The sauna, a centuries-old ritual in Finland, has staying—and healing—powers.

By Elizabeth Kendall
August 25, 2011
Credit: Lauri Rotko / Getty

Finland is a country of extreme contrasts—summers of dizzying, full-time light, followed by depressingly long, dark winters. The sauna regulates it all, offering the benefits of winter in summer and summer in winter, while reducing the anxieties of modern life. The first Finnish sauna was built during the Ice Age; now, the ratio of people to saunas in Finland is nearly two to one. Studies have found that sauna visits can have positive effects on everything from rheumatoid pain and heart disease to stress and chronic fatigue. Finns religiously sweat it out in a room heated by fire and hot rocks and hissing steam, and then plunge into ice-cold water for the full effect. As the Finnish proverb goes, If sauna, strong drink, and tar [soap] don’t help, the illness is surely fatal.

Where to Let Off Steam

Helsinki: Located in the hip Kallio district, just north of downtown, Kotiharjun is one of the capital’s last traditional public saunas—and a window into old-world Finnish culture. Its two main rooms (one for men, one for women) look like small stadiums, with tiered benches and a huge wood-burning stove. Try gently tapping yourself with a wet birch branch (available upon request)—it’ll stimulate circulation and smooth the skin. Admission $15.

Rymättylä: Near the idyllic port town of Naantali, on Finland’s southwestern coast, Herrankukkaro offers three smoke saunas. Considered the crème de la crème of their kind, they create the softest type of heat, which slowly envelops you in an aromatic cloud. 245 Luotojentie; from $67 per person based on a group of eight.

Saunasaari: On this tiny, windswept island—a 15-minute water-taxi ride from the heart of Helsinki—owner Rainer Hanhilahti has created a sauna village that’s worth the splurge. Surrounded by a birch forest are four log-cabin-style structures that also serve traditional fare such as Poronkäristys (sautéed reindeer) with lingonberry jam. Full-day sauna rental from $158 per person based on a group of six.

Tampere: Finnish for “border gate,” Rajaportin is a short drive outside the burgeoning art town of Tampere. The wood-and-stone sauna dates back to 1906—and made it through the Russian Revolution and the Finnish Civil War. 9 Pispalan valtatie; admission from $6.

Bring it Back

Fragrant, handmade Osmia terva (pine tar) and koivu (birch) soaps, $7 each.
Organic cotton towel, $55, and cotton-and-rubber slippers, $42, by Finland’s iconic Marimekko.
SPF 15 Pure Radiance Day Cream with vitamin-rich Arctic cloudberry, sourced in northern Lapland, $20.

Finland by the Numbers

5.4 million people
3 million-plus saunas
21.5 hours of sunlight, June 21, 2011
3 hours of sunlight, December 21, 2011
20 weeks (average age at first sauna)
79.3 years (average life expectancy)