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The Finnish people are an open-minded lot for whom public nudity is mundane and an everyday occurrence. This is because they’ve made the sauna an intrinsic part of their culture. It’s as cold as a murderous fridge magnet most days, so to keep their circulation going, Finns try to duck into a sauna as often as possible – and obviously they have to be as naked as the day they were born to maximise the heat’s healing effects.

Many apartment buildings have communal saunas used by the residents, while larger homes have their own personal ones. If you’re visiting though, these residential saunas are useless, so you need to make use of the public ones, and luckily Helsinki is home to a remarkable famous watery idyll that opened in 1928 and is recognised as a Finnish icon.

The Yrjonkadun Swimming Hall is hidden away in the very centre of Helsinki. The entrance at the end of a small alleyway seems subdued, even more so when upon entering you’re given a number as if you’re waiting to see a bank manager.

The small entrance room was not designed for the inevitable queues. “How long will I have to wait?” you ask. “Nobody knows,” shrugs the receptionist in Finnish deference. Either way, make sure you get yourself a ticket for the second floor access for the full experience. After your number is called, you will be allowed to head upstairs to a new world.

You might not understand Finnish, but just look at the place!

You’ll be given a towel, a bathrobe and a cloth (for sitting on in the steam room), and be shown to your own private cabin. The cabins are arranged on the mezzanine floor of a spectacular art-deco swimming pool. Between columned arches are circular tables with menus, so you can just sit around and eat and drink – not just snacks and water, but full meals and champagne.

The hall’s policy of having separate days for men and women mean two things: if you feel shy being naked around the opposite sex, you can feel free and liberated here; and secondly, some people will feel very liberated. Most people swim in the pool downstairs naked, for example. But it’s not complete bedlam – the pool is arranged into lanes for swimmers of varying skill. Upstairs, you’ll find the steam room and two types of sauna – wood and electric. The steam room is the smallest but very popular so it’s sometimes standing-room-only – don’t forget to bring your cloth in case you do get a seat, either way. The two saunas are much more spacious, particularly the wooden one, which boasts a large wood oven and smells like an actual forest fire.

Yrjonkadun featured in this music video by Darude (Don’t worry, they don’t actually play house music in there)

Yrjonkadun is the peak of decadence, but if you’d prefer roughing it a bit, seek out Kotiharju in the Kallio district where the single wood sauna is graced by Spartan concrete seats, moustachioed pensioners lashing themselves with laurel leaves, and a white-haired and jaded older lady in the shower room who upon request will give you an authentic scrub down.

Nature lovers can alternatively take the number 730 bus from the centre of the city to Kuusijarvi – there they can experience a traditional smoke sauna on the edge of a lake.

You can even visit Kuusijarvi in winter when the lake’s frozen over

On the other hand, if you’re looking for something less naked, such as a family-friendly swimming pool with slides, then take the metro to the northeast of Helsinki to find the Itakeskus Swimming Hall – it’s hidden deep underground and looks like a Bond villain’s ice cave.

If you want to know more about Finland’s sauna culture, and indeed a bit about the Finnish people themselves, try watching the award-winning Steam of Life documentary from 2010. It’s both funny and moving. You can watch the trailer here:




Featured image by Visit Finland

About the author

Adam ZulawskiAdam is a freelance writer and Polish-to-English translator. He blogs passionately about travel for Cheapflights and runs Download his free e-book about Poland's capital after it was almost completely destroyed by the Nazis: 'In the Shadow of the Mechanised Apocalypse: Warsaw 1946'

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