Fill your heart with the steam of Saunas in Helsinki
Johanna Vilhunen February 12, 2014

You will find sauna is a heart of Finland. It’s pumping in our blood, it’s written into the Finnish DNA. Almost every Finn has their favourite saunas. They can be found at houses, flats, summer cottages, swimming halls, spas, boats, busses, made out of ice, etc. Imagination has no limits when Finns are building their saunas. It is a place for both physical and mental purification.

Photo: Johanna Vilhunen
Photo: Johanna Vilhunen

As people spread into the wild forests of Finland, sauna was the first building they built. Saunas were used for sleeping, storage and giving birth because it was the cleanest room in the house. It also was a place where the bodies of the deceased were washed, and it still is a place for various purification rituals before marriage. There is a saying: “If a sick person is not cured by tar, spirits or sauna, then they will die”. A sauna has been known as a poor man’s pharmacy.

Generally you go to the sauna naked if the genders are separated. In public unisex saunas swimming suits are usually required. As you take off your clothes you also strip off your titles. There is no one way to take a sauna but there are certain sauna habits.

Arlan sauna9
Photo: Johanna Vilhunen

A quick sauna etiquette:

  • Sauna warms up approximately ½-1 hours before bathing
  • Starting heat is approximately 50-70°C
  • The temperature can rise to 100°C or higher.
  • Remember to drink enough water or other nonalcoholic drinks when you are bathing in a sauna.
  • In the public saunas you will usually find a sign for whether you are allowed to use a swimming suit or not
  • It is wise to ask your partners if it’s ok, before throwing more water on the stones.
  • A bundle of fresh brich twigs, in finnish ‘vasta’ or ‘vihta’ is used to whip ones back, thighs, stomach. In this part you can ask help from others.
  • Sauna is a place for relaxation and for some people it is almost like a meditative experience. It can also be a place for deep conversations.
  • The combination of hot and cold completes the sauna experience. You can have a break from the hotness of sauna by cooling off outside for a while. In the wintertime it’s also customary to roll naked in a pile of snow or to have a quick dip or even a swim in ice cold water.
Arlan sauna
Photo: Johanna Vilhunen

Sauna Arla

I recently visited three public saunas in Helsinki. One of them is a old traditional sauna called Sauna Arla, which has bathed the locals since 1929. It is located near the city center of Helsinki, in the Kallio district. Sauna Arla welcomes you from the street with its old gate, even though the sauna itself is located in the courtyard. The tunnel leading to the courtyard is decorated with nice graffitis that depict the Helsinki that used to be.

Arlan sauna7
Photo: Johanna Vilhunen

Sauna Arla’s staff and its decor give a cozy atmosphere right from opening the door. A small, cute kiosk sells nonalcoholic drinks, small salty snacks and bundles of birch twigs for bathing. They also rent towels so you don’t need to take one with you. Men and women have separate saunas. The women’s dressing room sets the mood for relaxing bathing with its delightful colors and old-fashioned design. The gas-heated huge stove covers one corner in the sauna and it definitely gives a smooth and steady steam. One must be careful when throwing water on the stove, since the steam comes out fast and can cause burns. Luckily the scoop used to throw water has a long handle and with that it’s easy enough to throw water on the stones safely.

Photo: Johanna Vilhunen
Photo: Johanna Vilhunen
Photo: Johanna Vilhunen
Photo: Johanna Vilhunen

There is a nice sheltered bench outside to cool off. The combination of the hot and cold completes the sauna experience. Including me, there were only two other hardcore sauna goers at the same time but the sauna can host even 30 people. I was tipped off to bring my own sandals, which are useful for taking quick breaks outside (the ground is freezing cold in the winter) but they are not mandatory.

Photo: Johanna Vilhunen
Photo: Johanna Vilhunen
Photo: Johanna Vilhunen

Arla’s sauna offers cupping therapy and massage. Cupping therapy is an old art in which the therapist breaks the skin and generates suction with a special cup, releasing blood into it. Cupping therapy promotes blood flow and may relax. There is also a way of cupping that doesn’t involve breaking the skin, that’s called dry cupping. I didn’t try these services, book them separately.

Sauna Hermanni

Sauna Hermanni is located in the similarly named Hermanni-area in Helsinki.The sauna was established in the 1950’s. When you step into the old building – where the sauna resides – you almost feel like going to someone’s home. The guy at the reception made the place feel even more home-like with his hospitality. Everything was reminiscent of the 50’s, for me at least.

Photo: Johanna Vilhunen
Photo: Johanna Vilhunen

Sauna Hermanni’s kiosk sells nonalcoholic drinks, low-alcohol-beer and delicious sauna snacks like goat cheese toasts, sausages and a finger food plate including olives, cheese, garlic, jalapeno and pickles. There are also bundles of birch- and maple-leaf twigs for sale and towels for rent. There is a cute hatch to the kiosk in the womens dressing room from where you can order some food or drinks. Additionally, there’s a small smoking- / library- / internet-room, where you can entertain yourself while waiting your partner or friends. Men’s and women’s saunas are separated.

Photo: Johanna Vilhunen
Photo: Johanna Vilhunen

Sauna Hermanni’s traditional sauna has wooden walls, ceiling and seats, giving a cosy feeling. The electric heated sauna stove gives a good, strong and steady steam. The women’s sauna can host 20 people and men’s sauna even 30 people. Sauna Hermanni offers also massage and cupping therapy. The sauna organizes different kinds of culture events like sauna discos and a poetry-event. The next poetry-event is on 27th of February and the next sauna disco on 28th of February.

Photo: Johanna Vilhunen
Photo: Johanna Vilhunen

It is easy to get there with tram 6 from the central railway station or tram number 8 from Jätkänsaari-area. Hermanni’s sauna is located in the courtyard of the building.

Kotiharju’s sauna

Kotiharju’s sauna is one of the three traditional neighborhood saunas in Helsinki. It is located just a stone’s throw from the city center of Helsinki. The citizens have been bathing there since 1928. The wooden heated stove works as a heart of the sauna, giving a smooth and steady steam for the bathers. The kiosk sells some nonalcoholic drinks, small snacks and bundles of birch twigs for bathing. There are also towels for rent so you don’t need to take one with you.

Kotiharjun sauna3
Photo: Johanna Vilhunen

Kotiharju’s sauna has three saunas; separate public saunas for women and men and a private electric heated sauna for groups and families. The sauna offers all kinds of refreshing and relaxing services like massage, cupping, manicure, pedicure and energy treatment. There are also zone therapy and acupressure available. On tuesdays, fridays and saturdays you can get a complete body-wash-service from a scrubber between 4pm and 7pm. The relaxation knows no limits since you don’t even need to wash yourself in this sauna. I’ll have to try this one day!

It is easy to become absorbed in people’s stories in the sauna, even when you cool off yourself outside, right next to the Harjuntorinkatu-street. At the same time – while you are sitting covered only by your towel – you can see people walking in the street on their way home, to work, market, parties or wherever. That is something to experience! The whole sauna experience gives you a chance to stop and seize the day.

Sauna Arla
Kaarlenkatu 15
Open Wed-Sun 14-20
Tel. +358 9 719 218

Sauna Hermanni
Hämeentie 63
Open Mon-Fri 15-20 Sat 14-18 (19)
Tel. +358 9 701 2424

Kotiharju’s sauna
Harjuntorinkatu 1
Open Tue-Sun 14-20 (21:30)
Tel. +358 9 753 1535