Discover how to sauna the Estonian way when you visit Tallinn

Enjoy a unique Estonian cultural lesson while relaxing inside a sauna — every Saturday in the Kalamaja district of Tallinn.

Estonia is known around the world for its innovations in the digital age — from Skype to e-Residency. But one of our very oldest innovations is still an important part of life here too: The sauna.

The origins of the sauna can be traced back to three simple discoveries by early humans in the stone age.

1. Fire can be controlled

To our ancestors, fire was once an entirely wild and frightening force that brought destruction. Learning how to tame the power of fire was the most important turning point in the cultural history of humans, enabling us to expand our activities, improve our diet, travel further and settle in new places.

There’s evidence that the control of fire started up to 1.7 million years ago, but it became widespread about 125,000 years ago.

2. Stones can store heat

After that, humans also discovered that stones have a special ability to absorb the power of the fire, much like a battery, and then slowly release the heat over a longer period of time. This is useful for keeping a small cave or structure heated without smoke.

There were two main methods for this. The first is to heat the stones on a fire outside then carefully transport them inside. The second is to light the fire beneath the stones inside then let the fire die before ventilating the smoke out and letting people in.

The second method is how a traditional smoke sauna is heated, like the one pictured here. These are still used across Estonia today.

3. Heated stones help create leil

Humans then discovered that pouring water onto those heated stones releases a powerful steam, known as leil in Estonian, which creates the ideal environment for bathing. This ultimately enables humans to absorb the power of fire themselves before emerging rejuvenated, usually with the help of cold water nearby to submerge in afterwards.

The oldest structure ever found that is likely to be a sauna dates back to 3,500 BC, although we have good reason to believe that the tradition go back much further.

Since those early discoveries, the way we design and use saunas has changed in many different ways through the ages, but the fundamental principles remain the same.

And thousands of years later, the sauna is still one of the best ways to spend a Saturday afternoon (which is the traditional day to go to the sauna in Estonia). So if you are visiting Tallinn then we’d like to invite you to join us.

How to sauna the Estonian way

We know many visitors to Estonia today are interested in learning about our sauna culture, but also that this can be a little tricky. The best Estonian saunas are in our homes and tend to be enjoyed in the company of family and friends — where it can take a while to get an invite.

Together with my partner, Anni Oviir, we write a lot about Estonian sauna culture — both here on our Estonian Saunas blog and for an upcoming book on the subject. We’re speaking with saunamasters, archeologists, historians, scientists, doctors, community activists and entrepreneurs to better understand the evolution of the sauna.

But we also believe that saunas don’t just belong in books or museums. The best way to preserve Estonian sauna culture is to keep going to the sauna and invite more people to come with us.

That’s why we opened our own homely smoke sauna in Tallinn, Rangi saun, last year which we now offer for special events.

When speaking with visitors there though, we realised that there are three things that many of them want with a sauna: A bit of friendly guidance, a deeper explanation about why we do the things we do, and new friends to enjoy the experience with — especially for those travelling as a couple or on their own.

So we’ve now teamed up with Heldeke — a lively new theatre, bar and sauna in the vibrant Kalamaja district of Tallinn — for a weekly event that anyone can join: How to sauna the Estonian way.

The title of our event shouldn’t be taken too seriously. For Estonians, the sauna is such a normal part of life that it’s a bit like offering classes on ‘how to shower’.

The most important thing is that visitors can enjoy the sauna in a welcoming environment and at their own pace, while learning new things about both the sauna and Estonian history and culture more broadly.

Yet we know some practises that seem normal to Estonians can open up a fascinating discussion with visitors, such as how we make those branch bundles (known as vihad) and what on earth we do with them inside the sauna.

We even provide a brief Estonian lesson. That’s partly because it’s interesting to visitors, but also because there simply aren’t commonly recognised English words for so many aspects of the Estonian sauna experience.

Language also shapes our ability to understand what we see. For example, by learning about the different Estonian names for sauna rooms (like eesruum, leiliruum, and pesuruum), it’s easier to understand that the sauna is so much more than just a hot room. It’s about cooling down as much as warming up and, perhaps most fundamentally, it’s about socialising.

Actually, I’ll let you into a secret. As the Finns managed to get ‘sauna’ into English, we’re now plotting to do the same with leil (sauna steam).

Why the sauna (or ‘saun’) is still important

“Does your country also have a sauna tradition?”

That’s the first question that we ask guests from around the world when they come to sauna with us in Estonia. People often say ‘no’, even though it usually doesn’t take long to find examples of local sauna-style traditions that were once widely practised in their own countries too.

The sauna (as most people know it) is based on the tradition rooted in the culture of Finno-Ugric peoples living around the Baltic Sea — like the Estonians. Sauna is the Finnish word, while the Estonians call it ‘saun’.

But those three stone age discoveries were not unique to our part of the world. When we say that the sauna is one of our oldest innovations, we’re talking about everyone. The word sauna is now an English word too and can refer more broadly to the different sweat bathing traditions that exist in many cultures.

There are sweat lodges in the Americas, ancient public steam baths across Europe and Asia, vapour baths in Africa, and Ottoman baths around the Mediterranean and Middle East. We even had a group of Scottish visitors recently who were unaware that Gaelic people across Ireland and Scotland had their own sweat lodges too — until relatively recently.

The legendary sauna researcher Mikkel Aaland once summed up his own research by explaining that “almost every people, at some time in their history, had devised, in one form or another, hot air or steam bathing”. By the way, his own fantastic book on the subject is freely available online here.

Anni and I are focused on researching Estonian saunas, but we’ve also travelled beyond our borders to better understand other sauna traditions too, like this Ottoman bath from the 10th century that we recently found in Spain.

I’m Estonian, but I was born in Britain not far from the prehistoric Stonehenge site, as well as a larger (yet lesser known) stone age site further up the river called Marden Henge.

That happens to be the location of the world’s oldest sweat lodge found so far, which I mentioned earlier is dated to about 3,500 BC.

The archeologists found the remains of a sturdy building there with ledges around the walls and a large stove taking up most of the space in the centre. The floor had been scorched, yet there was no evidence of heating material like coal or ash. Instead, this was found in a second stove outside the building, along with fragments of stones that were heated to very high temperatures. This indicated that the stones were heated there and carried inside, much like native American sweat lodges, although the building itself was not too dissimilar from an Estonian saun.

That doesn’t mean the Brits invented sweat bathing either. In fact, objects from across Europe were found in the area too, giving us clues to how ancient peoples were travelling and sharing knowledge.

The only thing more remarkable than the fact that saunas once existed everywhere is the fact that so few people are aware of this.

The problem is that we only know about the saunas that have survived — or have at least been sturdy enough to leave evidence lasting thousands of years. The earliest saunas in Estonia were said to be small man-made caves and some of the best saunas even today are simple constructions (like this one below), which won’t last much longer than the memory of those that use them.

The same is true for other sweat bathing traditions around the world, which could easily disappear from our Earth without a trace. Sweat lodges in the Americas are still built with minimal impact on the environment, reflecting the nomadic and resource-efficient nature of the people who use them, and those Gaelic sweat lodges are already on course for extinction because they can only stand for a couple of hundred years and are no longer used.

There are many different factors that can be blamed for the great forgetting of sweat bathing traditions around the world, but they all relate to some form of cultural collapse. History is written by the victors and apparently many of them weren’t fans of the sauna. Religion is most often blamed, but even the Enlightenment movement (with its emphasis on science and reason) had its own role in helping eradicate Europe’s communal sweat bathing culture, which it saw it as the vestiges of old world superstitions.

It takes thousands of years to learn how to build, heat and enjoy saunas, yet only a few generations to forget it all. In most parts of the world, that’s already happened.

Ironically, science is only now catching up with the beliefs of our ancestors that sweat bathing can benefit both the mind and body. The one health benefit that is perhaps most important though (with the clearest science behind it) is also the one that is often least appreciated. The sauna is the original social network — and arguably still the best. That’s more important than ever in a world in which too many people today feel lonely and disconnected from their communities.

That’s why the sauna is so special in Estonia and other parts of the world where it has existed continuously and positively shaped the lives of those who use them, as well as the wider history of our country in interesting ways.

The sauna pre-dates the birth of the Republic of Estonia (and indeed any nation state) by thousands of years. Possibly before our part of the world even became habitable after the last ice age, in fact. But what’s important is not who invented saunas or where (or even how to pronounce ‘sauna’ in English).

What’s important to us here is that the tradition has survived and is just as relevant to our modern lives as it was to our ancestors thousands of years ago.

This very Estonian sauna belongs to the founder of HUUM, a Tartu-based manufacturer of stylish sauna stoves.

You can understand a surprisingly large amount about our country by exploring how the designs, uses and traditions of saunas have evolved through the ages because the sauna has both shaped the story of Estonia and been shaped by the story of Estonia. And if you want to get to know more about Estonians themselves then the sauna is still one of the best places for us to open up — and not just through our pores.

Estonian saunas today

Estonia is now a free and highly entrepreneurial country that is open to the world again and this has opened up a new chapter in Estonia’s sauna history.

There are new opportunities for Estonians to innovate their saunas and share them with more people, both at home and abroad, and this is contributing to a resurgence in interest towards the sauna around the world and also enabling more people to learn about Estonia itself.

Estonians are now building new saunas in ever more weird and wonderful ways, like inside this New York fire rescue truck. The venue we use for our event, for example, was originally built as a brothel in Estonia’s more lawless 90s but has now been reclaimed as a sauna for all the community. (We assure you that it’s been thoroughly cleaned too).

Estonian companies are also developing innovative and stylish new sauna products for export around the world. HUUM makes arguably the most advanced sauna stoves in the world, Iglucraft even sold one of their saunas recently to David Beckham, and ÖÖD are developing mirrored sauna cabins that blend into nature.

There’s even now a popular Estonian drink called Sauna Session, which is made with real birch leaves so it actually tastes like a sauna (in a good way). It’s made by the Estonian craft beer producer Tanker, which is also now exporting them around the world. They even made a special version of it with Anni and I on the label for our own sauna!

Meanwhile, visits to Estonia have reached their highest ever records — with eight years of consecutive growth according to the latest stats from Visit Estonia.

As a consequence, Anni and I are inundated with media enquiries and try to host as many journalists as we can for saunas. We’ve recently had the opportunity to discuss Estonian saunas everywhere from the Boston Globe to EasyJet’s inflight magazine and prime time news programmes in the UK, Germany and Japan.

That’s just a fraction of the interest that there’s been in Estonia’s sauna culture more broadly. Mooska smoke sauna in Võromaa is one of the most frequently featured and deservedly so.

Estonia also hosts the European Sauna Marathon, which has grown from a local joke to an enormous annual event that attracts visitors from around the world.

Not to be confused with sauna competitions that encourage people to sweat it out for an unhealthy amount of time, the point of this event is just to let people see as many saunas as possible in one day so they know to come back and enjoy them properly another day. It now also attracts global media coverage.

The irony of the European Sauna Marathon is that it’s a competition that demonstrates what can be acheived when saunamasters and enthusiasts work together. Many of those who come to our own sauna events would otherwise not have the opportunity to visit a sauna at all, yet then are more likely to explore even more saunas afterwards, both old and new.

So the only real competition is ‘not going to the sauna’.

The great remembering of the sauna is now underway thanks to the work of Estonians, Finns, and a growing community of sauna enthusiasts around the world. Be part of our movement.

How to join us in the sauna!

How to sauna the Estonian way takes place every Saturday in Tallinn. Everyone is welcome, whether this is your first sauna or your thousandth, and whether you come as a group or a solo traveller.

Advanced booking is essential though at estoniansaunas.com, at least one hour before the event. And if you’ve joined Estonia as an ‘e-resident’ (which anyone can apply for at e-resident.gov.ee) then you can get a 10% discount by adding the discount code ERESIDENCY and showing your card on arrival.

The venue is Heldeke, an underground theatre, bar and sauna in the vibrant Kalamaja district, a short stroll from the Old Town. The address is: Tööstuse 13, 10413, Tallinn.

Simply bring your own towel (or rent one), flip flops (if you have them) and swimwear (optional).

The bar is well stocked with interesting Estonian drinks you are welcome to purchase, including a wide selection of alcohol-free options, and your first drink (of beer, cider or birch juice) is included. 

If you have any questions then email us at tere@estoniansaunas.com. Oh, and please do follow Estonian Saunas on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Finally, we also want to reach out to other companies serving tourists here in Estonia, including accommodation providers. We’d love to work with you to help more visitors discover the Estonian sauna so get in touch with us at tere@estoniansaunas.com.

Find out more at estoniansaunas.com