To say that Finland has a love affair with the sauna would be putting it mildly. There's roughly one sauna for every five people in this chilly northern nation, or well over a million hot wooden rooms in which to work up a sweat and scourge yourself with birch branches.
In generations past, the Finnish sauna was not simply a place of pleasure and pain. It was the alpha and omega of town life, where women delivered babies, bodies were prepared for burial, the sick were treated and meat was smoked as surprising as all of that may be to those of us used to thinking of saunas as spartan, clinical places. But while many of the sauna's earliest uses are off limits today, its central role in Finnish society hasn't changed much. In the capital Helsinki, the locals repair to saunas for everything from daiquiris (check out the famous Sauna Bar, www.saunabar.fi, for a new definition of casual dress codes) to doing the laundry (Café Tin Tin Tango, www.tintintango.info, offers a coin-op Laundromat, café and sauna in one).
It might not make sense to detox before lapping up that steak and Scotch, but sauna first, party after is very much the etiquette at venues like Baker's, www.ravintolabakers.com, a restaurant cum sauna cum nightclub where you can book two hours in a private lounge with an eight-person sauna at around $14 a head. Bigger groups should head to the Eatz restaurant, www.eatz.fi, where the upstairs sauna holds 25, comes with a minibar and rents for about $28 a head, again for two hours. Reservations are essential at both establishments.
If heat and heavy meals sound counterintuitive to you, what about bowling? Though nearly all of Helsinki's bowling alleys have saunas (but of course), the Bowling Center Finland, www.varaarata.com, is well-situated for the traveler about 200 m from the central railway station and its 12-person sauna has a window that looks right onto the lanes. Book ahead for a 90-minute session for around $200.
Naturally, there are more conventional ways to enjoy the steamy side of Helsinki. Traditional saunas are available in the private wooden cabins at Uunisaari, www.uunisaari.com, situated on a small island near the city center. They could be just the thing after a long day's sightseeing. In fact, given its prominence in the culture, sitting in a sauna could be construed as sightseeing in itself. How's that for a worthy excuse to strip off?
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