Estonians are best known around the world today for their digital innovations – from Skype to e-Residency – but if you want to truly understand Estonia then the inside of a sauna is a good place to start.
That’s not just because Estonians tend to open up more in the sauna, although that’s undoubtedly true. The sauna is the world’s oldest social networking platform and, arguably, still the best one. Saunas are enjoyed by a wide cross-section of Estonians and there are no algorithms inside to ensure you only hear from people who already have the same perspectives as you. As a result, there’s no better place to listen to stories of different people across Estonia.
There’s another reason too.
You can actually trace the story of Estonia itself — both the good times and the bad — by exploring how the designs and traditions of our saunas have evolved through the ages.
It was never just a hot room. In fact, a good sauna is as much about cooling down as it is about warming up.
The sauna is the place where many Estonians have entered this world and also where they have laid in rest for their departure. In between, the sauna has provided the stage for so many important moments in the lives of our people throughout the ages. It has served a wide variety of functions that have enabled Estonians to survive and eventually thrive on this land — from spiritual worship to sheltering on harsh winter nights, from storing animals to smoking their meat. Saunas have literally shaped our history and, in turn, our saunas have been shaped by our history too.
These days, many Estonians use their saunas primarily for socialising — but perhaps that is still the most important survival skill of all. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that the kind of social bonding that takes place in a sauna has a far greater positive impact on human health than any of the detoxing claims made by the wellness industry.
Finnish saunas are the most famous, of course, and we love learning about them too along with sauna traditions from other parts of the world. There’s a common misconception that the Finns invented saunas, but the truth is more remarkable. We can find evidence of ancient sauna traditions all around the world and they are likely to have arrived in this part of the world with the first humans to move north behind the retreating ice that uncovered northern Europe at the end of the last glacial period. So what’s special about saunas in our part of the world is not that they were invented here, but that they survived here over thousands of years and are now more relevant than ever to our modern lives. The Finns deserve more credit, not for inventing saunas, but for doing more than anyone else to keep alive this common heritage of humanity.
Around the world, more people are now starting to rediscover the deeper meaning of the sauna. They no longer just want to sweat silently by themselves in a small hot room at the gym. Many also want to understand the ancient traditions and experience the joys of a more authentic and communal sauna experience.
That’s where Estonians can help by sharing our own sauna knowledge, technology, and experiences with more people around the world — both by making Estonian saunas more accessible to visitors but also by exporting Estonian sauna culture globally.
What if we could make Estonia as famous around the world for its rich sauna heritage as it already is for its digital services?
One year ago, my partner and I were sitting in a sauna when we began plotting how to do just that.
Sharing Estonian sauna culture globally
Anni Oviir grew up immersed in Estonian sauna culture and is an expert on our traditions, while I’m a väliseestlane (‘foreign Estonian’) from a family that fled into exile so I still have an outsider’s perspective and fascination with our country’s traditions.
One thing we definitely have in common now is a passion for saunas and specifically for helping more people understand Estonia’s rich sauna heritage, which is as old as Estonia itself.
We use English to explain Estonian saunas to the world, but we also drop in Estonian words with a translation where we can. Our dream is to get the Estonian word leil (sauna steam) into common English usage!
Our timing has been fortunate.
This past year has been filled with incredible opportunities for introducing people to Estonian saunas — and we’ve made the very most of it. Estonian sauna exporters like Iglucraft and HUUM have been rapidly growing in popularity (including among celebrities like David Beckham), Otepää hosted their most international sauna marathon yet and Rakvere started their first Estonian sauna festival, new and very creative Estonian saunas have opened too ranging from a fire truck in New York to a new brewery and underground club in the Kalamaja district of Tallinn. The Estonian craft beer Sauna Session, which is made by Tanker with real birch leaves, is also gaining popularity at home and abroad, particularly among our sauna-loving Nordic and Baltic neighbours. They even created a special label for us.
In addition to sharing knowledge about Estonian saunas, including all those developments above, we’ve also tested different ways to offer something new ourselves.
Our first goal was a little ambitious.
The most special type of Estonian sauna is a smoke sauna, although there are none in Tallinn where we live (and where 75% of visitors to Estonia remain for their entire trip) so we decided that we would open our own smoke sauna here— within six months before the winter snow settled.
After failing to find a location or partners who thought there would be enough interest, we bought a new home for ourselves and opened our smoke sauna there to our original schedule.
Rangi saun now offers a fairly ordinary home sauna experience, but that’s what people seem to like most about it as Estonian sauna culture is very homely already and that’s exactly what makes it so difficult for outsiders to experience it properly.
In addition, we’ve also upgraded the sauna in our previous apartment so that it has Estonia’s first WiFi-controlled ‘e-sauna’ and we now rent that out to visitors too through Airbnb. So we now have two very different saunas, but both representing the best of Estonian design and technology.
There’s a saying that ‘what matters is not having the best sauna on the block but getting the block to your sauna’ and we’ve since had many people visit these our saunas both from our block and from around the world — including an incredible number of journalists.
News of our Tallinn smoke sauna has now travelled around the world in a short space of time, quite literally in inflight magazines, as well as media coverage that includes prime time news shows in Germany and Japan.
This is more media coverage than our humble sauna needs.
We receive emails every day from people who want to visit, but we don’t have the capacity and there are at least 100 Estonian saunas that are more interesting than ours. So we are constantly recommending other Estonian saunas for them too and are particularly keen to encourage tourists to get out of Tallinn and explore wonderful saunas all around our wonderful country.
To help with this, we’ve continued to do the same and write about as many saunas as we can to share with a growing audience of Estonian sauna fans.
Along the way, we’ve also met many more people who share our vision of introducing the world to Estonia through our saunas, including the very hard working team at Visit Estonia who has given us lots of help along the way and honestly don’t get enough credit for the work they do.
While visiting Kiidi farm in Võrumaa, we also met an Estonian photographer from Tartu who goes by the name Ekvilibrist and takes incredible photos of ordinary life in Estonia — both in and out of the sauna.
She’s taken many of our Estonian sauna photos, including every photo in this article. We have many more great images to share, but I think this one is our favourite so far:
By sharing the stories of saunas that we visit, we’ve helped connect saunas across Estonia with visitors who want to try them out. And a number of these articles have generated further media coverage for those saunas at home and around the world.
Last week, for example, we visited a group of Estonians who had converted their old Audi into a surprisingly nice wood-fired sauna then uploaded this video about it:
It was then republished by Estonian World before being picked up by BBC News and many other media outlets around the world. One notable media outlet is even now travelling to Estonia to make their own video about them so watch this space.
We are particularly proud of the fact that we got the Estonian word leil (sauna steam) onto BBC News!
The 100 Estonian saunas
We are now creating a book about Estonian saunas that we hope to distribute internationally next year. It will combine compelling stories and powerful images (like the ones in this article from Ekvilibrist) to celebrate Estonian saunas and the people who use them.
We initially had three different ideas for this project.
We first thought about writing a history of Estonian saunas, but we also believe strongly that preserving Estonian saunas is about helping more people go to the sauna today — not consigning them to a history book. So we also wanted to create a database of weird and wonderful Estonian saunas that are in use today. But knowing which saunas to visit is only half the challenge for people who are unfamiliar with Estonian sauna culture so we also wanted to write about how to sauna the Estonian way. Even Estonia’s sauna exporters have explained to us that sharing this knowledge around the world is one of their biggest challenges and opportunities. They have a far higher success rate with sales abroad if they can first teach people about sauna cultural practices.
We finally came up with an ambitious idea to combine all three of these approaches.
We are selecting 100 Estonian saunas to feature in the book that will be indexed based on their location. That will allow readers to browse saunas in every part of Estonia, as well as sections for nomadic saunas, floating saunas, and Estonian saunas around the world. Each sauna will have its own unique story.
However, the book will not be arranged as a sauna directory. Read from start to finish, these 100 stories will also form one larger story that weaves a narrative about how the designs and traditions of Estonian saunas developed through the ages.
As a result, we are selecting not just weird and wonderful Estonian saunas, but also saunas here that reflect key moments in history and enable us to explore key elements about what makes a good Estonian sauna — from selecting the right rocks to generating leil (sauna steam) and using vihad (‘whisks’ usually made from birch branches).
We have so far chosen about a third of the saunas that we intend to feature and documented most of those.
There are Estonian saunas built into the ground or as temporary structures, which mimic the style of the earliest saunas, smoke saunas that were built prior to the industrial revolution and saunas with chimneys built just afterwards, saunas built during Soviet times with ever larger relaxation rooms to accommodate ever longer drink-fuelled negotiations with local officials, saunas that are still rough around the edges after 50 years behind the iron curtain, saunas that were originally built as brothels at the end of Estonia’s lawless 20th century and then converted into hipster sauna hangouts as Estonia developed in the 21st century, saunas with creative new designs and advanced new technology that are located in the homes, startup offices and craft breweries that reflect a rapidly modernising Estonia. Finally, we will document saunas built by Estonians abroad or using Estonian designs and technology to show how Estonia has truly become a global nation.
Our final idea is to publish every book in both English and Estonian together. We believe the book will appeal more to English-speakers abroad, but we think even they would appreciate seeing the Estonian text alongside it. In fact, we’ll need to teach English readers a bit of Estonian along the way anyway because language shapes our ability to understand our perspectives and there simply aren’t commonly recognised English words for so many aspects of the Estonian sauna experience.
How you can help
We are going to take a collaborative approach with this project and have already been listening to saunamasters and sauna fans across Estonia, as well as archeologists, historians, scientists, doctors, community activists and entrepreneurs.
That’s where we’ll share more details of the project as it develops — although it’s also where we continuously share cool pictures, videos and stories about different Estonian saunas you might like anyway!
We always want to hear about weird and wonderful Estonian saunas so feel free to get in touch with us at email@example.com. Don’t forget to include pictures, videos and any interesting details about the sauna. Even if your sauna is not selected for the book, we can still share these stories on our channels and let more people know about them.
There are two saunas inside the Riigikogu (Estonian Parliament), for example, that we really want to try out!
We are also going to launch a crowdfunding campaign for people who want to help develop the project. We’ll make sure you get valuable Estonian-sauna based rewards in return, alongside ordering an advanced copy of the book, but that will also contribute to the costs of the project and help us create more content to promote more Estonian saunas along the way. That will include giving people the opportunity to visit saunas with us as we write the book.
For now though, thank you for reading about our idea.
Even if you just click the applause button at the end below this article then that would be a huge help to show that there is interest to take this idea forward.