Saunas are increasingly becoming an essential part of many people’s regular routines. They’re a great way to relax and unwind, whether after a workout or a busy week in the office.
But with so many different types of saunas out there, the choice can be confusing. One of the many nationalities with their own sauna traditions are the Swedes. And we’re going to tell you what makes a Swedish sauna different from the rest.
So step this way for 17 facts about a Swedish sauna!
Swedish Sauna Facts
1. The sauna tradition dates back centuries
While Finland is known as the home of the sauna, its Scandinavian neighbor has almost as long a tradition. The sauna – known in Swedish as “bastu” – is thought to have originated in the 5th century.
The first saunas were hollows in the slopes of mountains. Inside you’d find a simple stove with hot stones. Water would be poured on these stones to produce steam and increase the humidity.
Over time, saunas became more sophisticated affairs. The Industrial Revolution saw them housed in wooden buildings with iron stoves. The high temperatures meant they remained a largely sterile environment. As a result, they quickly became the standard place for mothers to give birth.
2. Saunas were once outlawed in Sweden
But despite their long history, things haven’t always been easy for sauna loving Swedes.
Back in the eighteenth century, saunas were viewed by the authorities as being hotbeds of sin! They were seen as a health concern, where syphilis could be spread. So it was that saunas were banned. Officially, the ban remains in place to this day.
In practical terms, however, it made no difference. The Swedes continued to enjoy their saunas, and that’s still the case today. In fact, for many tourists, a Swedish sauna is a key part of the holiday experience.
3. Saunas are a popular way to spend time – but not as popular as they are in Finland
Most Swedes love a sauna, but they’re not as fanatical about them as their neighbors, the Finns. Whereas for most Finns, a sauna is enjoyed at least once a week, for Swedes, it’s usually less frequent.
About half of Swedes use a sauna once a year. And about 40 percent go a few times a year. It’s generally seen as a pleasant way to relax after a visit to the gym, or while on a spa break.
4. The modern Swedish sauna usually uses electricity
Today, saunas in Sweden are usually heated by electricity. That’s particularly the case in more densely populated urban areas, where burning other fuels could impair the air quality.
But in rural areas, wood-fueled saunas can still be found. And for many Swedes, this is the superior sauna experience. It’s also the perfect way to unwind after a day of hiking or other outdoor activities.
5. You can vary the temperature
A key part of the sauna experience is, of course, that it’s hot. But it is possible to vary quite how hot it is. You can do this in a couple of different ways.
The first is to throw water onto the heater. This will immediately evaporate as steam, raising the temperature.
It will also feel much hotter inside the sauna, because the air will be more humid. With more moisture already in the air, your sweat evaporates more slowly. And that means your body cools down more slowly too.
The second option is to sit higher up inside the sauna. Most saunas will have benches on at least two different levels. And because hot air rises, it will be much warmer on the upper benches.
6. There’s an etiquette around using water in the sauna
We’ve seen that adding water to the coals is one way to raise the temperature inside the sauna. But because that changes the environment for everyone, there is an etiquette associated with this.
If you’re in a public sauna with other users, it’s considered polite to ask before adding water. This is quite different to a German sauna. Here, it’s the job of a member of staff, the saunameister or Sauna Master, to add the water to the coals.
Some public saunas, however, will have a ritual similar to the German version. If that’s the case, the times when it will take place will usually be advertised outside the sauna.
If you find yourself in a sauna with a saunameister whipping up the steam, try not to leave while it’s happening. It’s considered bad form to open the door and let out the heat.
7. You don’t have to be naked …
Lots of Swedish people will use the sauna naked, but it’s not essential. Many public saunas will be either single sex, or will have specified times for use by men and women.
If you’re in a mixed sauna, it’s generally expected that you’ll go in naked but with a towel wrapped around you. But expectations can vary from place to place. In some cases, people will wear swimwear. This usually takes the form of trunks for men and bikinis for women.
If in doubt, ask for advice at reception before you go in.
8. … But any nudity is strictly non-sexual!
Nudity is seen as a natural state of affairs in Sweden, with nothing sexual about being naked in a sauna. Families and groups of friends will often take saunas together. There are, however, some different attitudes, with younger people generally less likely to use the sauna naked.
If you do find yourself in a sauna with a bunch of naked Swedes, make sure you don’t stare! Ogling other people’s bodies is considered the height of bad manners. Even if it’s the product of shock, you may find yourself on the end of a stern telling off.
9. Towels are essential …
Whether or not you choose to go into a sauna naked, you’ll need to take a towel. It’s considered essential to hygiene to sit on one whilst you’re in the sauna.
In a similar vein, make sure you shower before you enter the sauna. If there aren’t facilities to do that, you’ll usually find there’s a lake or other water source nearby. Take a dip in that instead – but be prepared for it to be pretty cold!
10. … But sauna brooms aren’t
If you’re familiar with Finnish or Russian saunas, you may have come across the sauna broom. This is a bundle of twigs, usually birch, with which sauna users gently tap their skin.
There are various explanations for this odd practice, amongst them opening the pores, helping the circulation and imparting essential oils to the skin.
But whatever the reason, the Swedes are having none of it! You won’t usually find a sauna broom in a Swedish sauna. If you want to bring your own, there’s nothing to stop you – but be prepared for some odd looks!
11. Beer is considered the sauna drink of choice
It’s generally not a good idea to mix alcohol and saunas. The heat works to dehydrate your body, and alcohol dehydrates it even more. Plus, if you’ve over-indulged, you’re less likely to be able to tell when you’re getting too hot.
Unfortunately, no-one seems to have told the Swedes this!
Having a cold beer or two is seen by many Swedes as an essential part of the sauna experience. But note, this is only the case in privately owned saunas. You won’t be able to take alcohol into a public leisure center or spa.
12. The isvak is the place to cool off
As with most sauna traditions, Swedes alternate the heat of the sauna with cold water. This sometimes takes extreme forms, as with the isvak.
An isvak is a hole in a frozen pond or lake. The idea is to emerge from the sauna and leap straight in while your skin is still steaming.
But be warned: as you’d imagine, the water is icy cold. This is not a good idea if you’re not in perfect health. If you want to try it out but worry the shock may be too much, waiting for 10 minutes can be a good compromise. That will enable your body to cool slightly before encountering the freezing water.
13. Sweden is home to a floating sauna
If you like the idea of a bracing dip after the heat, a floating sauna could be the perfect answer. Travel to Swedish Lapland and you’ll find the Arctic Bath Hotel. Here, a series of floating saunas surround a spot in the river. Step out of the heat and you can jump straight in.
And if you’re in Lapland, you can also try out a traditional wood fueled sauna at the Lapland Guesthouse. It’s the perfect location to sit back and relax while you hope to spot the Northern Lights.
14. Some public saunas are free
A sauna is considered a luxury in many parts of the world. In areas of Sweden, however, you can take one for free.
If you find yourself in Gothenburg, check out the Svettekörka in the harbor at Frihamnen. This translates as “sweat church” and it was created as part of a new development of the area. The striking building houses a sauna that you can use completely free of charge. It’s open all year round too.
Even if you don’t find a free sauna, the cost of using a public one is pretty low. Visit a sauna at a swimming pool and you’ll typically pay between 50 and 90 krona. That’s between about 6 and 10 US dollars.
15. Sweden has its own Sauna Academy
As well as a wide range of saunas, Sweden has its very own Sauna Academy. It’s based in the town of Kukkolaforsen and its mission is to raise awareness and promote sauna culture.
The Academy does this through a range of activities, including an annual competition for Sauna Promoter of the Year. It’s also active on social media, hosts international conferences and issues regular newsletters and articles.
The Academy even runs a National Sauna Day! This takes place every year on the second Saturday in June.
16. Saunas are important for elf and safety
Although saunas are a valued part of Swedish culture, they’re not as central to life as they are in Finland. In Finland, saunas also have a spiritual significance. Many Finns will use the sauna the day before they go to church.
But saunas also have a place in myths and folklore. According to Finns, the sauna is inhabited by a creature called the saunatonttu. This is an elf whose job it is to take care of the sauna. That includes punishing any users who don’t abide by sauna etiquette!
Traditionally, the sauna was sometimes turned on just for the saunatonttu. And now and again, food and drink were left outside the sauna for him too.
The Swedes take a more pragmatic approach to saunas. There’s no equivalent to the saunatonttu. And the only drink in a sauna is likely to be a beer consumed by a Swede!
17. Today, some saunas are multipurpose
The popularity of saunas in Sweden has waxed and waned over the years. Once banned, they became very popular in the nineteenth century. Villages all over Sweden built their own saunas. And many housing developments were built with a sauna for each apartment.
But by the 1970s, they had fallen out of favor once more. Today, you’ll find some people with saunas in their homes who use them for creative purposes. Whilst they’re no longer seen as the ideal location to give birth, they are frequently used for drying laundry!
Ready for your Swedish sauna?
That brings us to the end of our look at 17 facts about a Swedish sauna! We hope you’ve enjoyed learning more about its traditions and etiquette.
If you want to try out a sauna, there are plenty of places throughout Sweden to do so. And if you’re not sure about the dress (or “undress”) code, just ask the receptionist before you go in. They’ll be happy to guide you on what’s expected.
We hope you enjoy soaking up the heat!