The UK’s Guardian newspaper this week published ‘10 of the best things to do in Tallinn’s Kalamaja district’.
A short stroll from Tallinn’s Old Town, Kalamaja is a former fishing community that was industrialised under Tsarist and later Soviet rule. It now makes the headlines for being a vibrant creative hub and one of Europe’s hippest (and most instagrammable) neighbourhoods, exemplifying Estonia’s rapid development in recent years.
If you’re visiting Estonia then the Guardian’s list is worth checking out, but there’s just one problem. It doesn’t include any saunas.
The sauna has both shaped the story of Estonia and been shaped by it and — thousands of years later — the sauna is still relevent to Estonian life today. So in-between visiting the bars, restaurants and museums, there are few better ways for people to enjoy and understand Estonia more deeply than breathing in some leil (sauna steam).
It’s actually not uncommon for international travel articles like this to omit saunas when recommending things to do in Estonia. That’s partly because Estonia’s sauna culture can seem a bit difficult for outsiders to access. As it happens though, Kalamaja is one of the best places to start if you want to try an Estonian sauna.
So here’s our overview of the best saunas to visit there and what to expect when you get there:
- Põhjala Brewery
- Kalma saun
- Flo Kasearu House museum
- Seaplane Harbour Marina
A quick note: We define the ‘best’ saunas as the most intersting and unique places for both locals and visitors to not just open up their pores, but also open up with each other. To quote one sauna researcher: the idea is not to have the best sauna on the block — but to get the block to your sauna. If you are just looking for luxury then there are plenty of spas across Tallinn to go to instead.
This sauna is as refreshing as the beer made beneath it.
The Guardian article does mention this excellent brewery, which has just opened a state-of-the-art new facility inside an old Tsarist submarine factory. You can see how their beer is made and then try it for yourself in their new tap room overlooking the factory floor, which has a vast selection of beer as well as Michelin-standard BBQ food that is smoked in the adjoining kitchen. I can recommend the brisket washed down with the Virmalised (northern lights) IPA.
What the Guardian didn’t mention though is that they also have an excellent sauna next to the tap room, which you can rent out.
Your private area includes a spacious leiliruum (sauna hot room) with dark wooden surfaces and large windows, a pesuruum (for washing) and an excellent eesruum (a sauna pre-room) where you can relax between sessions. To avoid having naked people wondering around the brewery, you’ll need to buy all your beer in advance at the shop downstairs. Make sure you drink lots of water too, of course.
They recommend up to eight people can use this sauna at the same time, but it can comfortably fit a few more and it could also be a nice experience for just one couple.
The sauna is available for rent during the opening hours of the Tap Room, which means you could rent it until 2am at the weekends if you really wanted to. It costs €50 for the first hour then €30 for each subsequent hour. Towels are included.
We went to visit recently and made this quick video to show you what it’s like:
This specific area around the brewery is called Port Noblessner and was origonally established to serve the navy of the Russian Tsar. For most of the past century, it’s been closed to ordinary people as a military location then largely abandoned in recent years. Thanks to the success of Põhjala and many other creative, entrepreneurial folk moving into the area, Noblessner is now the fastest developing area in Tallinn. Watch this space.
One of Tallinn’s oldest public saunas.
Located in the very heart of Kalamaja, Kalma saun is one of the oldest and grandest public saunas in Estonia. It was built in 1928 with an impressive Art Deco fascade and relatively little has changed on the inside since then.
I’ll be honest though. This sauna can be a bit daunting for outsiders. There aren’t any instructions for newbies, the fascilities are quite dated, and the staff might not speak English. Once you step into the sauna, you’ll hear mostly Estonian and Russian (and usually quite loudly too). Don’t be deterred though if you feel a little confused or out of place as the experience is well worth it.
Estonians can be fairly reserved in public, but the sauna is where they really open up and most people would be more than happy to show you what to do — even if there is a language barrier.
The sauna is gender seperated and clothes-free, although there are also private saunas there you can rent too. For the main area, you pay about €10 at the front desk and, if you dare, an extra few euros for a viht (a branch for whipping yourself). They’ll give you a key for your locker next door (in the gender seperated area) where you can then strip off and put your things away.
There’s a bar in the eesruum, a very large pesuruum and then the leiliruum is next to the cold plunge pool. Simply grab a bowl to submerge your viht so it softens up before you use it and take a mat for sitting on inside the sauna (or use a towel).
Kalma saun is so cool that the cover image for this article comes from a recent photoshoot there for Vogue (republished with permission) featuring Estonian model Eve Rahuorg. You can see some of those photos here. I want to quickly credit the people who made that happen: The photography was by Luca Meneghel, styling by Aija Kivi, makeup by Erle Taklai Makeup, and hair by Ellu Arula.
As a bonus, look out for this awesome murial below on the wall opposite Kalma saun. It depicts the fern blossom, which Estonians venture into the forest to search for during jaanipäev (Midsummer’s night).
We know ferns don’t actually blossom, but sometimes the journey is more important than the destination. Fern blossom is known as sõnajalaõis in Estonian and Estonians recently voted it to be the most Estonian word.
Learn more about visiting Kalma saun at kalmasaun.ee. There’s no need to book in advance.
This new underground theatre and bar is home to Tallinn’s coolest sauna (although not literally).
Just round the corner (literally) from Kalma saun is a sauna that has recently been transformed to include a fantastic theatre and bar.
It’s called ‘Heldeke!’ and has a fantastic range of live shows and events from stand up comedy to life art, as well as twice-weekly sauna sessions that anyone can join. There are even pre-sauna language practise sessions for people learning Estonian.
You might be wondering though: Why would someone open a sauna right next to an already well established sauna like Kalma?
Well, this venue was origonally created in Estonia’s more lawless 1990s as an underground club — and not just in the literal sense. Back then, it was a so-called ‘24 hour sauna’, which was code for ‘brothel’. Fortunately, those types of saunas have now largely disappeared as Estonia has developed
So Heldeke has now been reclaimed as a fantastic meeting place and cultural venue for the whole community with a great sauna worth trying out.
The entrepreneur to thank here is Dan, a British-Australian performer who took over the venue last year. You might see him serving behind the bar, performing on stage, or finally relaxing in the sauna.
Fun fact: Dan must be one of the few bar owners in the world who doesn’t actually drink alcohol. That might explain why there is such a wide selection of interesting alcohol-free drinks, which go great with a sauna (although you are welcome to drink alcohol there too).
You can take your drinks into the sauna and also return to the bar between sessions in the leiliruum. Just don’t forget to bring your own towel or robe.
Part of what makes it difficult for outsiders to experience Estonian sauna culture is that it tends to be quite private and is usually enjoyed at home with friends and family. Even though it’s open for the community, Heldeke has preserved that welcoming home sauna experience. Unlike Estonia’s public saunas, that also means clothing is optional and sessions are usually mixed gender here — although women are welcome to go in by themselves when they wish. Most people are comfortable not wearing anything, but also no one minds if you do wear swimming clothes.
The leiliruum is well designed, including with the stones at feet level, and has a large cold plunge pool nearby.
The sauna area is usually used as the backstage for their live events, but then the public sauna sessions here take place every Wednesday and Sunday evening from 5pm.
Flo Kasearu House museum
This sauna is technically over the ‘border’ in the Pelgulinn district that neighbours Kalamaja, but it has a very Kalamaja vibe and is such a unique gem of a location.
The renowned Estonian artist Flo Kasearu has turned her home into a truly unique exhibition (with a sauna), which explores issues related to the home and her experience of being a house-owner, artist and mother at the same time.
Flo moved into the home in 2009 after a long struggle to restore her family’s ownership of the building, which is where her family lived and operated as a shop before the Soviet occupation. Because of this modest entrepreneurial lifestyle, Flo’s family would have been classified as borgeouise ‘enemies of the people’ so they had to flee into the countryside while the house was nationalised. Even after Estonia’s independence was restored, it took more than 15 years for the restitution process to be completed in 2009 — by which point the building had fallen into serious disrepair and was literally being ransacked and stripped of materials by crooks at the time that they finally re-entered the property.
Since then, Flo and fellow artist Tõnu Narro have lovingly restored the building as a fascinating museum and quirky living space with some very unique feature, including a slide where there was once stairs.
Saunas in Estonia have traditionally served multi-purposes and this one at the museum was origonally used by Flo’s grandparents for washing clothes, as well as themselves, and preparing food. It also now serves as an exhibition space, in addition to being used in the conventional way.
Flo’s sauna is wood-fired, can fit about ten people, and has a bathtub outside for cooling down. It’s better than any spa.
Every visit will be unique so contact Flo to arrange your experience. You can learn more at flokasearu.eu/muuseum.
Seaplane Harbour Marina
This sauna is mostly used by sailors that dock here, but anyone can rent it out.
Estonia’s top rated museum is the Seaplane Harbour Museum, which is located around an incredible concrete domed structure built as hangars for Peter the Great’s seaplane forces. It now houses Estonia’s Lembit submarine as part of a world class maritime museum.
Behind the main building, there are many other boats you can visit as part of the tour as well as a working marina, which includes its own sauna at the very end of the dock.
The sauna can be booked for private groups and is reasonably priced. The leiliruum has a fantastic view over the sea towards the abandoned Patarei Prison and there is a deck above for cooling down. The fascilities also include shower rooms and toilets.
There is also a ladder leading down to the sea, but you are not technically allowed to use this. If you do (which should only be considered when the water is calm and you haven’t been drinking alcohol) then it’s at your own risk.
We’ve used this sauna ourselves for special events, such as a welcome sauna party for the first person to cross the Baltic Sea in a sauna craft.
Thanks for reading
This Estonian Saunas blog is run by Anni and Adam. We introduce people to Estonian sauna culture to support the export of Estonian sauna design and technology from HUUM, as well as encourage more sauna tourism to Estonia. We also sponsor the European Sauna Marathon in the Estonian winter capital of Otepää.
You can contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can check out our online HUUM store at EstonianSaunas.com (or EstonianSaunas.co.uk for the UK). HUUM stoves combine ancient sauna building knowledge with a contemporary design that is inspired by nature and keeps the stones as the central design focus of any sauna. Their large number of exposed stones is not just beautiful, but also delivers a superior heat and steam.
You can check out our own saunas built with the best of Estonian design and technology, and also other recommended saunas in Estonia at EstonianSaunas.com/our-saunas. We often host events at these saunas where we talk to people about the history and traditions of Estonian saunas.
We’re also currently crowdfunding to open a pop-up Estonian sauna inside an old Soviet Army truck. You can support us here on Hooandja (an Estonian equivalent of Kickstarter).
In addition to our blog, you can follow our own adventures exploring and exporting Estonian saunas on Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. You can also join our Facebook group for fans of Estonian saunas.