Here in Estonia we simply love our saunas… Sitting in the hot steam naked with your friends and time to time hitting each other with branches of birch trees – what’s not to like? It sounds simple and understandable for the locals, but is confusing for the visitors. So, here is a simple overview of everything you need to know about the sauna culture in Estonia.
1. Local honor the sauna
If you have seen how red people get from their face when sitting in hot sauna, then it is easy to imagine how Estonians would look like if you would say something inappropriate about Estonian sauna culture. Locals do not appreciate if someone suggests that sauna is only a Finnish thing. In reality, saunas are as popular, if not more popular, in Estonia than they are in Finland. People have saunas in central Tallinn apartments, in all public swimming pools, and in their cottages. Many go to sauna at least once a week, some go every day, and excuses for going vary from business meetings to family reunions.
2. The real way to go to sauna
The sauna procedure itself is simple. You stay in the hot 100°C sauna until you get “comfortably warm”. To cool yourself down, you either take a shower or sit in a cozy room in front of the sauna where you can have a cold drink or some snacks. People normally do at least 2-3 of these sauna rounds, but some can spend the entire evening in sauna, going in and out several times.
The perfect sauna experience would be in a small countryside house with a lake or a river nearby. Locals love to dip themselves into the water or jump into the snow or an ice hole in winter. That is not a joke – as part of the process of getting the sauna ready in winter is also making a hole in the ice. You need to break the ice to get to the water underneath which is freezing cold, especially after coming from a room of 100°C. If you don’t have a lake or ice hole nearby, taking a shower is also fine. After that – you go back to sauna to warm up again.
3. So…everyone is naked?
Yes. Or it depends… When men and women go to sauna separately then they are comfortable going without a towel or bathing suit. Sometimes you have the same in mixed saunas, which shows a very different approach to nudity than in some other cultures. If you don’t feel that confident, it is OK to have a bathing suit or a towel so you would not feel too exposed. Don’t be shy to ask – sauna is a place to relax and it is important that everyone feels comfortable.
4. There is not just one type of sauna in Estonia
If you visit some of the fancy spas around Tallinn they may have over 10 different types of saunas, for example steam sauna, infrared sauna, tropical sauna etc. There is also a more traditional type of sauna inherited from the ancient times – a smoke sauna. It is a sauna with no chimney as the smoke is only let out through a window or a hatch. Despite that, if the smoke sauna is prepared properly the air inside is light and easy to breathe. Traditionally, smoke sauna was a place to clean both body and soul and several customs were connected to the sauna tradition. Unfortunately, due to practicalities, this traditional sauna is losing popularity, giving way to the rise of Finnish-style sauna. Luckily, set of customs related to the smoke sauna culture from Võromaa – a region in southeast of Estonia with its own distinct dialect and traditions – has been added to the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
5. What do you do in sauna?
Normally there are 3-5 people going together, depending on the size of the sauna. It is a good place to talk about anything as everyone is relaxed and have taken time off from their busy lives. That is also why some people have business meetings in sauna – leave the stress out and talk things straight. You cannot hide anything in sauna and you need to trust each other to make everyone feel comfortable. The most important rule is to enter sauna quickly so that the heat would not escape the room – don’t stay at the door waiting for your friend or talk to someone outside the sauna. That would already breach the trust other people have put on you when they invited you to sauna.
6. Hit each other with branches?
It may sound crazy, but that is only because English does not have a word for it. In Estonian, the bunch of branches you use to hit each other or yourself with is called viht, the verb is vihtlema. The goal is not to hurt, but to stimulate your skin and your blood circulation. Using the fresh whisk from birch trees also gives out good aroma and the sound of the leaves hitting the skin is something very distinct for the sauna experience. It is something that we do here and that is part of Estonian sauna tradition, so let’s just embrace it.
Video by Bushcraft Estland about how to make a juniper sauna whisk yourself!
Not scared and want to try out? Check out the Bog Walk with Sauna Tour for a chance to try out the smoke sauna. Or, visit a tiny island off the coast of Tallinn on this Hiking and Hot Sauna at Prangli Island.