Let’s fire up Estonia’s recovery by hosting the first WORLD SAUNA RACE in Tallinn
Sauna fans around the world would be invited to enjoy a wide variety of local saunas.
Sauna races have become popular across Estonia in recent years. Their idea is simple. Participants are given a map of the local area and a list of saunas on it. They then have to find each one, enjoy the leil (sauna steam) inside, and return to the finish line by the end of the day.
When not exporting Estonian sauna design and technology, Anni and I are big fans of sauna races, as you can see. We’ve attended many as both competitors and hosts, as well as sponsoring them and helping with publicity. We’ve seen how these events bring out the very best of Estonia.
But the one place in Estonia that has the potential to stage the most ambitious sauna race is also one place in Estonia that doesn’t yet have one.
So, next summer, Anni and I are organising a sauna race in our home town, Tallinn.
You can already click ‘going’ on the Facebook event here or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to be involved with your sauna. Our website is WorldSaunaRace.com where we’ll keep adding information.
The aim is to provide a great experience to sauna-loving attendees from home and abroad, but also to celebrate Estonia as a sauna-loving nation with the biggest possible global audience. It would shine a bigger international light on Estonia’s rich sauna heritage and expertise, boosting tourism to Estonia and exports from Estonia — both before and long after the competition ends. And even sauna-loving locals will discover amazingly weird and wonderful saunas they never previously knew about.
We already have six such establishments with saunas (you can see in the cover photo) fired up about the idea and ready to open their sauna doors in Tallinn for the competition.
Saunas are rapidly growing in popularity globally — and Estonian design and technology is increasingly at the heart of that growth.
But there are also attempts abroad to redefine the sauna away from our heritage. Some now see the sauna as a solitary activity to be suffered, sometimes in infrared closets or by wearing a belt or a blanket. In fact, if you search ‘sauna’ on Amazon right now then you’ll get pages and pages of whatever this is below.
The Finns have already managed to get the word ‘sauna’ into English but the world still needs to learn what makes a good sauna so it’s time Estonians got the word leil into English.
So, to show the world what it really means to sauna, let’s go big and celebrate our sauna culture. We’re calling it the World Sauna Race because, well firstly we’re a bit cheeky, but also because we genuinely believe Tallinn can host the world’s greatest sauna race. If it’s a success, then it’s possible that the World Sauna Race could alternate each year between both Finnic capitals, Tallinn and Helsinki. This would make the event even bigger and ultimately benefit Estonia more, and bring more sauna visitors even in the years when Helsinki is hosting.
How sauna races work
Firstly, forget about those ‘sauna championships’ previously held elsewhere where participants had to endure high temperatures for as long as possible. That’s just stupid. Suffering and self-harm have absolutely nothing to do with real sauna culture.
I’ll be honest. Sauna races are not even real competitions. Not for participants anyway. People attend them (often in crazy costumes) because they are just lots and LOTS of fun.
The real competition is between the saunas. Participants who complete the course get to vote for their favourite saunas. The votes are counted and then prestigious titles are awarded to the saunas, often in a range of categories. Those titles are then proudly displayed for years to come.
By the way, a bit of bribery of these voters by the saunas — whether in the form of food or drink or entertainment— is perfectly within the rules (and spirit) of the competition. Sauna-smoked meat is often a favourite, but saunas try everything from folk bands to karaoke.
How it all started
Estonian sauna culture is older than any records can recall. Our sauna races, however, started about 15 years ago in the Estonian winter capital of Otepää.
Indrek Vähi was a local spa director who first came up with the idea of a sauna orienteering game for the town’s winter festival.
Instead of seeing other saunas in the area as his competitors, he convinced them that they had a shared interest in bringing the community together to celebrate their sauna culture, while giving both locals and visitors the opportunity to see all their saunas in one fun-filled day.
The first competition was such a success that Otepää’s local government decided to keep it going and build it even bigger over the following years. They didn’t lack ambition. For a start, they decided to rename it as the European Sauna Marathon. Vähi has sadly since passed away, yet his legacy has lived on beyond all expectations.
Last year, just before the pandemic whacked us, a new record was broken at the last European Sauna Marathon as all 700 tickets for participants sold out in just 1 hour, 15 minutes. We warned people to book quickly but even we were amazed. We were receiving messages for days afterwards by sauna enthusiasts still desperate to take part.
Many of the participants came from around the world, including journalists and broadcast crews, resulting in another year of positive global media coverage for Otepää and Estonia.
We took our our own ZiL-131 SAUN, an old Soviet Army truck recycled into a quirky Estonian sauna, which formed part of the course. Here’s a video we made about it:
Otepää’s success has inspired other communities around Estonia.
Just last weekend, for example, the beautiful Estonian island of Kihnu opened its summer season with its own sauna race. We attended, of course, and here below is a video we made about that too (or you could just watch this 1 minute video of highlights).
How it would work in Tallinn
Our new sauna race would combine the best elements of sauna races around the country with a few added tweaks of our own.
We’d simplify and slow down the competition — and not even bother timing anything. Completing the course in a fairly leisurely pace is the only achievement necessary for participants. That’s more enjoyable but should also keep the local police happy too.
Instead of clocking in and out of sauna hot rooms, they would instead need to answer a question that can only be found inside each sauna. This would be a great way to teach more people about each sauna and Estonian sauna culture more broadly.
Teams can be as large or small as they wish (and the best costumes will get a prize). Even individuals are welcome. Sauna races are the rare occasions in Estonia when you’ll make friends with strangers anyway.
We also won’t encourage the use of cars. Bicycles, trains, trams, buses, scooters, and your own feet are all better ways to move in our city. Saunas make a huge positive contribution to our community so our sauna race must do too.
Participants would get to vote for their favourite saunas in 5 categories: Best Leil, Most Sociable Sauna, Most Entertaining Sauna, Most Instagrammable Sauna, and then the grand title of Best Sauna.
And it should benefit all of Estonia
Fundamental to the mission of the World Sauna Race in Tallinn would be to bring more benefits to communities across Estonia.
In many ways, saunas are a great equaliser for our country.
There is excellent sauna design and technology being made right now all over Estonia. And there are weird and wonderful saunas open to visitors all over Estonia. Most visitors to Estonia stay in Tallinn, sometimes rarely venturing further than the Old Town, but sauna-loving visitors are often keen to explore the furthest reaches of our country in search of good leil.
So when we celebrate Estonia’s sauna heritage, we are celebrating hard working men and women across the country who deserve greater global recognition.
We want to host our race in summer so as not to overshadow the European Sauna Marathon in the winter capital and also on a date that doesn’t clash with our great sauna events around the country. We expect our tickets to sell out fast but we’ll encourage everyone else to find other great saunas and attend other sauna events elsewhere in Estonia.
The best time would be very early summer during white night season. That’s one of the most wonderful times to be in Estonia, yet also avoids the height of the summer season. It’s also when Latitude59 takes place. That’s Estonia’s flagship technology and startup conference. So, by staging the World Sauna Race shortly afterwards, we’d give these visitors to Estonia something very different worth staying slightly longer for.
Oh, and another mission of the competition is to popularise the use of the word leil internationally!
The weird and wonderful saunas of Tallinn
There are 6 great saunas already signed up.
Straight after publishing this article, we’ll be reaching out to more saunas and businesses around Estonia that could benefit from getting involved. We’d also like to include saunas in public bath houses, spas, startup businesses, vehicles, and even private homes.
But these first 6 saunas already reflect the kind of weird and wonderful saunas participants can expect.
There are not many theatres or bars with a dress code like Heldeke.
Heldeke is a much loved underground theatre, bar and sauna in the heart of Tallinn’s hip Kalamaja neighbourhood. They even have a large cold pool next to the sauna.
Owner Dan Renwick says a World Sauna Race in Tallinn would be a fantastic way to celebrate and show off the huge range of culturally significant saunas, both large and small, across the city.
“We’d host it next weekend if we could,” Dan beams. “But maybe next year is a bit more sensible.”
“I always get asked abroad why we have a sauna in a brewery,” says Põhjala founder Enn Parel. “But I couldn’t imagine us not having one. It’s such an integral part of life in Estonia that it was in the plans of our brewery and tap room from the very beginning. It’s my third sauna as, like many Estonians, I also have one in my city apartment and summer house.
“So we’d happily support a World Sauna Race in Tallinn to welcome more people inside our brewery to see what we are doing and enjoy great leil, while also supporting other great saunas around the city, and ultimately answering the question by showing that Estonia is a sauna nation and we couldn’t imagine even having a brewery without one.”
If you saw this 1984 Audi parked on a street corner then you might think there is nothing particularly remarkable about it — at first glance — until you notice the chimney sticking out of the bonnet. Peer inside and you’ll see it’s been entirely converted into a wonderful sauna. Believe it or not, it can still be driven and will be coming to Tallinn for the World Sauna Race.
Here’s a video below we made when we first met them. It instantly went viral and brought them global media coverage.
Our home has Tallinn’s only smoke sauna, which is built in a contemporary Estonian design.
Sauna culture in Estonia is usually enjoyed at home, but most visitors to Estonia don’t get to experience that nor travel far enough to enjoy smoke saunas. So we created our home sauna in Nõmme and opened it up to visitors to solve that while celebrating the best of modern Estonian design.
It’s had a lot of international media coverage — ranging from inflight magazines to a show on Netflix — so even during the pandemic we get inundated with more requests to visit than we could ever handle. That’s why we are happy to use the sauna race to channel that attention to other Estonian businesses.
Anni and I explore a lot of weird and wonderful saunas around Estonia and beyond. This one was built in a ZiL-131 Soviet Army truck that was leftover in Estonia after the end of the occupation.
We just love the idea of celebrating Estonian culture and freedom in an instrument originally designed and sent here to quash those things.
So, when the ZiL was put up for sale, we bought it and took it back to Tallinn so that we could open it as a pop-up sauna. Here’s a video we made about it in Noblessner.
Merchant House Hotel
This charming boutique hotel is one of Tallinn’s oldest buildings, built in 1368 along the Town Hall Square. It has the only hotel sauna in Tallinn that doesn’t have to be booked or paid for separately so it often has a great atmosphere among guests who can also cool off in its gorgeous courtyard right in the middle of the Old Town. There are also six luxurious suites each with their own saunas.
“The pandemic has forced the closure of many hotels in the Old Town but we were determined to keep our doors open every day, even if we only had one guest,” says owner Jonathan Poole. “We have an old heritage here to preserve but we’ve also seen a lot of change in Tallinn over the years around us. We’d be delighted to take part in the sauna race, which can make a positive contribution to our city as we emerge into yet another new era.”
What do you think?
We’ve still got a lot of work to do to get this organised but we’re telling you about the competition now in order to help get more saunas and other stakeholders onboard while gathering feedback from sauna enthusiasts in Estonia and around the world. So tell us what you think!
And if you’re interested in taking part, let us know by clicking ‘going’ or ‘interested’ in the Facebook event here.
You can also email us at email@example.com if you’d like your sauna involved or if you’d like to be involved in any other way.