WEEKEND: Sauna Day – Finland’s Steam Of Life

As Helsinki's saunas open their doors, three old fashioned saunas are a reminder that the capital's traditional sauna culture endured for decades.

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Sauna towels waiting for customers at Sauna Hermanni in Helsinki / Credit: @saunahermanni Instagram

Saunas in the Finnish capital city region are throwing open their doors and firing up the coals this weekend.

Sauna Day is a celebration of a treasured Finnish tradition that aims to generate conversations, new connections, a new lease of life for seldom-used saunas and of course, lots of hot steam.

There’s an estimated 2 million to 3.3 million saunas in Finland – for a population of 5.4 million – and a few dozen in the capital city region will be open on 10th March. Some are already full, others you need to book, and some you can just show up and enjoy the sauna steam – known as löyly in Finnish.

Inside Helsinki’s futuristic wooden Löyly sauna / Credit: @loylyhelsinki Instagram

New Saunas On The Scene

The Sauna Day initiative highlights a resurgence in Helsinki’s sauna culture. In recent years three fancy new purpose-built saunas have dominated media coverage and captured the attention of tourists and the public: Kultuurisauna in Hakaniemi which opened in 2013; the futuristic wooden Löyly sauna, bar and restaurant complex in Hernesaari; and Allas Sea Pool next to the Market Square – which both opened in 2016.

But it’s a myth to think there was no enduring public sauna culture in Helsinki until these recent high profile venues arrived on the scene.

Fresh birch leaves at Sauna Arla / Credit: Kimmo Helistö, Arla Sauna

Kallio’s Sauna Duo

In Kallio neighbourhood, Kotiharju Sauna started life in the early 1930s as the communal sauna for the imposing stone apartment building above. By the end of the decade it had morphed into a public sauna, the perfect place to sweat out the stress of the day on the way home from work. Now, locals and tourists mix in the separate saunas for men and women, and drink beer outside on the street to cool down.

Just around the corner from Kotiharju is Arla Sauna which has been welcoming guests since the end of the 1920s. The white tile interior and part-rugged, part-artsy vibe make it a unique location to enjoy an authentic local sauna experience. Browse the photograph gallery in between sauna sessions, or you might be lucky enough to catch a pop-up gig by patrons wrapped in towels playing instruments.

Vintage interiors at Hermanni Sauna / Credit: @saunahermanni Instagram

Bringing Back A 1950s Experience 

Mika Ahonen and his daughters bought Sauna Hermanni five years ago, and set about restoring the venue to its full 1950s glory.

“We took the decorations back to the 50s” Ahonen tells News Now Finland.

“There were nothing inside, just a very plain public sauna. So we decorated a little bit, and got wallpaper from the 1950s and furniture and food too”.

Mika’s attention to detail means you’ll find retro pictures and posters; bottles and nik-naks; old magazines and pendants, all contributing to the vintage vibe inside.

“It’s very common for people to come here to spend time after work, taking a few beers, and talking to others. It’s the atmosphere that makes the difference with these public saunas. When you come here, to take time. There is nothing to do! You don’t plan to do any exercise, you just spend time and take care of you” says Ahonen.

Sauna Hermanni owner Mika Ahonen and sauna dog Milo / Credit: @saunahermanni Instagram

Sauna Innovations

Not everything at Sauna Hermanni is anchored in a bygone era. They’ve introduced some innovations as well, like mixed male/female sauna sessions, and a sauna dog called Milo.

The mixed sauna takes place every Thursday as an experiment, but Mika concedes it’s not such a hit.

“If you want to come with your wife or girlfriend or friends you can, but it’s not very common. The guys are saying to me one day is okay, but not more, because it changes how you speak and feel around others” he says.

Milo the sauna dog has been much more popular however. The one-year-old Mini Pinscher is beloved by customers.

“Almost every day we have sauna dog Milo here, and he is always in sauna too” explains Mika.

“We both go to sauna almost every day. If it’s very crowded, I don’t take löyly after work, but mostly here we have quite a good amount of customers and I can go to sauna with Milo. He has been here one year and the customers like him very much!”

Sauna Hermanni is open Monday to Friday 15:00 to 20:00; and Saturdays 14:00 to 19:00 at Hämeentie 63 in east Helsinki’s Hermanni neighbourhood.