish food. The restaurant is usually filled with young people taking in the views of the Baltic Sea through the big windows or sitting outside on the terrace by the fire. Whether it be just for drinks or for a meal, the restaurant and architecture of Löyly make it worth a visit.
Lonna sauna — a serene island experience
Finland is a country with over 40,000 islands, so it’s probably no surprise that a short ferry ride from Helsinki will take you to a whole host of unique islands to explore. Although Lonna is only a 10-minute ferry ride away from Helsinki, it feels more isolated than the other saunas on this list. It has two beautiful and clean wood-burning saunas that are two stories tall. The sauna benches themselves are up a set of stairs on the second level, with a big glass window framing a serene view of the Baltic Sea and forested islands. In between sauna sessions, you can walk outside and cool off in the chilly water.
After your sauna, take a short walk to the other side of the tiny island to savor views of the Helsinki skyline in the afternoon light. Before or after your sauna, Lonna offers some enticing food options. You can get freshly made waffles from the waffle bar or visit the upscale Lonna Restaurant for local, organic food and fresh fish. Just note that Lonna is only open from May to the end of September, and you should reserve the sauna and restaurant in advance.
SkySauna Helsinki — for thrillseekers
This one’s just a little weird. Finland is so obsessed with saunas that it even added one to a Ferris wheel. Think London Eye, except in the center of Helsinki and you can sit in a cabin with a wooden bench that fits four-five people and hot rocks to produce steam. Right behind Allas Sea Pool, SkySauna is located on the Helsinki SkyWheel, offering spectacular views of the harbor and the rest of Helsinki, except this time from a higher vantage point.
Unlike the other saunas on this list, SkySauna is by design less social and local than other saunas. However if you want to sightsee and experience some of the peculiarity Finland is famous for, as you wait for a turn in the Ferris wheel’s wooden sauna cabin, SkySauna offers pools to relax in. While Ferris wheels are fun for kids, you must be over the age of 18 to experience the wooden sauna cabin. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for reservations.
Suomen Saunaseura — Finnish Sauna Society
Founded in 1973 to preserve sauna culture, the Finnish Sauna Society’s Saunaseura is the most traditional sauna experience you will find. Unlike the other saunas on this list, Saunaseura is not open to the public. You’ll need to go with a member. But we’ve listed it here because the sauna is actually recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Located just outside the city and surrounded by a Finnish forest, with access to the sometimes frozen sea, Saunaseura is committed to preserving and sharing the sacredness of the sauna experience. If you are lucky enough to go with a member, be respectful and ready to learn more about this important facet of Finnish life. Follow sauna etiquette and embrace the tradition of being nude in the sauna. Unlike other saunas, Saunaseura’s atmosphere is more reserved and less social.
People from all walks of life go to Saunaseura, from sports stars and politicians to everyday people. If you do speak, it should not be about your title, job, or religion. Saunaseura emphasizes egalitarianism and treating everyone equally, which is what Finnish society does in general — and is, by the way, another reason that Finns are some of the happiest people on Earth.