As the cab slows to a stop, I scrape some of Jack Frost’s handiwork from the window and peer into the depths of the polar night. We’re only 15 minutes from the center of Helsinki, yet dense forest presses in all around us.
“Are you sure this is right?” I ask the driver, stealing a glance at my friend Sophie who raises her eyebrows in reply.
“This is the address you give me,” he says, pushing the button on the meter.
I look at Sophie again and offer a sheepish shrug. It was my idea to journey out to Kaurilan Sauna, a rustic, wood-heated establishment in Helsinki’s forested Old Meilahti district. I had spent the better part of the day exploring the Finnish capital’s public sauna scene, sampling the steam at various hotspots around town. But from what I’d read, Kaurilan promised a deeply authentic experience. Over dinner near Helsinki Harbor I’d convinced Sophie to join me.
According to the Finnish Sauna Society, which was established in the late 1930s to preserve the country’s native sauna culture, there are more than 3 million saunas in Finland — one for about every two people. Back in the day, saunas were shared among inhabitants of a single neighborhood or apartment complex, but readily available hot running water rendered these public spaces obsolete. Lately, however, renewed interest in sharing the steam with strangers has spurred a sort of sauna renaissance in Helsinki. I was on a mission to explore as many of them as I could.
Stepping from the cab into the snowy countryside we walk toward a friendly looking farmhouse — a comforting bit of civilization amidst the unfamiliar darkness. To our left a snug cabin is perched on the edge of the woods, the lick of a candle’s flame visible through the perspiring window.
“That has to be it,” Sophie says, and we climb the cabin’s steps and open the door. A blast of frosty air rushes past us into a primitive room that glows in the firelight. We push the door shut quickly to ward off the cold, embarrassed by the spectacle our arrival created. Two women wrapped maxi-dress-style in long, flax-colored towels sit at a farm table that occupies a good part of the room, candles and glasses of water on the table in front of them, a rustic loaf of brown bread on a cutting board waiting to be sliced.
Shrugging out of our heavy coats, we feel around in the semi-darkness for an empty peg to hang them, trying not to further disrupt the atmosphere of serenity.
“Towels and sauna are there,” one of the women encourages, gesturing with a smile to a narrow hallway. We whisper our thanks and undress quickly, our nakedness cloaked in the room’s chiaroscuro. We had decided during the cab ride to leave our inhibitions in the city, committed to experiencing the ex-urban Finnish sauna in the traditional buff.
The scene inside the sauna itself can only be described as primal. A handful of women lounge on two tiers of wooden benches, bare bodies, shiny with sweat, silhouetted in light cast by the wood stove. Saara Lehtonen, owner of Kaurilan Sauna, sits tucked up in the corner, a rope-handled bucket on the bench beside her. Finding an empty space, I spread out my small square of linen and sit down, pulling my knees to my chest.
The room is hot, but not oppressively so, until Saara flings water onto the sauna rocks. The action unleashes clouds of thick, hissing steam into the air. The Fins call this löyly — pronounced low-lu — with heavy emphasis on the Ls. I feel my lungs seize as soul-sucking heat inundates the shadowy room. In Finland, saunas are warmed to around 80 degrees Celsius (175 degrees Fahrenheit). Soon I, too, am dripping with sweat.
One by one, women step down from the benches to ladle water from a second bucket over their heads, necks, and shoulders. A small bar of Saara’s homemade soap sits next to the bucket and I am reminded that sauna is traditionally a bathing ritual. Before the dawn of indoor plumbing, the sauna was where people went to wash. It was also where they gave birth, did the laundry, tended the sick, and prepared the dead for burial. But now, the sauna serves as a haven — somewhere to escape the frenetic pace of modern life and reconnect with friends and family.
“Public saunas have always been a place to meet people,” says Saara in between rounds of löyly. “Sauna is a place where your status has no meaning and everyone is welcome.”
And welcome is how I begin to feel. Conversation is lively — spoken in a piecemeal mix of Finnish and English — and topics range from sauna history, to work and family lives, politics, and travel. Sophie and I share that we’re headed to the Finnish Lapland the next day and everyone weighs in with their impressions of the country’s frozen north.
In the midst of the chatter, one woman, who is visiting Kaurilan with her 20-year-old daughter, starts to laugh. “Fins are usually quite reserved,” she says. “If you start a conversation with someone while waiting for the tram, you’ll get a funny look. But when we go to sauna we talk about everything.”
A palpable camaraderie fills the tiny room alongside the steam, despite nudity or nuance of language. I imagine myself in Anita Diamante’s mythical Red Tent — a sacred place where women can bask in the solace and support of sisterhood.
Saara’s arm shoots toward the woodstove and another burst of powerful löyly engulfs us when the water hits the rocks. This time, the surge of heat and a desire to cool off compel me to ignore my nakedness. At last I climb down from my hiding place to take my turn at the ladle.
Seeking the Heat
Fins visit the sauna — pronounced sow-na — year round, but winter’s arctic temperatures make a steamy rendezvous all the more gratifying. Helsinki’s best public saunas radiate tradition, yet each offers its own uniquely sweaty experience. Here are a few not to miss.
Opened in 1928 and fully restored in 1999, this classically beautiful bathhouse is Finland’s oldest public swimming hall. Soaring archways with Juliet balconies frame a heated, 25-meter lap pool where skinny-dipping is the norm — Yrjönkatu offers separate times and days for men and women. For a more spa-like experience, opt for the second floor, where 14 euro grants access to several saunas — electric, wood-heated, and infrared — a private cabin, bathrobes, and the option to order snacks and cocktails from Café Yrjö.
This floating oasis near Market Square serves as a modern-day version of Helsinki’s historical sea-spa culture. Three large pools, a roof terrace, and a sleek café overlook the city’s south harbor. Bathers can dip into the 25-meter heated freshwater pool for leisure or exercise, while inside, separate men’s and women’s saunas are located a short walk from the pools. For a truly Finnish wintertime experience, sauna goers take a plunge in the icy Baltic after their steam.
The trendiest spot on Helsinki’s steam circuit, Löyly is where the cool kids go. Two co-ed saunas — bathing suits are required here — are housed in a sleek, Scandinavian space surrounded by the sea. After a stint in the traditional smoke sauna, do like the Finnish do and partake in a beer around the indoor fire pit. More intrepid visitors can dunk themselves through a hole in the ice for an invigorating Baltic blast. The onsite restaurant offers a bespoke dining experience with sweeping views over the water.
Built in 1953 and housed in the basement of a nondescript apartment building in Helsinki’s Hermanni district, Sauna Hermanni hearkens back to the golden age of public saunas. Owner Mika Ahonen takes pride in the sauna’s retro-aesthetic — wood-paneled walls are decorated with vintage posters and '50s memorabilia — and its loyal patronage. Bathers arrive regularly after work or school to relax in separate men’s and women’s saunas, play board games, or lounge on the outdoor patio with sausages and a beer.
Nestled in the woods about five-kilometers from the city center, Kaurilan is reminiscent of Finland’s traditional log cabin saunas. Owner Saara Lehtonen is passionate about maintaining the integrity of the sauna culture and strives to create an atmosphere of peace and tranquility for her guests. Handmade linen towels, candles, and body products enhance the experience.
Part of Finnair’s Scandi-chic premium lounge (non-business class customers can purchase three hours of access for 48 euro) this spa-like oasis in the middle of Helsinki airport offers weary travelers the opportunity to steam away stress. Several private shower suites stocked with plush towels and bath products are also available. Post-schvitz, relax with complimentary champagne until it’s time to board.