Sauna in Estonia — heat it up in 2023!

Source: Martin Mark

Sauna in Estonia — heat it up in 2023!

This year is set to be the year of Estonia's original social network — the sauna. When the stones heat up, Estonians open up. It is a place for sharing and connection, cleansing, and relaxing. It is the one social interaction in Estonia that is always better in real life than online. Visit Estonia in 2023 and celebrate the Year of the Sauna!

The history of sauna in Estonia

Medicinal baths and health resorts have been used in Estonia for more than 200 years, but Estonia's sauna tradition goes back even further — the first written records of sauna bathing date back to the 13th century! In the past, saunas were used as birthing rooms, as they were the cleanest room in the house, and as a place to attend to the dying or as a curative for the ill. They have also been used as smokehouses, which is how the smoke sauna tradition developed in southern Estonia.

Sauna is an ancient tradition that still plays an important role in Estonian culture.

Photo by: Mart Vares, Visit Estonia
When do you go to the sauna in Estonia?

Correct answer: whenever you want!

Spas and waterparks in Estonia have separate sauna centres. 

Photo by: Ken Oja, Visit Estonia

The sauna tradition is an important part of the country's identity even today. New households still build saunas first, and in many ways life revolves around the sauna. While most births and deaths no longer occur in the sauna, sauna is an important part of everyday life. You may still hear the phrase "Laupäev on saunapäev," which means "Saturday is sauna day."

Although sauna may seem like a winter activity, Estonians go all year round. Traditionally, sauna evenings take place on Thursdays, Saturdays, and the night before a major holiday — like on Christmas Eve, New Year's Eve, or on June 23rd, the night before Jaanipäev. However, there are always opportunities to go to the sauna — family gatherings and birthdays are celebrated with sauna. If you don't have a reason, inventing one is perfectly acceptable. When you visit Estonia, a trip to the sauna is the most "like a local" experience you can have.

What types of saunas are there in Estonia?

Find a hot sauna in Estonia!

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What is the proper sauna procedure?

A traditional Estonian sauna is usually a small wooden hut that stands at some distance from the main house on the property. However, you may also find a sauna in the basement or in a room adjoining the terrace. Many apartments even have a sauna next to the bathroom. Men and women often go to sauna separately and swimsuits are frowned upon, towels perhaps more tolerated.

Some preparation is required as the sauna has to be preheated. Wood saunas may take two to four hours, while electric saunas may heat up faster.

Sauna is for everyone, young and old, locals and visitors alike!

Photo by: Tõnu Runnel, Visit Estonia

The most important thing when going to the sauna is the steam, which stimulates sweating. Estonians have a word for this: leil, which means "the steam generated by pouring water onto hot rocks in a sauna." Leil has many benefits for those in need. It cleanses the skin and increases heart rate. When sitting in the sauna, you might feel it is easier to breathe and move. The heat does its magic by expanding your bronchi and relaxing the joints. With leil comes viht, the famous sauna whisk. Typically made from birch branches, a brisk beating of the body raises your temperature and acts like a massage while mixing the layers of air inside the sauna.

After you heat up, it's time to cool down. Saunas are often built next to the sea, a river, a lake, or a pond, so you can jump into the water to cool down. During winter, brave sauna-goers will cut a hole in the ice before taking a dip or even rolling around in the snow. The rapid temperature change stimulates blood flow and strengthens the immune system. If that sounds too bracing, you can stand in the cool air outside the sauna while enjoying a cool drink.

Step into a sauna that has no chimney...

Estonia's UNESCO-listed smoke sauna tradition

Smoke sauna has always been an important part of everyday life in Võromaa, in South Estonia. Like a traditional sauna, the Estonian smoke sauna usually consists of a small house heated with wood in a brick oven. However, the smoke sauna has no chimney through which the smoke can escape. Instead, it circulates inside the room while the sauna is heating. Before the actual sauna session begins, the fire is allowed to die, and most of the smoke is released from the room.

In 2014, UNESCO included the smoke sauna phenomenon in its Intangible Cultural Heritage list. Nowhere is it upheld more devoutly than in Old Võromaa, especially at Mooksa Farm. The hosts at Mooksa Farm are Eda and her partner Urmas who have the passed-down knowledge of this timeless practice in their blood.

The smoke sauna ritual consists of many stages that must be followed carefully. But above all, you must be prepared to place life on hold, let go of all worldly worries, and allow yourself the time to be refreshed, invigorated, and healed. Clothed only in a felt hat, you'll enter the sacred hot room, where you are met by the heady aroma of burning wood. The steam created by throwing water on heated stones is said to clear your mind, root you to the earth below, and connect you with your ancestors. Soon, you'll rub yourself with ground plants and salt, followed by the 'whisking', when you'll beat your body with birch boughs to exfoliate skin and stimulate circulation. Then, you'll plunge into the icy waters nearby to cool down and rinse off.

Discard your clothes, inhibitions and cares in Estonia's unique and timeless smoke sauna.

Photo by: Ekvilibrist Estonian Saunas, Visit Estonia

Read more about the Estonian smoke sauna

Võro smoke sauna: practical and spiritual

The Year of the Sauna in Estonia

The year 2023 is dedicated to sauna in Estonia. With the Year of the Sauna, the Estonian Rural Tourism Organization aims to educate and honor Estonia's sauna tradition by sponsoring events throughout the year. They will highlight sauna customs, specific products, local communities, and entrepreneurs in the sauna industry. The year is already off to a great start — Anna Hints just won the directing award for her film "Smoke Sauna Sisterhood" at the Sundance Film Festival in the United States! If you're not able to join us in Estonia this year, then you can watch the film and get a virtual sauna experience.

Special events for the Year of the Sauna

The European Sauna Marathon in Otepää, the winter capital of Estonia, is the first major event of the year. Otepää has hosted the Sauna Marathon for over ten years. Teams from Estonia and all over the world receive a map of saunas to find. After visiting each sauna, contestants return to the start within the timeframe for a chance to win and vote for their favorite sauna in several different categories.

Operators of the individual saunas try their best to win votes creatively — some organize karaoke and live bands, while others offer drinks, and snacks smoked in the sauna.

The European Sauna Marathon takes place in Otepää every year.

Photo by: Merike Toomet, Visit Estonia

More sauna events will be organized throughout the year. The calendar may change, but the following events have already been scheduled:

January 1st: Open Sauna Day
February 17 in Tõrvandi and 18 in Otepää: European Sauna Marathon
March 11: Sauna Festival on the Onion Road
June: National Sauna Day
June 17: Kihnu SaunafEST
August 5-6: Estonian Sauna Culture Days in Narva-Jõesuu
September 23: Hiiumaa's Big Sauna Day

Check the Sauna 2023 website before your trip to get the most accurate event details.

An innovative sauna booking system is currently under development. Typically, sauna rentals are meant for groups of friends or family members, as the cost is prohibitive for one or two people. With the booking system, you will be able to book a single ticket for a sauna experience (e.g., sauna for 6 women) and be surprised by the company.