Know your Estonian saunas

These are the 10 most common types of saunas that you can experience in Estonia.

A smoke sauna at Mooska in Võromaa. Photo by Oliver Moosus.

What does ‘sauna’ mean to you?

If you imagined a small room at a gym where you briefly sweat in silence then think again. In fact, there are 10 different types of saunas in Estonia by my count. Here’s an overview:

Smoke sauna

Suitsusaun in Estonian

A smoke sauna being ventilated before people can enter. Photo by Tõnu Runnel.

For thousands of years, smoke saunas were the only type of saunas that you’d find in northern Europe.

They were originally built (well, dug) as caves that could be draped closed with animal skins and had a fire burning inside them during the day beneath a pile of stones. After the fire was extinguished and the smoke wafted out, the stones would continue to warm the cave long into the night for the people (and sometimes animals) who huddled inside and basked in the steam that rose from the stones when water was poured on them.

A girl enjoying a smoke sauna. Photo by Mariann Liimal.

Although technology has moved on, many sauna fans still consider smoke saunas to be the best kind of saunas. They take more skill to build and prepare for each session, but the uniquely gentle heat and rich aromas that they emit are worth it. While heating them, you can smoke fish and meat inside and then enjoy it later between saunas sessions.

Smoke saunas can still be found in Estonia today and are most common in the southern region of Võrumaa where they have been given protected cultural status by UNESCO.

In fact, there are only three smoke saunas open to the public in the whole north half of Estonia and none currently in Tallinn. We plan to change that, but I’ll tell you more about that another time…

Wood-fired sauna with a chimney

Leilisaun in Estonian

Photo by Iglusaun.

The industrial revolution led to saunas being built with chimneys so that they could be heated faster and continuously, even after people went inside. This is now what most people think of as a traditional Estonian sauna and they can be commonly found in homes across the country.

The correct name is a little unclear. We sometimes call them leilisaun to refer to the steam (leil) that rises when you throw water on the stones. However, you can also throw water on the stones at a smoke sauna. In Estonia, these saunas are often marketed in English as ‘Finnish saunas’, but that doesn’t quite make sense either as they are just as much a part of Estonian sauna history. In fact, the industrial revolution reached Estonia first and we were wealthier at the time so had more opportunities to ‘upgrade’ our saunas to these types.

Traditional Estonian saunas around the country are also more likely to have space for eating and drinking between sauna sessions. Many were modified like this during Soviet times to help host negotiations about how to allocate resources under the planned economy.

To complete the traditional sauna experience, there should be leaves (known as viht in Estonian) to hit yourself with, as well as an opportunity to either jump in cold water or pull a bucket of cold water onto you. This is incredibly refreshing between the sauna sessions and good for your circulation.

During winter, Estonians often have to dig their ice hole before going in the sauna or can just enjoy rolling in the snow.

Barrel sauna

Tünnisaun or Kümblustünn in Estonian

Photo by European Sauna Marathon (which takes place in Otepää every year).

A barrel sauna is what most English-speakers think of as a ‘hot tub’. Forget plastic materials and water jets though.

Our Estonian barrel saunas are made from wood and have a wood-fired stove inside the water to heat it up. A wooden barrier is used to separate the stove so people inside don’t accidentally burn themselves. That also provides a useful ledge for resting drinks.

It’s also common to construct standard wood-fired saunas in the shape of a barrel on its side, but ‘barrel sauna’ only refers to those with water in them.

Electric sauna

Elektrisaun in Estonian

Electric saunas can be found in gyms and hotels almost everywhere on Earth.

The first electric saunas was invented in Finland, then popularised in the USA in the mid-20th century. This made saunas a more accessible experience to vastly more people and cemented the idea globally that saunas were a public leisure activity.

Electric saunas spread back to Finland too where they replaced many of their wood-fired predecessors, although Estonians had less opportunities and resources to modernise their saunas during Soviet times. That’s why we still have more authentic saunas today in Estonia, although new buildings are now more likely to be built with electric saunas.

You can still pour water on the stones of electric saunas, although this is sometimes not permitted by gyms and hotels in other countries.

Electric saunas omit a dryer and, some would say, inferior form of heat. However, they are very easy to operate and some new electric stoves are so well designed that they overcome those limitations. They can even be operated through an app so that you can switch it on while you are on your way.

Infrared sauna

Infrapunasaun in Estonian

These saunas use infrared light to omit radiant heat to the surface of the skin. This experience, known as infrared therapy, is a form of alternative health.

The proponents, which increasingly includes top athletes around the world, find that infrared saunas provide a wide range of health benefits to them. The science is a bit inconclusive, but it does appear that they offer at least the same benefits as other types of saunas.

Infrared saunas are a trendy feature for upmarket gyms and spas in Estonia, although many sauna fans don’t consider them to be real saunas.

Steam sauna

Aurusaun in Estonian

Steam saunas (or ‘steam rooms’ as they are known elsewhere) are relatively new to Estonia, but we still classify them as saunas. They are more common in spas, although some Estonians have built them at home too.

The main difference between between a steam sauna and most other saunas is the humidity. The stove is designed to generate steam, but also operate at a much lower temperature of around 40 degrees Celsius. It will feel just as hot as other saunas though because the humidity is constantly about 80 to 90%. In comparison, most saunas can heat up to around 100 degrees, but the humidity is usually around 5 to 10%, except for the brief surges when you throw water on the stones.

Salt sauna

Soolasaun in Estonian

Estonians like to use a few different treatments inside saunas — from mud to honey. Salt is particular popular, but it actually serves two purposes.

Salt is a wonderful exfoliator so you can massage it into your skin inside a salt sauna and then leave it for about 5 to 10 minutes before washing it off in the shower outside.

The second benefit is for your respiratory system when you inhale the salty air, which is charged with negative ions. It’s similar to the experience of inhaling fresh air at the sea or in the aftermath of a storm, but much more intense.

Salt saunas come in three main forms in Estonia and all use very specific types of sea salt or Himalayan salt — not table salt from the local supermarket!

The first is simply a normal sauna that has special lighting behind a panel made of salt. This very subtlety emits the salt into the air as it heats up. In fact, if this wasn’t pointed out to you then you might just think it’s a cool light! The second technique is to simply provide large quantities of salt that you can pick up and rub into your skin yourself. This might also be combined with a steam generator to circulate the salt in the air at the same time. Finally, there are salt caves, a style that originates in Eastern Europe. These are large rooms kept at a lower temperatures where large quantities of salt are everywhere — including the floor and walls. You are meant to relax here for a longer period so there are often comfortable chairs, TVs and even children’s toys available inside.

One important tip though. If you have any kind of cut on your skin then you definitely won’t enjoy the salt sauna experience. Make sure you also resist the urge to touch your eyes until all the salt is gone — otherwise you’ll have a real challenge trying to find the shower while staggering around in pain with your eyes closed!

And saunas from other countries in Estonia:

Finish sauna

Soome saun in Estonian

There are saunas all over Estonia marketed as ‘Finnish saunas’, even though they are made in Estonia and resemble traditional Estonian saunas. The truth is that Estonia and Finland’s sauna culture has evolved mostly in parallel for the last few thousand years, but Estonians often just use the term ‘Finnish sauna’ because it is more well known internationally and helps visitors understand what is being offered. We hope more Estonian saunas will be proudly called Estonian saunas as more people around the world learn about our country.

Banya / баня (Russian sauna)

Vene saun in Estonian

As with Finland, the Russian sauna tradition is remarkably similar to Estonia’s — even though we sometimes to like to joke about who has the hottest and the best. It’s possible to find ‘Finnish banyas’ in Russia so the difference is recognised. Banyas generally tend to be larger and are considered to be more humid, although the traditions — from beating yourself with birch to jumping in an ice hole — is very similar.

Japanese sauna

Jaapani saun in Estonian

Public bathing in south-east Asia — particularly Japan and Korea — is based on hot pools of water rather than hot rooms. It’s possible to find these ‘Japanese saunas’ in Estonia too, usually as a very hot pool where you will spend most of your time next to a very cold pool that you can jump in — although you may only last a few seconds before jumping out!

Photo by Tõnu Runnel.

Since you’re here…

Thanks for reading.

We’re just setting up Estonian Saunas to help more people learn about Estonia’s unique sauna culture and history, as well as try them out! We’re also building our own sauna for visitors, but we’ll tell you more about that another time.

For now, you can help us get going by following Estonian Saunas on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

You are also more than welcome to contribute your own article to the Estonian Saunas blog. Email us at tere@estoniansaunas.com

Finally, if you are a fan of real saunas then join our new Facebook group for real sauna fans!