Cross country skiers pass a steam sauna in Urho Kekkonen Nationalpark in Finnish Lapland. The Finnish love of saunas is well known – the word "sauna" is Finnish – and there are 2million saunas for 5million inhabitants.
Finland – Been There

Taking the ice lake challenge in Helsinki

Photo by Norbert Eisele-Hein

Finland – Been There Taking the ice lake challenge in Helsinki

In a country with lots of wood for fires and long winters, when open water freezes over, it is perhaps not surprising that the sauna became a national institution in Finland.

Kieran Meeke
Kieran Meeke Travel Writer

An invite to a Helsinki sauna is one I know I should not decline, despite any misgivings about not knowing the etiquette. The first barrier to overcome is the fact that total nakedness is the norm as I am in an all-male group. The experience is about total cleanliness, and you don’t wear your bathing suit in the bath or shower. The atmosphere inside has a spirituality side to it that reminds me of a church. Conversation is muted, with long periods of silence, and controversial topics are avoided.

I emerge from the sauna to dive into an ice-cold lake; going in slowly is not an option. The first plunge is the hardest but it soon becomes a refreshing escape from the heat as I take the advice of my new Finnish friends and go for three hot and cold cycles. Afterwards, I feel cleansed in both body and mind.

Finland averages one sauna for every household, with around three million for a population of five million. Earlier generations were often even born in one as the warmest and most hygienic place in the home. Finns now average one sauna a week, with Saturday being the traditional day, and even more on holidays. No wonder “sauna” is the only Finnish word most people know in the English language.

Looking for a great hotel in Helsinki? Here's the one recommended by Jan, a frequent traveler to the city!

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