Fun fact: "Sauna" is the one of the only Finnish words to make it into the English language. (Sadly, kalsarikännit, the Finnish word for drinking alone in your underwear, hasn't made the jump to common usage.) In Finland, the word is used often—the country has two million saunas, all the more impressive when you consider there are only five million Fins. As if that wasn’t enough heat, every March, Helsinki celebrates Sauna Day, when families open up their home saunas to visitors, and pop-up heated tents appear around the city for communal steams.
The wooden rooms of dry, hot air permeate the country for a couple reasons: Devotees claim regular usage can cure everything from Alzheimer’s to acne. And in addition to their alleged health benefits, saunas also act as a societal glue. There’s some truth to the adage that Fins don’t talk until they hit the sauna—it’s hard to be guarded when you’re letting it all hang out. (Literally.)
Speaking of, levels of nudity vary wildly from sauna to sauna, but generally at gender-segregated saunas, you're required to be nude, and towels are only to be sat on. (The Fins view sweating in bathing suits or any fabric as unhygienic.) Mixed-gender saunas do require bathing suits, unless they're private parties, where presumably everyone involved is happy to steam nude together.
The nation's capital, Helsinki, is rife with saunas, and no trip to the city would be complete without spending some time in one, or two, or a dozen. Conveniently, many are located near or within other must-see attractions. From steam rooms with a view to the strangest corporate advertising ever, here’s where to hit up during your Helsinki sauna crawl.
Because there are just some things that only make sense in Finland, in 2016, Helsinki became home to the world’s only sauna ferris wheel. For 240 euros per hour for four people (with additional hours at half price), you get a private lounge kitted out with a hot tub, unlimited rotations (just radio the operator when you need a break), and serious Instagram bragging rights.
Because one can never have enough swimming options, last year Helsinki opened Allas Sea Pool, a swimming hole located dockside near Market Square, and within eyeshot of the Presidential Palace. In addition to taking dips in the warm lap pool and the sea water pool, Allas offers three different saunas, both gender-segregated and mixed. Pro tip: schedule your visit around the Wednesday night stretching and wine class, which—as the name indicates—means the golden era of athletics is finally upon us.
Burger King is inexplicably very popular in Finland. There’s even an outpost on the ferry that runs between Helsinki and Tallinn, Estonia, and a prominent franchise in the city’s central station built around an original mural. But if you stop by the location at Mannerheimintie 12 with a spare 250 euros (for three hours), you can order your Whopper with a side of steam. Yes, this is the world’s only Burger King-branded sauna (an institution you didn’t even know you needed), where everything from the towels to the bench in the locker room is decked out in the chain’s iconic blue and red. And, yes, we checked—they do have crowns, and your sauna meal really does taste better while wearing them.
For only seven euro, you can spend two hours in Lähteen, Helsinki’s oldest public sauna, which is located waterside in the picturesque Töölö district. At the bottom of the hill. Directly below a former mental institution-turned-arts bazaar. Next to a military cemetery. Terrifying. And pretty. And yet…still kinda terrifying.
Located off the coast of Helsinki is Suomenlinna island, a former Russian stronghold, current UNESCO World Heritage site, and very popular year-round day trip. Whether or not the island is haunted is an ongoing debate. Be sure to ask one of its 800 residents.
Steps from the ferry dock is Bastion Bistro, an all-purpose restaurant built into a historic barracks building constructed in 1892. In the back of the restaurant there’s (naturally) a sauna. Rent out the forest-wallpapered lounge and follow up your steam with a beer—which loyalists claim is the proper beverage to truly help you embrace your post-steam bath bliss.
Saari is another island-based sauna worth checking out. Located on Uunisaari (aka “Oven Island”), just minutes by ferry from Helsinki pier, the gender-segregated saunas and accompanying restaurant are run by Nelly Juulia Kaaärkkäinen and Tuukka Mönttinen, and have been in the Kaaärkkäinen family for decades. To keep the stunningly photogenic island open to the public and infused with an egalitarian spirit, the couple has made several careful moves, including cutting their already cheap sauna prices in the morning hours (and offering pre-work porridge in the cafeteria), placing a bridge from the shore to the island during the winter, and only charging one euro for the ferry to the island during the summer months.
Looking like an accidental Tim Burton tribute, Löyly is in a fabulously odd-shaped building, by the Baltic Sea. Within its stripped exterior, the Avanto Architects–designed structure hosts three large saunas, one for private use, one steam, and one regular sauna. After you’ve sweated it out, jumped in the icy sea, and whipped yourself with birch branches (this is not considered sexual or weird, just great for your skin), be sure to take time to revel in your new-found chill. Zone out in front of the open fire in the lounge, or head to the connected restaurant for a glass of wine in this well-known party spot.