Public saunas aren’t usually associated with luxury.
But when the City of Helsinki sought to regenerate a former industrial zone on its seafront, they invited ambitious proposals for a sauna that could serve both future residents and tourists.
Things didn’t start well.
The first company quit the project when they realised their plans were financially unviable. A second company opted for a floating sauna but then quit the project when they realised it couldn’t withstand the rough sea and packed ice that is to be expected in the Gulf of Finland.
Finally, a Finnish actor and a Member of Parliament joined forces, acquired the funding needed to continue with the project, and were finally able to construct the sauna — now named Löyly.
Löyly is leil in Estonian — and untranslatable in every other language on Earth. It’s the name of the steam that rises after throwing water on the stones inside a sauna. The architects responsible for the project, Avanto Architects, are also appropriately named. Avanto means ice hole.
The design of Löyly is really quite stunning.
The first part you will notice when approaching is the outer cloak made from sustainably sourced wood. This will eventually fade to grey and provide the appearance of jagged rocks.
These wooden slabs don’t just look good. They provide Löyly’s exterior with steps and seating, while providing the interior with privacy and protection from the elements. It also creates coves where bathers can cool off.
Beneath the cloak, Löyly is a rectangular block made from black concrete, glass and birch wood. The cloak provides the effect of Venetian blinds and fireplaces inside further add to the hygge atmosphere.
The sauna area makes up half of Löyly, while the other side is a restaurant and cocktail bar in the same style, serving organic food and sustainably caught fish. You can order drinks without leaving the sauna area, including anything from the bar next door, and then enjoy them in your bathing suit while sitting in the cozy sauna lounge or outdoor terrace.
Bathing suits are mandatory everywhere, but that’s understandable for creating a tourist-friendly, mixed gender experience that can enable more people to enjoy real saunas.
We turned up for a two hour sauna session on a sunny Saturday not long after the ice outside had melted.
It cost €19 each.
Let’s put that into context. Finland is an expensive country and €19 is about the same cost as two beers at most bars here (and not even the craft ones). The previous evening, while sipping those distinctly unremarkable beers, Finnish friends told us they thought that’s a lot to pay …for a sauna.
If, like many Finns, you already have access to a sauna at home, your office, your gym, and your country house, then that attitude is understandable …but also a pitty. The disappearance of public saunas (and public bathhouses across Europe) has contributed to the growing sense of loneliness and alienation in our modern world, which places like Löyly are trying to rebalance.
Löyly could significantly increase its price and still be packed with tourists fresh off the latest cruise ship, but that’s not the point. The aim is to develop a sense of community and breathe life into the area. At €19 a visit, Löyly provides far more value than a couple of beers and should inspire regeneration elsewhere.
There are three saunas inside and two of them are continuously heated using a wood-fired stove and chimney. The largest one, which features an enormous industrial-looking stove, is available for everyone. A second, more intimate one with its own shower area is available for private groups.
These are great, but they are not the main attraction for us.
The previous day, we’d announced our plan at Estonian Saunas to open a public smoke sauna in our own capital. The most common reaction was ‘why has no one already done this?’, closely followed by ‘Is that even allowed?’
A company plans to launch the first public smoke sauna in Tallinn
The company, Estonian Saunas, was founded by Anni Oviir and Adam Rang from inside a sauna, using their digital ID…
At Löyly, the Finns have already succeeded with this though because the third sauna is a smoke sauna — and it’s publicly available in the centre of Helsinki.
To enter the smoke sauna, you’ll need to step outside then return through a small door that leads to a large dark room with no windows and blackened walls.
The key difference with the smoke sauna is that the stove is only heated once per day because there’s no chimney and the smoke fills the room instead. The door is then left open for a brief period to ventilate it before people go inside. For thousands of years, smoke saunas were the only saunas — and they are still considered by sauna fans to be the best due to their gentler heat and rich aromas.
Most smoke saunas stay hot for about half a day so we didn’t understand how Löyly kept theirs open for guests from early morning to late at night — until we saw the size of the stove. It’s enormous and requires a long handle for anyone brave enough to open the hatch and throw water on the stones inside.
While enjoying the heat, Asko the Saunamaster arrived and explained the work needed to keep the smoke sauna warm. It turns out that the stove is so large that the room remains warm even when they turn up early the next morning to relight the fire.
What makes Löyly particularly special though is its direct access to the Baltic Sea.
Once you’re warm enough, you can choose between pulling a bucket of cold water over your head or jumping in the Gulf of Finland. We recommend the latter.
We returned from Löyly refreshed, but also inspired about what a public sauna can be — even when it’s within a bustling capital city.
Estonia is making great progress as a fast developing entrepreneurial nation, but there is still much we can learn from the Finns about how we can make Estonian sauna culture more accessible in our own capital.
As it turns out though, Asko the saunamaster is actually from Pärnu.
About ‘Estonian Saunas’
Thanks for reading. The Estonian Saunas blog is run by Anni and Adam, explorers and exporters of Estonian saunas.
Anni is a green building specialist who grew up here in Estonia immersed in sauna culture, while Adam is a väliseestlane (‘foreign Estonian’) whose family were exiled to the UK during Soviet times but he has now returned and is still trying to understand the sauna — and everything else about his Estonian heritage.
Together, we love finding weird and wonderful saunas all over Estonia and telling the world about them. Check out our plan to make 100 Estonian saunas more famous around the world.
We also offer two saunas in Tallinn that you can visit. Both are based on the best of Estonian design and technology, although in very different ways. The first is our smoke sauna, Rangi saun, which combines an ancient sauna heating technique with a contemporary Estonian design. The second is our WiFi-controlled e-sauna, Tondi Saun, which is part of our apartment that you can book through Airbnb.
In addition to reading our blog, you can follow Estonian Saunas on Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. There’s also a Facebook group for fans of Estonian saunas where you can share advice and stories.
Finally, you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.